For one 12-year-old Cayman boy, the bullying at his school this past year had gotten so bad he could not take it any more.
In the quiet of his bedroom, in desperation, he looped a shoelace around his neck and tightened it, trying to take his own life.
Fortunately, his mother happened to walk in and stopped his suicide attempt.
The example may be an extreme one, but local experts say bullying in Cayman schools is a prevalent and significant problem. In the past several years, a number of local agencies have surfaced or instituted new programmes aimed at reducing bullying. The Legislative Assembly has looked at the issue and at least one lawmaker is pushing for legislation by year’s end.
Charmaine Miller is programme director for the Family Resource Centre and has been with the agency for 12 years. Each year it sponsors an anti-bullying fair in October during anti-bullying month. It also runs an ongoing prevention programme called Stood Up, designed to teach students strategies to avoid or deal with bullying. Miller said the problem of bullying is ongoing and spreading.
“What we’re seeing recently is an increase in bullying in the younger population, 8-10 year olds,” she said. “That’s definitely something that’s been noticeable.”
In fact, recent surveys of schools by the Office of Education Standards found the parents at Sir John A. Cumber Primary had the greatest concerns about bullying, with 41% saying the school failed to handle bullying effectively. The next closest school was Layman E. Scott High School, where 34% of parents responded similarly.
From a student’s standpoint, Clifton Hunter High School had the highest negative rating. A survey there showed 33% of students did not think bullying was handled well. John Gray High School was second, with 26%.
There is a definite gap in what students report and what parents perceive. The average number of students unhappy with the way bullying was handled at government schools was 14%. Parent dissatisfaction, however, was an average of 22%.
Part of the difference may be due to an understanding of just what bullying is.
In the workshops and presentations she conducts, Miller said, “We tackle to difference between bullying and teasing. Bullying is insistent and persistent behaviour. With bullying, it doesn’t matter how much you tell me to stop, I’m still going to do it.”
Crisis brings support
That is what the boy who made the suicide attempt was dealing with, said his grandmother, who requested she not be identified by name for this story. She said her grandson has learning problems which led to social issues when he was in primary school. But he was not bullied until he started attending high school, she said. When she tried to intervene, it made matters worse.
“I’ve been there several times and it caused them to retaliate,” she said, “people calling him ‘black’.”
She said when the boy could not handle it, he would strike out and get into trouble.
“All the time they suspend him, but the ones who are bullying him are still in school,” she said.
She was frustrated by the lack of support for her grandson and what she saw as a reactive policy. She said officials did not see the full picture, and suggested security cameras were needed on the campus so the interactions of students could be recorded.
Things did change after her grandson’s suicide attempt.
“I took him out of school and got in touch with the doctors right away,” she said. “You’ve got to step in right away.”
After getting psychiatric help, the boy eventually returned to school and began getting more support, she said.
“The teachers are monitoring him to make sure things are going smoothly,” she said. “He’s said nobody’s troubling him right now. So far so good.”
She also said a school counsellor was calling her every two days to update her on how the boy is doing.
Miller said she thinks more needs to be done to foster a better atmosphere in schools. Even the eight-week workshops she conducts in both private and government schools are not enough, she said.
“I feel it needs to go beyond these workshops and have it be ongoing, so it’s a part of school culture,” Miller said. “It needs to go beyond intervention. It should be something that at the start of the school year you set certain expectations and have a plan in a proactive way. If we did that, there wouldn’t be so much going on.”
Some parents say they would welcome that.
One mother, who requested her name not be used, said the bullying her daughter has endured at Clifton Hunter has gotten so bad that she is looking to move her to another school.
“She has to come out of there,” the mother said. “I have a friend whose daughter went there and moved her child for the same thing.”
But she’s not sure where her daughter can go.
“I called Cayman Prep, Cayman Academy and Triple C, and those three schools are full,” she said.
She said the bullying has affected her daughter’s schoolwork and attitude at home, saying “She gets real angry.”
“I can’t concentrate,” the daughter said. After her run-ins with bullies, “I’m just replaying it back in my head.”
The daughter said she’s been taunted because of her hairstyle and her weight, and threatened with being ‘jumped’ after school. Interventions by school officials have not been effective, she said.
“They say they will deal with it,” said the daughter. “They sit and have a chat with them and say, ‘Don’t do it again.’”
But nothing changes, she said.
Her mother thinks the problem is worse than it was when she was growing up in Cayman.
“When I went to school, we had fights and whatever, but it’s nothing like these days,” the mother said. “It’s totally different now. Maybe it’s in all schools, but I’m always hearing it about Clifton Hunter.”
A universal problem
In her work, Miller said, the problem does not seem to be centred in specific locations.
“I don’t think we can pinpoint one school where we’re seeing a lot of incidents,” Miller said.
