21. Toxic Class
In the old days, the staff at Eydon Vale had told the victims of online bullying to forget their hurt and draw a line under it. In assemblies following Ada Wright’s training on toxic classes, I said this must change. I invited all the parents and children who felt their classes were still getting things wrong to contact me. Subsequently, a number of staff including Damian Brooks, the Head of Technology, told me about the calls they had had. Damian's was from Mr Appleby. His son Paul was complaining about name calling and online abuse by four girls in Damian’s Year 8 form group. I could hardly credit what he was saying. The girls Damian mentioned were among our most sensitive and talented pupils. Jane Williams had already reached Grade 6 in piano, while Isobel Macintyre played saxophone in a regional orchestra.
Damian had been a late entrant into teaching. He had left school at sixteen for an apprenticeship in the local shipyards. When they had closed, he had taken an access course. Whilst at the local university, he had trained as a Samaritan, so he already knew about the “bullying triangle” and “no blame” procedures that Ada Wright had mentioned in her training. I suggested he invite the key parents into school for the kind of structured discussion Ada had described with their children.
“Today’s meeting is our way of accepting responsibility,” Damian told them all. “It is predicated on the idea that none of your children is to blame for getting hooked into the cycle. If anyone is to blame, it’s the adults at Eydon Vale. We let things get out of hand.”
Each pupil would be allowed to speak without interruption or blame. To start with, Damian would ask them all to say how others in the room had bullied them. In the first round, he wanted everyone to be specific about names, times and words used. No interruptions would be permitted. They would all have to listen to the others' complaints without arguing back.
Jane Williams started. She mentioned the way Paul Appleby had sat behind her in Year 7, pulling her pigtails. When Damian reminded her to be exact, she told the group about him muttering “Slag” in a recent French lesson, plus the series of
online messages he had sent her the week before. In the next round, Damian gave all the pupils a chance to rebut any of the charges against them. There were minor criticisms of words used or timings, but there was an implicit acceptance of what they had done. In the third round, Damian asked each of them how they felt as victims of this teasing and name-calling.
It was painful for them to admit how hurtful the verbal abuse had been. Jane eventually said that she had known Paul since nursery school. Until Eydon Vale, she had thought he had liked her. It had made her cry, though she did not tell anyone as she felt ashamed. Her example encouraged others to be franker. Lastly, Damian invited the parents to cross-question their own children about how they felt. Putting her arm around Jane, Mrs Williams volunteered the fact that she had been bullied at school. She, too, had come home and wept in her bedroom. After Mrs McIntyre spoke about her memories of school, both adults wept.
The children were shocked to see the adults’ tears. Not only were their parents exposed: the savagery at the heart of this class was clear for all to see. The following week, Mr Appleby told me how grateful he was. “Mr Brooks is exceptional. He’s a local man and speaks our language. He got the kids to lower their defences and listen to each other. He showed them respect. Paul says all the online nonsense has stopped.”