“You need to work with the aggressors. It’s not enough simply to punish them.”
This article is one in a series of audio and text reports by Czech Radio applying a solutions journalism approach to the problem of bullying in Czech schools.
SOKOLOV, Czech Republic | “Children spread all kinds of bad stuff online,” said the principal of a public elementary school in Sokolov, Lada Jelasicova.
“The photos are the worst,” she told Czech Radio early in the current school year, explaining that cyberbullying has ballooned in recent years. “We had a situation where they took photos of a girl as she changed clothes for physical education class. There’s always going to be bullying to some extent, but I think it’s important to catch it right at the beginning and work with it.”
This school in a town of 23,000 in the far west of the Czech Republic teaches children in grades 1 through 9 and offers intensive sports classes, as well as a learning center for children with mental handicaps. For almost 500 students, the school fields 23 teaching assistants.
“We are quite close to one of the excluded localities, so these children make up around 15 percent. We also have pupils that are truly ill, that is, disabled,” Jelasicova continued.
[Transitions note: “Socially excluded localities” in Czech bureaucratic parlance are housing estates or streets with a high proportion of poor and jobless residents, primarily Roma.]
When the private testing company Scio surveyed bullying in almost 200 Czech schools in 2017-2018, this school did very well: 31.5 percent of pupils in grades 6 through 9 said they had experienced bullying, well below the national average of 57 percent. Fewer children here also reported experiencing verbal or physical harm, and the number who said they liked going to school was 6 percent higher.
Help From Teachers, Assistants, and Janitors
The principal, however, doesn’t think her school is doing something all that special. Like other schools, this one has conflict-prevention guidelines and a psychologist on staff. What is unusual is that an assistant teacher or teacher is always in the homeroom classroom with the children, even during breaks.
“And it’s good when an assistant is there, because the teacher is focused, you know, but the assistant sees what happens beneath the surface. They see things the teacher might not even notice during class – ‘Something’s wrong with Annie, she’s sad, something is going on,’ ” Jelasicova said.
In her words, the Sokolov school is trying to stop bullying before it has a chance to germinate.
“These people know what’s going on in the classroom – this is one big part of it. And I admit, at the beginning it didn’t always get a positive response, but by now we’re gotten used to it and we’ve seen the results.”
Even the maintenance staff plays a role.
“At every break, every free moment, we’re watching to see if the kids aren’t fighting in the hallways, chasing each other and so on. I enjoy it, or I wouldn’t be here,” said Eva Hrickova, a janitor, smiling.
In serious cases, the school also works with the police. In some cases, officers bring the aggressor to the police station, accompanied by a social worker.
“This is effective because the kids see the rapid response – the police immediately arriving on the spot to deal with wrongful behavior,” Sokolov police inspector David Mertl said.
Children under the age of 15 are given suspended punishments if convicted of a crime.
“We used to make many of these visits, but over time it came down a lot. Now we hardly ever go to the school,” Mertl said.
Jelasicova agrees, saying the presence of police has a preventive effect on some children. No less important is to convince the teaching staff that anti-bullying programs are needed.
Teaching the Teachers About Bullying
The majority of Czech teachers lack training in this area, according to AISIS, a Czech teacher-training NGO. When the group began offering its “Minimize bullying” course, hardly any teachers arrived equipped to deal with bullying on a theoretical level. One of the roughly 200 schools that have adopted the partly EU-funded program since 2005 is the elementary school in Prague’s upscale Hanspaulka neighborhood. The teaching staff first went through the program more than a decade ago, and again last year.
The training helped teachers understand what bullying really is, according to school principal Maria Pojerova, and the importance of taking action to stop it in the early stages.
“We learned how to create a positive safety atmosphere in the school and how to monitor signals that something is happening in a class,” she said. “It was really crucial to understand that you need to work with the aggressors too, that it’s not enough simply to punish them.”
A year after undergoing the training, almost every classroom teacher reported a reduction in bullying.
Taking the next step, the Hanspaulka school also introduced an action plan against bullying and introduced bullying prevention into the curriculum. Children now learn about the issue in personal development class.
Bullying In the Classroom
Stanislav Zucek’s fifth-graders at the Hanspaulka school are looking at a picture of a group of children. One girl in the picture is hiding her face. “The girl with the pink bag,” Zucek says, pointing her out. “What’s wrong here,” he asks.
The other kids in the picture are making fun of the girl, whispering about her, and pointing at her, is the consensus answer. They should ask her what’s wrong, someone says. “Is this bullying?” the teacher asks. The children aren’t sure. Some agree, others say the mistreatment would have to happen more often, perhaps every day.
“We try to show that situations that occur around us can be seen as acceptable or unacceptable and how to act in certain situations, so when something like this happens it won’t be completely new to them,” Zucek said.
During the several days of the “Minimize bullying” course, teachers go through experiential training, among other things.
Program director Milan Kotik describes a role-playing exercise in which the teacher enters a classroom, sees that someone is being hurt, starts shouting, and orders everyone back to their seats. When course participants are asked to describe what happened, “all of a sudden they realize they don’t actually know who was beating on whom, who was under that table,” he said.
Crucially, Kotik said, teachers undergo a shift of their deep convictions. “They have the humility to resolve the situation. And they’re more sensitive. So that when something happens they’re prepared to talk it through, if necessary using conflict-prevention methods. The other [teachers] say, ‘I have no problem, I haven’t seen any bullying’ and if something does happen, they try to deal with it by themselves.”
Not all teachers will change their approach, he says, and not all schools have had positive outcomes from the program. There is deep resistance to change, and sometimes teachers find the sheer number of developmental courses to be overwhelming.
On the positive side, money is not an issue, because funding is available for those schools that wish to have the training.
The Education Ministry recently changed its rules to allow schools to apply for funding as part of its program on reducing risky behavior.
For 2020, as in 2019, the ministry earmarked about 20 million crowns ($850,000) for the program.
The Czech schools ombudsman, Ladislav Hrzal, stresses that schools need to embrace risk reduction wholeheartedly.
“It doesn’t make sense to have one teacher from one school go through the program. There need to be several teachers, say 10, including the school management. Only then is it possible to come together to work on changing the environment of the school.”