“Zero tolerance” in the face of school harassment, brandished by the new Minister of Education, following the decree of August 16, 2023 on the exclusion of the harassing student, shows both the seriousness of this phenomenon which permeates the school and the need for strong actions to deal with this threat which weighs on many children, adolescents and families.
However, this measure also reveals the powerlessness in which institutions find themselves to deal with this violence and provide peaceful school spaces conducive to living together.
With the chain of violent events, political and societal tensions, the school is today going through a crisis of meaning from which it is struggling to escape. The chronicity of suffering within the educational institution as a whole also reinforces the phenomena of exclusion and symbolic violence.
School bullying, a complex phenomenon
School bullying is a subject that hits schools, often insidiously, sometimes loudly with dramatic consequences that lead to significant media coverage. Its designation is sometimes an open door to abuse of language which can have psychological consequences on those who are clearly the victims, those who are designated as the exclusive perpetrators, as well as on the family, school and social environment.
Indeed, one of the characteristics of school bullying is that it is often kept secret, hidden from the adult world by both the perpetrators and the victims and witnesses. Thus, many situations of harassment will never be revealed and will profoundly impact the identity construction of the people concerned.
Likewise, many situations, wrongly referred to as "school harassment", relate to violence between peers, to conflict inherent in the social life of children and adolescents.
The term school harassment is relatively recent. Its definition is based on three characteristics:
the intentionality of the aggression or negative action;
repetition over time;
the imbalance of power between the victim and their aggressor(s).
Researches show the diversity of the phenomenon and the importance of prevention in this area. However, it is still caught in a simplistic binary view between harasser and harassed, perpetrator and victim, with a moralizing dimension which sometimes prevents understanding the complexity of the underlying psychological and social processes whose taking into account would make it possible to address the subject of deep and lasting way.
Exclude, what next? Effects on children
If the latest decree on the exclusion and displacement of the harassing student admits the need to recognize the suffering of the harassed student, this measure is part of a security logic, leaving aside the inter-human, educational, fundamental to support both the victim and the perpetrator.
The measure raises questions on several levels. In fact, it intervenes as if school bullying took place strictly within the walls of the school, and in the classroom. However, it is especially in the spaces in between that this happens: at the entrance or exit from school, on the way to school, on the bus, sometimes in the neighborhood, and often, almost regularly on social networks. The measurement therefore omits a large part of this process which cannot be localized in a physical space.
For the child victim of harassment, the measure of removing the harasser, if it is not accompanied, does not guarantee the stopping of the harassment – in other spaces, or by other students. It also risks freezing him in the status of a victim, which risks further weakening him and stigmatizing him as a vulnerable person. Other times, the feeling of guilt, quite common among victims of violence, and fear of reprisals, continues. Many bullied children continue to have a stomach ache every morning on their way to school, particularly for fear of running into the bully, or his friends.
For the child perpetrator of acts of harassment, although confronting him with his responsibilities is crucial, the distance does not bode well for the rest of his journey. Moved to another establishment, he carries with him like a burden the stigma of "harasser" and in turn risks either experiencing forms of rejection and marginalization, or continuing a "pathway" as a harasser, by registering in logics of survival, through an appropriation of the stigma, to exist in the eyes of others.
In both cases, the violence of the situation is neither heard nor accompanied. However, for a child or adolescent to be capable of such intentional violence, they themselves must be in great distress and this lack of guidance requires that they be taken care of. Furthermore, studies show that sanctions-based policies do not improve students’ feelings of safety or behavior. In some cases, the continued harassment, discreetly, bypassing the sanction.
Especially since numerous studies have shown that the harasser and the harassed often present similar vulnerabilities, fear of the other, and emotional fragility. Many would have "similar destinies in terms of psychosocial pathways, difficulties in terms of mental health (dropouts, addictions, post-traumatic stress disorders, risky behavior, relationship difficulties, violence in romantic relationships, etc.).
Troubles in the perimeter and identity of the school
Continuing to treat the problem according to binary and exclusionary logic risks having deleterious effects on the psychological construction of children and adolescents, but also amplifying the problem, because the underlying violence is not treated.
Another risk is that of reinforcing the disorder in the function and very identity of the school, trapped by its own paradoxes: is it a question of educating in a logic of transmission or sanctioning in a penal logic? How, as adults, can we transmit values that we do not apply ourselves, or that we only apply on the surface? These measures and devices, like many others, often legitimate and justified, when applied in an isolated and superficial manner, tick the box of duty well done, but carry the weight of an avoidance of fundamental questions, and the illusion of eradicating violence through exclusion.
The astonishment of adults in the face of such violence triggers similar mechanisms. Rather than showing empathy towards children, the environment judges, sanctions, frightens, protects by putting up walls and reinforcing divisions. “School harassment”, based on the violence of exclusion and rejection of others, is ultimately a contemporary symptom loaded with complex identity legacies, which at the same time harbors and hides the evils of school and society, current and distant. In addition to children's discomfort, it questions the relationships between generations, highlighting the failure of education and transmission, in private, institutional and public spaces.
Particularly in the harassment situations, children often settle everything between themselves... convinced that adults can neither understand nor protect them, even after measures of sanction and protection from a known situation of harassment.
Beyond the figure of the culprit, rediscover the meaning of school to bounce back
So to deal with school bullying, it is important to overcome tensions and unsaid things in the school, other than by marking them with banners maintaining the illusion that the school would be better if a culprit was identified. exclude. Sanctions measures can only be useful and beneficial for the victim, the perpetrator or the witnesses if they are thought out and articulated with personalized support approaches for the children, professionals and families affected by these situations.
This support cannot be effective without reestablishing a relationship of mutual trust between the child and the school. It is above all about rehumanize educational links, including those of the sanction when this is relevant. This happens through the human bond and words, the only guarantors of the effectiveness of measures and techniques. The person who is named, designated as the harasser, is also a human being, a child who needs support in learning to consider himself and others. So there is a great risk that this decree and the measures resulting from it will mainly ensure the illusion of dealing with the problem, thinking that it has eliminated its source.