Today we feature an English translation of an article on bullying in Czech schools written by Jindřich Ginter, a young journalist working for Právo, the Czech daily newspaper.
A shortened version of this article was published in Právo on 27 May 2000; the full version was published in Czech in Britské listy on 29 May 2000.
I should add that bullying at school and in the work place is not a solely Czech experience. Právo is to be commended for its decision to publish an article on this matter and discuss this issue. Generally, the Czech media are rather reluctant to pick up on major "social interest" stories (ie stories which deal with a shocking predicament of ordinary people due to insufficiencies in the law and in social services).
Even in Právo, the publication of a shortened version of Ginter's article on bullying seems to be an exception, rather than the rule.
- Jan Čulík
Brain crushers: bullying in Czech schools
Fourteen-year old Martin from Northern Moravia attended a select elementary school. One day last year, he jumped out of a window on the seventh floor. He survived. He fell into some bushes. His legs and his lungs were seriously hurt.
His health has suffered permanent damage. Why did he jump out? Because he had suffered from serious, and long-term bullying by his schoolmates.
Martin's case is far from unique. Bullying is a widespread phenomenon amongst Czech children. It is just that nobody wants to talk about it in public.
Bullying often assumes the form of quite deliberate, repeated physical violence and degradation. But often even the specialists do not want to talk about it.
It's his own fault
But surely Martin was not a victim. It was all his own fault. Was he a weakling?
"Investigations have shown that his schoolmates started mocking him because his family was not as rich as the families of the other pupils. Then his schoolmates began destroying Martin's things and then he ended up being physically attacked.
He was afraid to talk about it at home. It drove him to extreme despair," says policewoman Alena Plšková from the Police Praesidium of the Czech Republic. "Martin's parents found a letter at home which gave the names of the bullies, seven of his schoolmates.
There were also descriptions of what they did to him. The boys thought it was all just an innocent prank. So did their parents. They argued that the whole thing was Martin's own fault. Allegedly, it was his own problem that he had jumped out of the window."
The school headmistress has been suspended, but the boys have not been punished in any way. They continue attending school as though nothing had happened. They are underage, so the law cannot punish them.
Martin's family moved to a different town. "They are broken, they have lost their strength to fight on," says a police representative. Six months later, Martin returned home from hospital, and so his parents are taking care of him.
Why did this happen? Nobody was interested. Nobody in Martin's environment was capable of offering him professional help. As in many other cases, the bullying of Martin did not start suddenly and was, at the beginning, seemingly quite innocuous.
Your neck in the noose
"I have seen a number of shocking cases of bullying recently, when the victim was tortured quite horrendously. These children have been truly lynched," says Michal Kolář, a specialist in abnormal behaviour who provides support for psychologists and the police at the Czech Police Academy.
Bullying starts slowly; it develops gradually. At the most developed stage, the methods of torment are precisely organised and carefully thought out. Often they copy elements of torture as it was carried out by the Nazis or methods of cruel interrogation often copied from the cinema.
"Bullying starts with silly things and may end in death or in permanent damage. The attacker is often a weak person; he/she is looking for ways of dominating other people.
The rest of the class usually just looks on, or sometimes they join in," says Plšková. "Bullying spreads through the class like a disease. Attackers can 'take along' the whole class. It is like a form of mass psychosis," says Kolář.
He remembers a recent case from an elementary school: "In the morning, six pupils pulled another boy to the front of the class where he had to kiss their shoes and clean them.
They kept beating him. During the school break, they put one of his hands into a noose, held it on the desk and pricked it with pens. They also pricked his back with pins.
They kept beating him. In a frenzied atmosphere, one of the attackers then put the noose around the boys neck, two of them were holding him, another pupil was standing on the desk and put the rope over the ceiling light. In spite of all this, the tortured boy went back to school on the following day. Then, he later collapsed at home.
These six pupils had already tormented him for six months. They kept beating him up and they threatened they would kill him; they held him upside down from a bridge and joked that he would smash to bits at the bottom. He had to pay for people's snacks; several times he was forced to clean other people's shoes and he was pricked with pins.
He ended up as a full time patient on a psychiatric ward, with a intense fear of death," says Kolář. The parents of the attackers refused to accept their sons' punishment. They said it was a conspiracy against them. They demanded that the victim be punished. They even wrote to President [Václav] Havel.
20 per cent of Czech children suffer from bullying
"Although this is extreme violence, it occurs relatively often. Maybe these are the first American influences in Czech education," says Kolář. He estimates that approximately 20 per cent of children in Czech schools, some 300,000 children, are now bullied.
Nobody registers school bullying in the Czech Republic. "Bullying is much more widespread than people think. Schools prefer to ignore it and they only react when the violence becomes excessive," says Bohumil Stejskal, an advisor to the Czech Education Minister.
Stejskal points out that many children are not afraid of bad academic results; they are afraid of what might happen during the school break--they worry about where they might hide and what might be in store for them.
The elementary school in Chomutov, Northern Bohemia: thirteen year-old Honza was repeatedly kicked by his schoolmates so brutally that he soiled himself, he lost consciousness and had to be taken to hospital with a serious internal wound.
Even girls in the class joined in, asking whether they could "have a kick". "The teachers did not know anything about it for a long time. Honza was afraid to go out on his own.
Once he decided to fight back, sprayed some pepper spray into his attackers faces and ran away. But, the attackers organised a gang of older boys to come and beat him up.
His fellow schoolmates accused Honza of attacking him with the spray. Their parents demanded that he be punished. The police closed the case for lack of evidence," says Kolář.
"Bullying is repeated, physical and psychological violence. It is not a one-off act of agression," explains Stejskal.
