September 10, 2012
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Gabriella Gomes, 24, is in nursing school. But she says she didn’t always enjoy being a student when she was younger because she was bullied.
For years, she says her childhood peers teased her for being intelligent. She says they also made fun of her body type because she was not as thin as the other girls. Students were verbally aggressive, calling her names such as “whale.” Sometimes, the words escalated to actions.
“Once, they stole my snack, saying I was too fat to eat it,” she says.
Gomes says she developed an eating disorder as a result of this bullying. She began to eat compulsively and then throw up her food or take a laxative in order to try to lose weight. In addition to bulimia, she also struggled with depression.
Gomes says that even though many years have passed, she still suffers from a sleep disorder and anxiety, which she attributes to her classmates’ bullying during formative years.
“I took some medicine to combat a sleep disorder that I got from the anxiety I developed,” she says.
People who were bullied say the harassment they endured as children still haunts them as adults. Psychologists say that bullying can affect people physically, emotionally and academically. Schools have begun to implement anti-bullying prevention and response strategies. Meanwhile, local and international organizations have been building research on the issue. Various states and municipalities have passed anti-bullying laws, and federal legislation is under consideration.
About 70 percent of more than 5,000 students surveyed said that they had witnessed an act of bullying, according to a 2009 study of bullying in Brazilian schools by Plan, an international nongovernmental organization. About one-third of male students and one-quarter of female students reported being bullied at least once.
Some who were bullied say they have been able to overcome it as they’ve grown up. Aline Pitt, 21, says it used to bother her when her peers used to call her a “chatterbox” while in school. But she says that, with time, she was able to stop worrying about it.
But many say the harassment they endured as children still affects them today.
Waleschka Santos, 35, is a businesswoman. She says that her schoolmates used to bully her when she was 12 because of her curly hair. She says they used to compare her to the characters of a cartoon popular in Brazil in the 1980s featuring players of the Harlem Globetrotters from New York.
“They called me ‘Globetrotter,’ and I used to cry of [anger] and shame, without anybody seeing it of course,” she says.
As her long curly hair was the reason for the abuse, today she keeps her hair short.
Hair was also a painful subject for Mireille Haddad, 31, a teacher, when she was a child. Haddad, who moved to Brazil two years ago, grew up in Canada, showing how bullying is not a phenomenon unique to Brazil.
“I was bullied,” she says. “It hurt very much. I was teased for being ‘hairy,’ I guess from my Arabic roots. I guess I had more hair on my legs than other girls.”
She says the bullying she endured about her body hair still affects her today.
“I still get self-conscious about it today,” she says.
Tiago Barros, 26, an engineering student, says his classmates bullied him when he was younger because he had a back problem and was also the shortest in his class. They used to call him “widgeon,” he says.
“I suffered a lot in those days,” he says. “Bullying must be banished from society.”
Brazilian society has become especially concerned about bullying since April 2011, when a man in his 20s shot 12 students dead at his former school in Rio de Janeiro before shooting and killing himself. Brazilian media called the attack the worst school massacre in the country’s history. Videos and letters that he left behind linked the attack in part to bullying.
“The fight that many brothers in the past have died for and that I will die for is not exclusively because of what is known as bullying,” he said in a video. “Our fight is against cruel, cowardly people who take advantage of kindness, innocence and weakness of people unable to defend themselves.”
Cleo Fante, a Brazilian educator, researcher and author of a book called “Bullying Phenomenon,” says that the psychosomatic consequences for those who suffered bullying during infancy or childhood can be serious.
“When it comes to the physical and emotional health, there’s a low in immune resistance and in self-esteem, stress, psychosomatic symptoms, psychological disorders, depression and suicide,” she says.
Fante says bullying can result in academic problems.
“The consequences to the victims of this phenomenon are very serious and in-depth, like a lack of interest for the school, learning and concentration deficits, absenteeism and school evasion,” she says.
Luciana Oliveira, a psychologist at the Centro Educacional João Pessoa, a school in Pernambuco state, says the school has implemented a project on bullying prevention.