And the issue is not necessarily any worse or better when it comes to private schools versus government schools.
Janet Sinclair-Young is the chairwoman of United Against Bullying, an organisation she founded last year in the wake of her own son being bullied at St. Ignatius Catholic School. Sinclair-Young said despite her intervention early on, her son continued to be bullied for nearly two years at the school.
“They would call him names like ‘Blacky’ and (the N-word),” she said. “They would push him down on the playground and take his shoes off. It was happening almost every day. My son said any time he complained [to authorities], it got worse. So, he just stopped talking and he took it.”
Sinclair-Young said she pulled her son out of the school a year ago when she found her son was engaging in self-harm, and is now homeschooling him. She said she did not feel St. Ignatius authorities took the problem seriously. The main instigator in her son’s bullying, she said, was suspended by the school for a single day. She said her son’s friends have reported that the same student continues to bully others at the school.
St. Ignatius did not respond to a request for comment.
Even after leaving the school, her son was getting bullied on social media. Sinclair-Young said she finally alerted law enforcement about the problem. She said two students are being prosecuted as a result.
“It’s a different level of bullying in this day and age,” she said. “Because of their phones and Instagram and Facebook, even when kids leave school they’re still being bullied. My son was on his Xbox and the same boy found him and was bullying him on his Xbox. It is hard to escape.”
Psychiatrist Marc Lockhart, chairman of the Cayman Islands Mental Health Commission, said digital avenues have allowed bullying to “become more potent”.
“Very few of us go a day without checking a phone,” he said. “Many people can’t survive without some kind of social media connection.”
When that space is invaded by a bully, he said, a person may feel helpless.
“It’s made it a lot harder to retreat and pull away from bullying,” he said of the common reliance on internet connections. “It’s increased the prevalence of it, I feel.”
Kids are not the only perpetrators and victims. Cyberbullying is a problem among adults as well, Lockhart said. While children may engage more in physical threats and name calling, adults tend to bully through intimidation, especially work related pressure.
“Many adults don’t want to admit they’re being bullied,” he said. “They see it as a sign of weakness.”
Expats in Cayman, he said, can be especially reluctant to speak up for fear it may affect their ability to maintain or renew a work permit.
“Some people will put up with it because of their immigration status,” he said.
Sinclair-Young said her anti-bullying group wants to see more regulations in place to address the issue.
“The goal of the organisation is to have anti-bullying legislation passed that all schools have to follow,” she said. Legislative Assembly member Alva Suckoo said he plans to introduce a motion later this month calling for a uniform policy on bullying by the end of this year.
Suckoo said he thinks his colleagues are supportive of a new law, “but I don’t think it’s been given the priority it should have been”.
He said constituents have recently brought incidents to his attention that include attempted suicide and students moving schools or leaving school as a result of being bullied. Instead of addressing such problems on a school-by-school basis, in terms of policies, Suckoo thinks a uniform law for all schools would be beneficial.
“I don’t think we have enough in place that deals with all of these questions,” he said. “We need guidelines on how to deal with it.”
Sinclair-Young said she receives about two calls per week on the United Against Bullying line. Most, she said, are parents with children in private schools, and many call because their children have expressed feelings of wanting to kill themselves. Often, she said, they are alerted by a note they have found in their child’s things.
“Half the time when kids are being bullied, they’re not going to say anything about it,” she said.
Parents, she said, need to be “tuned in” to their children’s feelings.
“Have daily conversations about what’s happening in school,” she said. If a child’s behaviour has changed, she adds, “Get to the bottom of it. Go to the school and find out what’s going on. Take it seriously.”
Studies have shown the problem has a gender component, with girls typically reporting higher levels of being bullied than boys.
Kary Seymour has seen that during her daughter’s time at Clifton Hunter.
“There seems to be a lot of drama, the girls more than the boys,” she said, helping to validate a Cayman study last year where 66% of girls surveyed said they had been bullied, versus 63% of boys.
Seymour said her daughter, a Year 7 student, found her own way of dealing with a bully.
“A year 11 boy challenged her for her lunch money,” Seymour said. “My daughter knows martial arts and she took him down. So no one messes with her.”
Others may not have those kinds of tools to work with.
Miller said part of her programme is showing students how to support one another.
“You have a role as a bystander,” she said. “Bullying continues to happen because the bully has an audience. We’re empowering bystanders to go up and say, ‘That’s not cool,’ or ‘Let’s go play somewhere else.’”
For parents who suspect their child is being bullied, she said, “Reaching out to their own school counsellors would be a great start.”
There are support services also available.
- The Cayman Islands Crisis Centre operates its Kids Helpline from 3-6pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday: 649-KIDS (5437).
- The Family Resource Centre has information on its Stood Up programme on its website, www.dcs.gov.ky/frc.
- United Against Bullying can be reached at [email protected]