Following the recent unfortunate demise of Sylvester Omoroni, we take a close look at how harmful and prevalent bullying is amongst kids.
2021 has forced tough conversations out of many of us. Most recently, the entire nation has been thrown into a state of mourning for the death of a 12-year-old secondary school student who was allegedly killed as a result of bullying. Sylvester Omoroni suffered severe injuries at the hands of his assaulters and succumbed to the damage eventually while in school. Dowen College, the school in question has since been shut down by the Lagos State Government pending investigations into the crime. The establishment maintains the stance that he died as a result of injuries sustained during a football game (injuries they also claimed were treated by the school doctor). Needless to say, this position has not only angered the parents of the deceased child but also onlookers and social media users who have caught wind of the story. A trending hashtag #JusticeForSylvester on Twitter has brought more attention to the family’s loss and the school’s role in the situation.
Perhaps for the first time in my lifetime, there seems to be genuine concern over the methods employed in the discipline of kids and the handling of overt and covert bullying practices. Growing up, I attended a handful of schools, varying from private to government institutions. One common denominator was the employment of cardinal punishment for just about everything. From certifiable offences to perceived disrespect, either towards school staff or senior students, there always seemed to be a form of punishment that bordered on mental and physical abuse.
Poorly Adjusted Kids
Today the stereotypes for what a bully is are being adjusted. No longer synonymous with the physically imposing kids possibly suffering from GDD (Global development delay) and other learning disabilities, the world’s changing social landscape provides new ammunition for a different class of oppressors. In a school like Dowen where the fees are reportedly anywhere from two to five million per session for a student, it seems unlikely to be a breeding ground for such behaviour. Most kids who attend have parents that are either already middle to upper-class Nigerians or are aspirational in that pursuit. Most of them take summer vacations around the world, practice Western instruments in top-notch facilities and receive significantly better care than the majority of their peers attending less upscale institutions. Perhaps this is why there is such outrage at the crime. Outrage at the fact that many parents’ expectations that more money could insulate them from Nigeria’s insolence/callousness have been dashed.
One of the earliest spiels freshers got handed in my final secondary school was one of the kids who never went home. The story goes like this: a junior secondary school student that was being bullied by some seniors was left in a locker on the final day of the session. School closes for the summer and the facilities are then run by a skeletal staff. The parents of the child do not find their ward on the final day of school, this raises alarms and a search is initiated. Four days later, they followed a smell into one of the dormitories and found his body decomposing in a locker. After that, there were no more junior students for five years. Whether or not the story is true is unimportant, what is important is the fact that people older than us decided this was a useful tactic to scare us before we had even begun our senior secondary school experience. Many assumed such levels of cruelty were reserved for traditionally understaffed and overpopulated schools such as mine. Many are quickly learning that this is not the case.
There are few things in life more terrifying than the knowledge of being powerless. Powerless to defend yourself from certain adversity. For the bulk of life that we live in uncertainty, due to everything from illness to random acts of God, we require certain degrees of control to feel empowered, which in turn breeds confidence. The kind of confidence necessary to navigate daily life is often found in spaces meant to nurture growth such as schools. When such spaces become breeding grounds for individuals keen on taking other people's confidence away in a bid to boost their own, then fundamental questions have to be asked about the efficacy of such spaces.
The reasons behind bullying generally stem from deep-seated trauma endured at young ages, usually at the hands of an elder. This progresses into a pattern of behaviours that not only put other people at risk but also inhibits growth by inflicting behavioural difficulties, physical health issues and suicidal ideation. As early as in our junior years, the power dynamics of the schoolyard and life are thrust upon us. An errand there, some unwarranted verbal abuse there, slowly it dawns on us that there is another class of authority to contend with and they look just like us. They line up next to us in assemblies and they sit next to us at lunch. As much as you have in common with your peers, there are mental delineators created by everyone from school authorities to seniors that came before you all. This self-sustaining system helps pass experiences and mindsets on long after the original creators of these notions may have abandoned them. This is how the cycle of hatred is perpetuated.
In a country like Nigeria where discipline is synonymous with violent assaults by educators and parents, school-sanctioned violence is almost inevitable. You cannot exemplify discipline through negative reinforcement and assault alone. Beyond physically and mentally damaging the direct victims of such abuse, you begin to lay the groundwork for the continuance of such behaviour. Anyone with any authority or is an extension of the establishment embodies such sentiments too. In schools, this occurs in a number of manners and it is important to note how different levels of authority are addressed in private versus government institutions.
Research conducted in Nigeria suggests that there are significant differences between bullying occurrences in government versus private schools. While bullying occurs predominantly in the classroom at government schools, the playground is where it thrives in private institutions.
In what is quickly becoming one of the most high-profile cases of systemic bullying in Nigerian history, questions are being asked about what roles the school’s management could have played to avoid this unfortunate outcome. Death is difficult in all forms. It is significantly worse when it is a life barely begun that is cut short.
A Zoom call recording emerged a few days ago on Twitter of parents, educational experts and former patrons of Dowen College. In the video, a former guidance counsellor at the secondary school who identifies himself as Samuel highlights two key reasons why bullying has managed to prevail in the school before and after his nine-year tenure there. First being the fact that most structures are not purpose-built for boarding schools and without the necessary and adequate personnel to manage such structures, there will always be opportunities for such actions to run unchecked. He spoke about the school not providing a staff member for each floor of the four-storey building that house students after classes. Every time an incident was heard, the story would always be changed before a housemaster could arrive. He highlights this as one of the reasons he left the school eventually.
While it is worth noting that violent outbursts are bound to happen during pivotal developmental stages such as adolescence, there needs to be a clear understanding imparted onto kids about how far is too far. Perhaps a group of more self-aware and empathetic students could have realized what was wrong with the behaviours they were exhibiting.
A degree of candidness is also necessary when addressing kids, enough not to be condescending (because they realize the difference) and not too much to overwhelm. The exposure of content experienced by this generation has created opportunities for such a young group to tap into complex and otherwise inaccessible (at least until they advance in life) information about things like nuance, context and pretext. In a phrase, they are incredible at calling bullshit. For this reason alone, it is more important than ever to acknowledge and address every question or urge they have. Rather than let their instincts or worse, the internet lead all the time, step in and share something that perhaps can ease their tensions.