Brenda High is, in her own words, “a mom on a mission to stop school bullying and peer abuse.” She has been since 1998 when her son Jared committed suicide at the age of 13 after being bullied at his school in Pasco, Washington.
Brenda’s non profit organization, Bully Police USA , now has branches in 49 states and 2000 individual members. Their aim: to get people and politicians to pay attention to what the law can do to protect children from bullying and assault at school.
Brenda talks to hundreds of parents – she says that for most the greatest difficulty is getting schools to take their children’s complaints seriously. Her philosophy is simple:
“You know what, sue them!” says Brenda.
But as Brenda has found, it’s not easy to find an attorney who is willing to represent David against Goliath. Schools have big pockets she says – unlike most parents.
Sweden may not be as litigious a country as the US but, as the country’s Child and Schools Representative Lars Arrhenius tells Brenda, the threat of lawsuits and serious fines is putting real pressure on schools to deal with the problem of bullying.
BRENDA TELLS JARED’S STORY AND LARS EXPLAINS HOW SWEDEN DECIDED ON A ‘ZERO TOLERANCE’ APPROACH
“I’m so thrilled,” says Brenda, “because Sweden has not only created a law – they’ve given it teeth. That’s our problem in the USA, lawmakers are doing their work but there’s nothing to make schools obey the law”.
“I don’t know if the USA would ever get a (bullying) ombusdman, but I don’t know why we couldn’t get some big private organisation to do some fund raising – there are a lot of people out there who have been bullied who’d want to help”.
Brenda is now setting up a new not-for-profit venture called BullyPolice Law – an Attorney Support network which would provide legal aid to desperate parents. Eventually Brenda hopes it will be rolled out to the whole of the country.
A BULLYING PANDEMIC?
“I talk to bullied children every day” Lars Arrhenius said, “today I spoke to two students who told me they didn’t want to live anymore because of bullying”.
Since the Ombudsman’s office was created in Sweden, the number of reported bullying cases has more than tripled.
Does this signal that bullying is out of control?
The picture is complex. Cyber bullying and sexting have made bullying easy – technologically and emotionally. Reports from the US differ widely suggesting that more than 10% of kids are cyber bullied – while in North Carolina 60% of kids complained they’d been bullied online.
Arrhenius admits that despite laws and sanctions bullying is still a ‘serious problem’.
“There is an acceptance of violence and bullying in schools – it is accepted throughout society. Children just don’t have the same legal rights as adults in the workplace.” But he interprets the rise in reported bully cases in Sweden differently. He puts it down to better reporting and awareness - a ‘healthy’ sign that students no longer have to suffer in silence: “ I think it’s good because it shows children and parents are aware about the rights they have in school”.
LARS AND BRENDA DISCUSS THE IMPACT OF THE LAW ON SWEDEN
The ombudsman was clearly a god-send to 15 year old Yasmine Gustafsson who has turned her life around since Arrhenius represented her in a bullying case against her school – and won. But out of the 3000 cases filed so far only a tiny minority have resulted in damages of between $800 and $60,000.
So are Swedish kids abusing the system? You’d imagine that giving kids a free attorney at the press of a button might invite just a little mischief. But Arrhenius says not:
“There have only been a few such cases. We meet the child, the school staff – we investigate these cases very thoroughly”.
LARS ANSWERS THE QUESTION OF WHETHER THE SYSTEM IS BEING ABUSED
BRENDA AND LARS RESPOND TO THE CHALLENGE THAT BULLYING IS SIMPLY A RITE OF PASSAGE
The reason relatively few ‘serious’ cases result in pay outs is because the law is designed to put pressure on schools to implement bully prevention. If a school can prove it took a bullying complaint seriously and took strong measures to stop it – Arrhenius cannot sue.
‘ The purpose of these damages is to put pressure on local education authorities and companies to give schools the means to prevent bullying’.
Guilty verdicts make popular newspaper headlines says the ombudsman. Schools are named and shamed: another powerful incentive to take bullying seriously.
RELATED STORIES FROM OTHER SOURCES – IN THE US AND AROUND THE WORLD:
From the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia – June 2011: Teen suicide increasingly linked to school bullying across the country.
From Minnesota Public Radio – May 2011: A special investigation “Weak on Bullying” looks at how the state is (and isn’t) dealing with bullying.
From Radio Sweden – August 2010: Reports of bullying in Swedish schools have been on the rise since early spring, as news has spread about the nation’s ombudsman for student issues. Now, as the fall school year gets underway, kids will be able to read a new handbook about what to do if they’re bullied. Swedish students on the streets of Stockholm talk about bullying.