St Peter's School

14 November 2019

person's holding leaves during daytime

This weeks assembly address was delivered by Senior Deputy Head, Dr Dunn.

I would like talk about bullying. I wonder how many times in how many schools teachers have stood on stages likes this and talked about this topic. Do teachers making speeches on this issue have any effect? I am not so naïve to think that one brief talk in one Assembly can shift a pattern of behaviour in a small number of people, or change a way of thinking about oneself or others.  

But I would like to share some thoughts with you about how bullying is the opposite of all that is great about this very special community of ours. Any wilful harm done to any individual in this, our school, harms us all. But I understand that this statement needs some unpacking.   

Bullying most directly harms the person whose life is being made miserable. But that harm is not just the fear and misery of a particular moment.  Bullying has consequences that extend in time far beyond the visible effects on the victim. When you are bullying someone you are stealing their future to shore up your own present.  Those who have been bullied often suffer long-term damage to their mental health.  It is a form of abuse, and I know the seriousness of what that phrase means when it is said in a setting such as ours.  

One very uncomfortable question to ask is why people bully when they know it is against everything that binds our community.  Drawing comfort from the unhappiness of others can be a compulsive behaviour – but like other compulsive behaviours the hit is a diminishing one, and the side effects are nasty and insidious. It is the opposite to all the positive behaviours that we celebrate; it cannot grow you, and it can only diminish you. Even if your behaviour goes unnoticed, the price you will pay for your bullying is the erosion of a better version of you, and the hollowing out of the person that you could have been.   

You may be willing to take that risk, but I wonder whether you can face that critic in the mirror. Their judgement is hard to escape, and they’re not going anywhere. But bullying does more than destroy the happiness of the victim and corrode the humanity of the perpetrator.  Our community is the sum of all the interactions that we have, regardless of our age, our gender, our sexuality, our race or religion, or our role within this school.  An act of bullying is an assault on what binds us as a community.  

School rules, punishments and hierarchies – these are merely the visible external superstructure. What really holds us together are hundreds of thousands of small interactions, most of which go unseen. But each of these words, actions and gestures is an integral part of our moral fabric. To puncture that fabric in one place is to tear it everywhere.  An act of bullying against one is a threat to us all, because we are all made less by individual suffering.

If you find yourself in a situation where you might be about to betray our values by causing someone else misery or fear, please ask yourself this question before you do so.  How widely will that betrayal radiate?

To bully is to betray that feeling we share as a community when things are going well, when one of our teams have excelled themselves, or when one of us has achieved an individual goal. To bully is to betray those past generations of Peterites, so many of whom put service before self. To bully is also to betray yourself, and the more complete person you could otherwise be. 

I cannot tell you that there will not be an act of bullying here today or tomorrow, but what I can tell you is that ranged against such behaviour is all that we hold dear, and all that we love, value and celebrate.  St Peter’s is a school of heart, courage and decency - whether we are 6-0 up or 6-0 down.   

If you are being bullied, we will support you and we will deal with it. If you are bullying someone you need to stop this now, because you are already on the outside of our community metaphorically; and if necessary you may end up on the outside of it literally. If you are a bystander you already know the only right course of action, so I will not insult your intelligence by calling it a choice.  

This issue is about us and what kind of a community we are. We need to stand together and draw around us the protective mantle of our values.