Umm Luqman (not her real name) recounts her son’s experience with bullying and how Asad Khan’s death has opened up old wounds. She also offers some excellent suggestions for how we can as a society prevent such tragic loss of a young life.
We were all upset by the news of Asad Khan the 11 year old who took his life on 28 September 2016 in Bradford, England. Asad had only a few weeks earlier started Year 7 the first year of Secondary school.
I read somewhere he just told his mum a few hours before he was found dead, that he wanted to change schools. I read that he did not really tell anyone about the bullying. His parents were extremely shocked, as they did not really know that he was being bullied. In fact, the extent of the bullying only really emerged after his death.
What I write and want to share with you is not just the empathy of a parent feeling for another parent on the other side of the country. I was hit by the news hard because this tragedy has reopened the scab of a wound deep in my heart. That is, my son Luqman’s excoriatingly painful experience (which he is still haunted by) of relentlessly being bullied for three months when he started secondary school four years ago.
I know up close and personal the deep and long lasting effects of bullying by 11 and 12 year old children. So what I am going to share with you is from a parent’s perspective how I feel some schools deal with bullying. I want to scream from the rooftops that something drastic needs to be done. If not, I suspect there will be more tragic deaths like Asad Khan.
A leading educationalist wrote recently that he believes that League Tables should be introduced showing which schools are the best in looking after the well being of their pupils. I bet the school Asad Khan attended would be very low down in that league table. Unlike Asad I am grateful to God that my son Luqman did not take his life and right now he is in Year 11 studying for his GCSEs at a school that really has at its heart every pupil’s well being.
However the bullying that my son was subjected to four years ago, still affects his confidence and has left him with inability to trust others and difficulties in maintaining and building friendships.
My son was teased relentlessly when he started Year 7 for having bushy eyebrows. Yes, bushy eyebrows! The bullying he was subjected to was not restricted to name calling but also because he was the only child from his primary school, being excluded deliberately from friendship groups, being ignored, being shamed, being ridiculed. In fact every single insecurity he had about himself was highlighted to him each day. Most of the bullying came from girls and this destroyed in me the faith that if you send your son or daughter to a mixed school there is less chance of bullying as opposed to the viciousness that exists in single sex schools.
Luqman was desperate to make friends and would have done anything to be accepted. There were times he became aggressive to teachers and other pupils. The more he was not accepted by the other pupils, the more aggressive and angry he became both at home and at school.
What saved Luqman, unbelievably, was that he got angrier and angrier. In retrospect, I know his anger was a blessing. But then I experienced his anger more like a curse than a blessing. I remember him storming off to his uncle’s house at the weekend whenever I asked him to tidy up his room or reminded him about his homework. Everything became a battle between him and me and this drained everyone in the family. Sending him to school became a nightmare because all I got was a barrage full of emails from his teachers complaining about his behaviour and all I ended up doing was reacting to the countless incidents where he had pushed a teacher or refused to do his homework or had not gone to registration or had not attended detention. Luqman refused to play by the rules and looking back I can see he could not understand the rules or the system, as it was not serving to protect him.
I remember one day in September four years ago when he arrived home from school kicking his bag, kicking the walls and wanting to kick everything. He was absolutely furious. All he could say was “Those girls took 2p. I did not understand if he had offered 2p to keep them quiet or they demanded his money. All I managed to muster from him was that some girls from his school had demanded money from him when they saw him on the school bus and they were older than him. Luqman refused to elaborate and stated he did not want to talk about it any further. From that date on he refused to take the school bus and would clam up every time I tried to find out more about the incident.
This is what bullying does it silences children! Their voices are drowned. Their confidence is eroded. Any sense of value they have for themselves is taken away. For me, it is not surprising that Asad did not value his life and took it so quickly after the bullying began.
What pains me about Asad and Luqman is that their sunny warm innocent and sometimes naïve souls are tormented and crushed by the relentless abuse denigration, humiliation and shame that accompanies bullying. I believe Luqman was bullied because those children that targeted him knew he would not “snitch” on them. They knew somehow that he did not have the language skills to complain.
You see Luqman was born with Specific Language Impairment (SLI). However when he started secondary school he had not been diagnosed with this. Luqman was diagnosed with this special educational need a few weeks after he was permanently excluded for hitting a teacher. As his parents we got him privately assessed by a Speech and Language Therapist who remarked that she was shocked that he actually went through all of his primary schooling without any support for it. For those who know little or nothing about SLI, let me enlighten you. SLI means that individuals have difficulties in understanding, analysing and processing and expressing language especially complex language as required in Secondary school. This affects learning and social skills.
You can now understand why I see his anger as a blessing rather than a curse. It means my son is alive. I see now that a lot of the anger he had and the aggression that my son was exhibiting was due to him finding it very difficult to access and process the complex language that is used in secondary school and trying to navigate the complex social skills needed in making friendships. I also believe a lot of the anger was due to his being subject to the relentless bullying.
Fortunately Luqman due to his permanent exclusion escaped the bullies. However even to this day, I am angrier with the school than the bullies. I firmly believe that the school created an environment, which allowed the bullying to occur and flourish in the first place. I firmly believe that the staff at the school did not understand or were not given the training to understand their responsibilities in tacking bullying. I found as a parent that in my son’s case the bullying was minimised as ‘teasing.’
I also discovered an environment where the onus was put on the victim to provide the evidence that he is being bullied. I never felt that the school created an environment where it was the staff responsibility to monitor students and to supervise systematically who was vulnerable and who was bulling. I also discovered that there was an environment of denial of the extent of the bullying and the school was quick to pass on the responsibility to the student or parent to report the incidents instead of understanding the responsibility lies with the staff to monitor and investigate.