Czech law does not recognise the concept of bullying. Cases of bullying are tried as cases of damage to health, blackmail and of curtailing personal freedom. "But the attackers normally get away scotfree because they are underage. Their parents are on their side.
They say it was all just fun and that it was all the attacked persons' fault," explains Plšková. "The attackers are encouraged to more violence when there is no punishment," says Stejskal, adding that a third of the schoolboy bullies commit criminal offences when they grow up.
Life in Czech schools is becoming ever more brutalised. "At one university, specialising in creative arts, ritual sexual bullying took place. A submissive student, living in the halls of residents, was forced to strip naked. Other students painted his body with colours and he was forced to copulate with a chosen girl.
I have also dealt with a case where three secondary school students deflowered a schoolmate with a broomstick. Many other cases are quite similar," says Kolář.
He finds it difficult to talk about these cases. In all, he has dealt with more than 350 serious cases of bullying, with countless cases which were less serious.
At the beginning of March 2000, a fifteen-year-old boy from Přerov, Moravia, suddenly stopped attending school. It was not until he had been away from school for more than a week that it turned out that a fellow schoolboy threatened to kill him if he did not bring him marijuana. A local police spokesperson said that the police would take no action because the bully was under-age.
Accused of masturbation
Bullying even occurs in small Czech towns. Jana comes from a town in southern Bohemia. She had suffered from infantile paralysis earlier in life and, as a result, attended a secondary apprentice teaching centre which took in disabled persons separately from healthy students.
She was bullied by a number of her fellow students.
When her parents complained to the school authorities, the school said that it had found no bullying. The attacks continued, the headmaster of the school kept denying the problem. In the end, Jana was forced to leave the school and the attackers remained in place.
Teachers pretending everything is fine
Schools often try to suppress cases of bullying, or to accuse the victim. Often, teachers just don't do anything because they do not know how to react.
"At Jana's school, 16 out of a total of 17 teachers told us that there was no bullying. And yet 25 per cent of the pupils said in questionnaires that they were the subject of repeated bullying," says Stejskal from the Czech Education Ministry.
Instead, the headmaster complained about Jana's parents: "This is a "problem family; they constantly complain about everything. The girl is far too diffrent," the headmaster told me angrily.
Kolář says that when teachers happen to see a case of bullying, they run away from the class, or they refuse to believe it, or they make light of the whole thing, or they blame the victim, or they succumb to self-pity ("what is it that you are doing to me?"). The teachers are not properly trained how to deal with the bullying, points out Kolář.
The police cannot help
"The buck usually stops at the police. The local police departments have failed in most of these cases," says Kolář.
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They ask everyone what happened. The attackers deny everything, the victim is unable to talk about the tormenting in the attacker's presence and so the case is closed.
"Victims are incredibly afraid of their attackers, so they will not testify against them," says Stejskal. Headmasters or ordinary policemen wrongly think that an interrogation of all parties to the incident is the only possible, objective way of finding out what has happened.
"But bullying can only be discovered by the use of special questionnaires which the pupils fill in anonymously," says Stejskal.
"We must fight against the pereceived view that bullying is a disgrace for the school. It is no disgrace. The Czech Education Ministry now openly declares its support for those schools which will not be afraid to openly deal with the cases of bullying," says Stejskal.
A catalogue of sadism
These are some of the cases which Kolář has repeatedly encountered in Czech schools. Many of these instances of torture are reminiscent of war films and/or of pornographic films which specialise in sadomasochistic practice.
Victims are forced to drink urine, to drink lemonade into which other people have spat, they are forced to eat food off the ground, they are forced to masturbate in public, they are forced to kiss other pupils' shoes and to clean them, they are forced to kneel down and beg for mercy.
Hanging. Children are being hung by the neck until they lose consciousness. They are choked with cable or rope. Plastic bags are placed on the victim's head while his/her hands are tied. The choking and struggling victim is watched. Victims are choked with cushions or with towels. It is timed how long the victim manages not to breathe.
Victims are "play-pretend" thrown out of the window. Fellow pupils push the victim out of the window on, say, the eigth floor, they hold him/her by the legs. Victims bottoms are pricked with knives, their legs are cut with knives, their ears are cut with blades. Victims' bottoms are pricked with pins which are pushed in up to their heads and darts are thrown at living targets.
Victims are stripped naked and flogged; they are mocked. Red-hot nuts or bolts are placed on the top of victims' hands, victims are burnt with matches, beaten up with cable, with batons and with sticks.
Mass kicking ("Come and have a kick, it is free of charge"), anonymous mass beatings of a single person, punching the victim's face and stomach, slaps, hitting the victim on the neck.
Forcing victims to fight "gladiators' games." Pupils stand on the victim; they pull his/her legs apart until the victim does what is requested of him/her.
Cutting the victim's hair, burning the victim's hair. Forcing them to have cold showers.
Tying the victim up, painting on victim's skin with felt tips.
Threatening the victim with death, anonymous telephone call threats, intimidating the victim with weapons
Elementary school in Havlíčkův Brod, Moravia: the whole class jumped on Jirka, stood on him and made a heap of bodies over him. When he was freed, many pupils kicked him and hit him with an iron bar.
Elementary school in Česká Lípa: a group of eleven-year-old boys forced a weaker boy to give them his snacks and his pocket money. If he refused, they forced him to drink water from the toilet bowl and threated him with oral sex. When the police looked into the matter, the victim was brutally beaten up.
The Sokolov region: Hanka was cruelly bullied by a group of children, lead by fourteen-year-old Alena. The bullying culminated in a veritable lynching, when eight children, aged 9 – 14 lured the eight-year-old Hanka into the forest; they beat her up, stripped her naked, kicked her, whipped her with nettles and forced her to spread human excrement on her face. Then they wanted to push a stick into her genitals.
Jan Čulík is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britské listy.