A student being bullied and threatened during an incident at a school.

Bullying and school violence are leaving victims with long-lasting mental and physical scars. Victims suffer from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychosomatic symptoms, and these may persist into adulthood, says psychiatrist Dr Varma Deyalsingh. Students who are victims of school bullying are more likely to experience depression, increased sadness and decreased school participation.

The violent episodes have left some students in hospital and others suffering from emotional scars and contemplating suicide.

The pandemic has worsened the situation. Bullying is no longer restricted to the school compound but has become prevalent online through cyberbullying as students were away from physical classes for almost two years.

Mere weeks after the physical reopening of secondary schools, violence at schools and bullying have reared their ugly heads again.

Although this is not a new phenomenon, new cases have occurred just as face-to-face classes resumed.

There have been reports of school gang violence at the Siparia West Secondary and videos involving students from other schools have since been made public, with the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service (TTPS) now trying to ascertain when these fights took place.

Lives turned upside down

One family told the Sunday Guardian about how their lives were turned upside down after their daughter was bullied at school.

From sleepless nights in the hospital with their sick daughter to thousands of dollars spent on medical bills to time off from work to meet the police and Ministry of Education officials, the parents of the victim have invested large amounts of financial and emotional resources to deal with this unfortunate situation.

The father, who lives in the East, requested anonymity. In 2018 his daughter passed for Arima Central Secondary School. He recalled that in October 2018 his daughter was with a group of classmates at the school when some of the students started to make fun of a boy who was in Form Two at that time.

“He was fixing his clothes and then other students asked him if he was digging for gold and they were laughing at him. Maybe my daughter was closest to him, and he decided to target her. He held her two hands and put them behind her back and he then pushed his hand down her throat. That was a shock to her. She asked him to stop but he did the same thing again.”

His daughter did not immediately display any negative health or other side effects until Christmas that year when she suffered a “breakdown” just before the next school term started.

“We carried her to Arima Hospital, then they sent her to Mt Hope Hospital. She ended up getting a brief psychotic disorder. She was not sleeping or eating. What the medical exams show is that everyone has a chemical balance in their brain and in her case, it was tripped off by the boy’s attack. I remember my wife and I were sleeping in the hospital as she spent days there. It was hell. I suffered injuries years before.”

He said when she began treatment, she started to write in a notebook what had happened in the school and then they realised what caused her mental imbalance.

The father was not happy with the school’s reaction.

“The authorities said they dealt with the matter, but they are a waste of time. I went to the Ministry of Education, I went to the district school supervisor and other authorities. I asked them for a transfer to another school for my daughter just to get her away. So far, I have had no luck. That monster is still at the school. I asked what type of punishment he got and they can’t give me that information.”

Right now, his daughter, age 16, who is supposed to be in Form Four, is not in school as she had a relapse last year.

“Last August, she went back into the hospital just as she passed Physics and Chemistry. Her dream is to be a doctor one day. Sadly, she cannot attend school at this moment because of her medical condition. A week before school started back, she had a relapse. She has been on medication for the last few years. This is all because of what that young man did to my daughter.”

He appealed to the Ministry of Education to do more to assist victims of school violence and bullying.

“My advice to parents is if they go through the regular system, there is little help for you and your child who is the victim of school bullying. Counsellors at church have also helped my daughter, and I’m happy for that.”

Bullied by students for being gay

A 23-year-old University of the West Indies (UWI) student who is in the final year of his degree programme in Sociology, and who asked not to be named, recounted how many years he suffered bullying in school because of his alternative lifestyle.

He identified himself as being gay and said from primary school he was picked on because he was “different”.

“I was also invested in my books. I was also timid and small. People would push me around and tell me I’m effeminate.”

He said nothing changed when he passed for one of San Fernando’s prestigious schools.

“I went to an all-boys school. By the second term of Form One, they started to single me out. My classmates would ridicule my interests. Some of them would say that I’m not masculine enough. One of them pushed me against a wall and wanted to fight. There were a lot of homophobic slurs thrown at me.”

He said one day he went to school and someone spat on him. He stayed away from school for the last term in Form One as he was terrified and humiliated by what occurred. He eventually transferred to another school in San Fernando.

Apart from school, the situation was not much better at home as he also faced insults and abuses from some of his relatives.

He said when he went to his new school in Form Two he also faced bullying and insults. There was even one incident where another student attempted to physically assault him and other students came to his aid. That student was eventually suspended.

As he got older and he excelled academically, he became more accepted at school.

“As I grew older it was empowering. I found out who I was. I am openly gay and I have nothing to hide. By Form Three I came out. My mom knew.”

He went on to do CAPE at Pleasantville Secondary which he described as a good experience.

Now that he is completing his tertiary education, he described UWI as a tolerant campus.

“I would say UWI focuses on diversity. There was an incident where someone made a homophobic comment in class and the lecturer immediately said he would not allow such hateful comments in class.”

He advised younger students in the school system who are victims of school violence and other forms of bullying:

“It’s ok to ask for help. I would also tell young people in school to highlight what’s good about you. It’s also important for parents to celebrate their children. For me, personally, all the years of bullying had an impact on my mental health. I even engaged in self-harm by cutting myself. Many times I thought about suicide, it was so bad. School bullying leaves scars for life.”