Each incident I reported was investigated. Instead the complaints I made regarding my son being bullied was disregarded or minimised. One example highlights the disjoined approach and the fact that even when bullying was witnessed by teachers there were no consequences given to the bullies.
In one incident, my son had thrown a compass at another student. I was not even told about the incident at the time. I found out about it many months later after he was excluded. The teacher was aware that my son was being teased repeatedly about his bushy eyebrows, so he did not reprimand my son. He knew Luqman’s response was a reaction to being bullied. However, to this day I do not know if the pupils who had been teasing him were reprimanded or given any consequences. This incident shows the callous disregard and lack of guidance and consistency in dealing with bullies and managing vulnerable students such as my son.
Of course compared to the grief that Asad Khan’s parents have to deal with the pain of my son’s bullying and the subsequent permanent exclusion is nothing in comparison. In fact his exclusion was his saving grace. It meant he escaped from those bullies and the incompetence of the staff at the school at dealing with bullying and managing vulnerability.
Another thing I want to highlight is how relentless bullying is nowadays because of cyber bullying. Four years ago (luckily for my son) social media was not that developed. Any cyber bullying would have happened via text. I recall that my son hardly went on the computer and as we gave him a very basic phone that he just used for texting or calling. It meant he did not have What’s App. Also, Snap Chat and Instagram were hardly used by young people then. My son was, therefore did not have the added dimension of cyber bullying. Asad, I suspect, may have also been relentlessly bullied via these means.
In the 70s 80 and 90s, bullying happened during school time or on the way to or from school. Unless you gave your phone number you got some respite and solace when you were at home. Now one can be bullied 24 hours seven days a week due to cyber bullying.
Snitching – and young People’s ‘moral’ code
Another point I want to raise, and perhaps that would explain Asad’s death, is that young people discourage disclosures of bullying to adults. They call it “Snitching”. “Snitching” is also something young people do not tolerate. It is the worst thing you can do as a young person. It may not make sense to adults but that is the moral code among young people. Most 11 year olds learn this in primary school if they don’t then children definitely learn it in their first term of secondary. I suspect Asad was very familiar with this moral code.
So children are left with nowhere to turn. They cannot tell on their abuser and they are desperate to fit in and be part of the in crowd. I know now having had lots of discussions with parents at different schools and teachers that some teachers and some schools and some senior leadership teams are better in taking their responsibility in creating environments for Year 7 pupils of safe spaces where bullying isn’t tolerated. This understanding of responsibility is the key.
Staff have to take that responsibility wholeheartedly and bullying should never be minimised, as ‘teasing’ and the onus should not be placed on the victim to come forward. Year Heads and Form Tutors and Subject Teachers all have a role to play.
It was only after my son was excluded I found out in looking at other schools that some schools have far better systems in supervising and supporting vulnerable students. Bullying should never be made into an individual issue but a systematic issue with a systematic response. Surely the onus should be on the adults to monitor and supervise and support and collect that evidence and reprimand the ones doing the bullying.
Of course some will remember that school pastoral care in the old days was a meeting set up quickly after school or the form tutor being available at the end of the phone. However now everything is done by email or appointment and is much more formal. I believe this results in conversations get stifled and vital information gets lost because it is restricted to a certain time frame within a meeting.
I attended a few meetings to do with my son in the first term he was there. Both these meetings I set up as I felt this ‘look and wait’ approach was not working. If I felt lost as a parent to how to deal with my son and the multitude of concerns I had about him starting secondary school, can you imagine how an 11 year old feels?
Asad Khan, I believe, died because like many children he could not cope with the massive transition from primary school to a secondary. Most of them are huge institutions, which are intimidating after a small primary school. There are always a few children who cannot cope.
Surely, primary schools have a responsibility to flag up those children who staff think will have problems with this transition. Some schools have transition classes in Year 6 where they talk about friendships and explore concerns. The dramatic change from the small nurturing environment of primary school where you mostly have one teacher for most subjects to the massive environment of different classrooms, multiple buildings and different teachers is huge. For many children it is extremely difficult to navigate for most pupils, but for some it is a minefield.
Children with Special Educational Needs
Lastly I want to share a crucial point. There are many children whose special educational need never gets diagnosed and secondary schools need more training to spot and identify which pupils in their class may need to be assessed because it was missed at primary school.
What my piece I hope highlights is the struggle of parents of children with undiagnosed special educational needs. Having met many parents now from different backgrounds, I know my story is not unique. One thing that unites us is the fact that most children with special educational needs but especially undiagnosed special educational needs are vulnerable. Not all children are loud and angry like my son. Some children are very quiet and uncomplaining. Perhaps it is these ones we need to think about more.
I know having spoken to teachers that that within their teacher training, they only get one or two training days on Special Educational Needs and unless you have a special interest in this, many do not continue with post qualifying training. I do not find it surprising then that the vast majority of teachers sometimes cannot identify special educational needs.
A crisis led to my son being diagnosed and he then got the support he needed. Many are not so lucky and the profound consequences of being undiagnosed are far reaching where the child or young person is left vulnerable and a target for bullying, misunderstood and unsupported.
We need all parties concerned, such as parents, teachers, government bodies and voluntary groups to look at this together and highlight good practice to prevent more deaths. Unless we take a consistent and systematic approach more deaths will occur. I for one know do not want that. I am sure you do not want that too.
Picture is from bbb.co.uk