05 April 2024

Children reports school violence and hear, “Don’t make a scene.” They’ll never go to an adult for help again.

Violence isn't just about physically attacking someone. It's also about mocking, humiliating, and excluding others. It always escalates. So what can a teacher do? An interwiev with Professor Iwona Chmura-Rutkowska, pedagogue and sociologist.

Author: Maria Mazurek,


Photo: Scott Web/Unsplash

Is school a safe place?

Every tenth student experiences violence in school. Since the scale of this phenomenon has been studied in Poland – for about three decades – this number has hardly changed. Violence here is understood as prolonged and intense persecution. Almost every student has experienced individual episodes of being ridiculed, humiliated, or excluded – which also leave painful scars on the psyche. Unfortunately, peer violence is still trivialized by adults: teachers, school management, parents. Until it escalates to a dramatic level, adults look at it indulgently, calling it “horseplay” or explaining that “kids at this age are like that”. However, continuous violence, when not stopeed, always escalates. Always.

Who becomes a victim of peer violence?

The weaker person compared to the perpetrator. Occupying a lower position in the class or school hierarchy.
Violence is a phenomenon of power abuse. Where there is a relative balance of power and resources, there is no violence. Kids fighting in the sandbox or teenagers trading insults equally are examples of peer aggression. Not violence. Violence is a phenomenon in which a person who feels stronger seeks out someone weaker to simply bully him. And in reality, no one can feel safe because there are plenty of reasons why someone might consider us “inferior.” “Inferior” could be someone who isn’t good at gym class. Someone whose parents have an old car. Someone who is raised by their grandmother or foster family. Someone who lives in the village. Someone who is the shortest boy in the class. Someone who is a girl.

You’re saying that perpetrators of violence are those who feel confident and strong. But aren’t they the ones who try to hide their insecurities?

That’s one of the stereotypes attached to this phenomenon. Indeed, even in the late nineties, educators believed that perpetrators of peer violence were students who had deficits, low resources, deep acceptance issues. In orher words: insecure and frustrated kids. When this was studied more closely, it turned out that indeed, some perpetrators fit this model. However, in the vast majority of cases, perpetrators of school violence are boys – because they usually are boys – who have very strong egos, are confident, dominant, for some reason feel superior: because they are older, more popular, have richer parents, or are the darlings of the school football team. Of course, in a broader sense, they have deficits and are hurt – because they didn’t undergo empathy training, because no one taught them kindness towards others, because they weren’t equipped with the tools that school and parents should provide. However, they are rarely people fitting the stereotype of school failures. More often – school stars.

Why do they act like this?

Because they get the green light for it. I wanted to emphasize this and I can repeat it every minute of my life: adults are 100 percent responsible for peer violence. They are the ones who should create a safe, supportive space for children’s development. However, when something really drastic happens – violence escalates to the point where the victim is painfully beaten, raped, or commits suicide – the media narrative emerges that today’s youth are bad, spoiled, that there’s something wrong with them. If public attention at all focuses on adults in this situation, it usually targets either the perpetrator’s parents or a specific teacher, as if we were looking for scapegoat. But who asks if there were procedures for safe reporting of violence in school? Who asks what support educators provide to victims of violence, perpetrators and their families (because yes, perpetrators and their families also need help), witnesses who usually remain silent for months or years as if under a spell? Who cares whether there were any violence prevention programs in school?

Why do witnesses remain silent as if under a spell? After all, violence usually happens in front of entire classes.

Indeed, the greatest power and effectiveness in preventing or interrupting violence lies with its witnesses. The child experiencing violence is usually alone, and furthermore often weaker, less assertive, and less self-confident. It’s hard to expect him to stand up for themselves with his head held high. He is more likely to stay silent. And even if he tells adults what’s happening, heoften hears: Just don’t say anything, Don’t make a scene, Don’t create a fuss.

Those who have the power to break the cycle of violence are the witnesses. However, if they don’t know that they can and should report it to teachers, they’ll be afraid to react. That’s why the school should have a safe and straightforward reporting pathway for acts of intimidation, harassment, and ridicule. Every student should be certain that he won’t hear from teachers: Don’t interfere or Don’t exaggerate. That there won’t be any critical remarks. That he will be taken seriously. Listened to. Because if adults don’t take such reports seriously and respectfully even once, word will spread very quickly, and we can be sure that next time, no one from that class will tell what they saw. And even if the violence escalates strongly and the situation becomes simply dangerous, children will continue to remain silent.

And violence also affects its witnesses, doesn’t it?

Of course. Peer violence is associated with very strong and prolonged stress not only for the victims but for the entire class or school community. Witnesses live in fear that they themselves may become victims. Additionally, they feel guilty and powerless that they can’t help their classmates. They feel devoid of agency. They develop an attitude that it’s better to do nothing. Not speak up, not see, not help. This has a destructive effect on the attitudes of these children.

What can a teacher do?

Apart from providing a safe space and procedures in case of violence, it can also be prevented.

I quess it isn’t easy.

On the contrary, it’s quite easy, although it requires daily work. We won’t effectively prevent this phenomenon by organizing anti-violence workshops once every few years. While these workshops are valuable and helpful, the most effective approach is the daily pedagogical work of teachers: teaching children cooperation, ensuring that students know each other well from various perspectives, and assigning them tasks in groups. However, children should not be grouped according to their “bubbles”: people from the same neighborhood or other peer groups they belong to. It’s important to ensure that each student has the opportunity to cooperate with all classmates.

It’s difficult to harm someone with whom you were cooperating five minutes ago, with whom you had a common goal, laughed, joked. If we create opportunities for children, they’ll know more about each other. People operate on the mechanism of protecting those whom they know and excluding or attacking strangers. Strangers are those with whom we don’t have much in common – or at least that’s what we think. This is how entire societies operate, and the school class is a reflection of them. It’s particularly difficult for girls. As they enter early adolescence and become women in the eyes of the world, they experience a sharp decline in self-confidence and many negative developmental phenomena.

But statistically, girls tend to receive higher grades and perform better on external exams. Teachers also tend to reprimand boys more often. So, could it be that boys have a harder time in school?

Boys do indeed receive more reprimands regarding their behavior, but almost always accompanied by the message that “that’s just how they are.” Girls, on the other hand, are much more controlled. They have less freedom. They receive much more feedback on how they are dressed, whether they are polite or not, or how their pencil cases are arranged. They are socialized to be nice, polite, helpful, and excellent students. And later, it turns out that they do indeed receive more A’s than boys. But at the same time, this doesn’t necessarily translate into their abilities to cope in real life, especially in areas such as professional work, social and political activities, or public speaking. A few years ago, a large foundation dealing with expert debates approached me. They asked me to diagnose the reasons why girls so rarely participate in debating. I took up the topic. It turned out that girls are ashamed to speak up not because they lack intellectual or cognitive abilities or interest in the world.

So why?

That’s because their voice gets stuck in their throat. Girls struggle to assert boundaries assertively. They struggle to express anger and objection, at least not directly – which is why they are more likely than boys to gossip. However, they cannot say out loud: “I disagree” – they can’t. Until schools start rewarding values such as agency, assertiveness, and self-confidence – equally for both genders – it won’t be a conducive social development environment. Neither for girls nor for boys.