How Educators Are Failing Bullies

It's normal for children to argue and fight. But those identified as bullies are often suspended or expelled far too quickly. Why don't schools intervene earlier?

Four victims in this photo?
Four victims in this photo?
Christina Berndt


BERLIN â€" Classmates told Oskar* they were going to drug and kill him, then leave his body in the woods.

These were 11-year-olds talking during a class trip last June, all sitting on their beds in the dorm of the hostel at the time. Oskar was among them and even thought the fantastical scenario was funny at the beginning. But it soon became more concrete, with his peers describing how wild animals would eat him or that they would burn him in the adjacent forest.

Oskar told his parents, who thought the school wasn't doing enough and decided to press charges against their son's tormentors. The school responded by suspending the two suspected leaders of this little tour de farce. What were these kids possibly thinking? Were they truly sick children with a violent streak, or were they just engaging in very dark ideas as a group, parroting something they had seen in a scary movie?

We'll never know because school officials never asked them. The teacher responsible for the class sent an email around to the parents saying that Oskar had received serious threats, that his parents had pressed charges against the perpetrators and that the school would whole-heartedly support them. No one asked the 11-year-olds who made the threat to tell their side of the story, and they were swiftly suspended.

Oskar remained an outsider, and his parents were forced to send him to another school the following year.

This case may be an extreme one, but it's not wholly unique.

At play was incompetence, not education. Maybe Oskar's tormenters were dangerous children in early bloom, but perhaps it was all a group-driven fantasy whose context would have mitigated the sense of threat, if the adults had taken the time to investigate. What the case demonstrates is that teachers often capitulate too easily in the face of difficulty.

Their fear of violence in school has become so pronounced that it paralyzes them as soon as they spot the first signs of it. Instead of utilizing their pedagogical skills, devoting themselves to and guiding these children about how to express their feelings appropriately, they default to disciplinary measures such as suspension and/or getting the police and local prosecutor involved. The idea is to rid themselves of the possibly dangerous students before something worse happens.

"Rash decisions are made much too often," says Kristin Werschnitzke, a teacher at a school in Brandenburg. "Everyone should get together and take the time to analyze what exactly happened. As a teacher nowadays, you are not given the opportunity to talk to the student and work out what actually happened."

Criminalizing what's normal

It seems that teachers and parents have lost all sense of what level of violence and nastiness is normal among children, and what needs to be changed. "What was seen as perfectly normal 10 years ago is now often and very quickly criminalized," says Nele McElvany, head of the Institute for School Development Research in Dortmund.

The fact is, children should be allowed to screw up. How else are they going to discover where the boundaries between right and wrong lie? Nils Christie, a Norwegian sociologist who passed away last year, was adamant that children be allowed to have conflict. "Don't take it away," he urged.

Children and adolescents need to learn how to fight, just as they need to make up afterwards to heal whatever psychological damage the conflict caused. Having an outside party settle a conflict is a disservice to both the victim and the aggressor. "The child does not become a stronger person when parents, police officers or teachers take care of a situation," says Berlin-based criminologist and teacher Lydia Seus. "The child remains a victim who always needs help from others."

Photo: Katerha

It also should be said that children and adolescents are actually less violent now than in the past. Most are raised without violence, and children learn to settle conflicts without physical means as early as kindergarten. There are, of course, always a few black sheep at school. But overall, adolescent violence has decreased by 15% in the last 10 years. In the meantime, the willingness to press charges against adolescent perpetrators has risen by 12%, according to researchers of the Criminological Research Institute of Lower Saxony (KFN).

Missing the chance to learn lessons

"There rarely are cases of violence that cannot be solved," says the KFN's Christian Pfeiffer. "And yet you have people from kindergarten on up who completely overreact to very minor scuffles."

To determine the necessary measures that need to be taken in these cases, you need pedagogical competence. A properly trained teacher is invaluable in these situations. But teachers often complain that they lack the necessary training.

In these cases, a clear system of rules and regulations at schools, designed by both teachers and students, could be the solution, says Klaus Hurrelmann from the Hertie School of Governance, a private graduate school offering degrees in governance and political science.

Discussing and deciding on boundaries through consensus also promotes ethical awareness, as the students learn what is important and right, and the punishments are understandable for everyone involved. The victim is enabled by being able to demand punishment. But the perpetrator also benefits: He or she understands the mistake and has a clear means of making amends. This way too the aggressor isn't stigmatized as simply a "bad person," which only leads to isolation, further frustration and more aggression.

Relationships and reliable values are the most important pillars of a child's development for a stable and psychologically healthy personality. The school also must provide a strong value and relationship system. Children need structure and are enabled to study best within such sets of rules and regulations. Consequently, they feel most comfortable and secure at schools that provide these.

Society must do its part by placing more trust in its teachers, by enabling them to use their educative skills with confidence, by providing school psychologists to assist them, by allowing them the time to settle conflicts during school hours, and by training them so that they can better manage the pressures parents put on them.

We also have to become better acquainted with the realities of life for students, and approach these kinds of conflicts with more sensitivity. We need to engage children, ask them questions, try to understand their motives. Most importantly, we need to look at conflict as an opportunity rather than a threat. It takes an effort. But considering what's at stake â€" nothing less than the value of education â€" it's worth it.

*Not his real name.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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