“We work with the awareness concerning bullying with a project called Action Against Bullying, with which through meetings with parents, students and teachers, we develop joint activities that could give us enlightenment and also preventive manners and ways to combat bullying,” she says.
She says students play a key role in this program.
“The students are always involved,” she says. “They create posters, dramatizations and musicals related to the theme. And when there’s any indication that some action is showing bullying, normally the students identify the bullying and report it. Through combat strategies, we aim [for] cooperation among everybody involved: teachers, employees, students and parents.”
The center also takes this collaborative approach when resolving the bullying.
“We always try to develop actions that permit us to be connected with the bulliers as much as with the students who are bullied,” she says. “We focus on the fact [that] the people who are bullied should not be silent, since to talk about the aggression is the only way to resolve this.”
She says they also involve the parents.
“We also warn the parents to observe their children, not only the ones that are the victims but also the bulliers,” she says. “We normally tell the parents how a bullier behaves.”
As for those who are bullied, she says signs of bullying include isolation, absenteeism and crying.
“When this happens, normally we invite the bulliers and the victim to talk,” she says. “We recall all the issues we’ve talked before, and we do some dynamics in order to deal with the matter in a more reflexive and active way. We also invite the parents to make them aware of the facts.”
She says that the most common form of bullying in the school where she works is derogatory nicknames.
Magda Negromente, a school coordinator, reports the same from the school for children ages 2.5 to 18 that she and her mother run in Pernambuco state.
“Normally, the nicknames are the most common forms of bullying here, but we did have once a case of aggression,” she says.
Negromente says that exclusion is also a popular form of bullying. She says the bullying is most common among students ages 6 to 11.
This age group also has more trouble talking about the issues than the older students. The school uses handouts about bullying to educate the younger students, and all older students’ textbooks have a chapter on bullying.
“Even before a law about bullying had been approved, we used to have a policy to combat bullying in the school,” she says. “We normally have meetings with the school teachers to tell them how they must act concerning the issue in the school, and we try to solve the occurrences in the school itself. When it is not enough and the problem is not solved, we call the parents to discuss about it.”
When parents don’t take responsibility, the state gets involved under a a federal statute that defends children’s and adolescents’ rights. She says she once called the Conselho Tutelar, an organ responsible for child protection, because a parent failed to go to the school to resolve a bullying case.
“Normally, the parents are either exaggerated about what is bullying, or they don’t care at all,” she says.
She says part of the problem is that people think bullying occurs only in schools.
“There is an overvaluation of the bullying in the school environment because it doesn’t happe[n] only in educational places,” she says. “The press emphasizes too much bullying in schools, so the parents have a wrong idea of it. Some parents believe that every kind of thing is bullying, and some others not even care about the matter.”
Some local organizations are working to combat bullying in schools through building research on the topic.
For Plan’s 2009 study on bullying in Brazil, it recruited the opinions of more than 5,000 students in a questionnaire. It also held interviews and focus groups with students, parents, teachers and school authorities.
The age group that suffers the most from bullying is 11- to 15-year-olds, especially in the sixth grade. The study also found that this kind of violence occurs more in Brazil’s Southeast and Center-West regions.
Students don’t know how to differentiate between joking and bullying, according to the study. Schools are not prepared to teach them the difference or how to deal with bullying, according to Plan’s research.
Associaçao Brasileira Multiprofissional de Proteção à Infância e à Adolenscênsia, an association that works to protect children and adolescents in Brazil, has also added to the growing research on bullying, which has become a hot topic around the world in recent years.
Last month, UNESCO launched the United Nations’ first-ever international anti-bullying consultation to address bullying against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. The event took place in Rio de Janeiro.
There is no federal law on bullying in Brazil. Plan has been offering support and guidance to the Brazilian Congress on an anti-bullying law that is still under consideration, according to a 2010 report.
Several states and municipalities have passed anti-bullying legislation. Some politicians have made combating bullying a priority through various projects. For example, Paulo Alexandre Barbosa, a deputy representing the state of São Paulo, has proposed a law project that would allow the state to intervene in schools where bullying is occurring, as well as a school campaign for peace to reduce the number of cases of violence.