Pilot project aims to curb bullying at schools

September 1st is the beginning of the new school year. For many kids though the generally carefree mood on the first day is tinged with a hidden fear - the dread of bullying.

"I was afraid to go to school. So I often pretended to be ill. I had terrible nightmares - that I was being pursued, or that I was walking in a crowd but no one could see me - like I was already dead. One day during break the girls held me down and marked my face with red lipstick chanting "Whore, whore, whore!!" I remember shaking and crying and then nothing more. When I came to I was in a bed in a psychiatric ward. My mother went to see the schoolmistress to complain but the woman said I was unstable and it was nothing more than girls teasing. She then suggested I be transferred to a different school."

The memories there of a young Czech girl who is still dealing with the trauma that years of bullying inflicted. A survey conducted among Czech schoolchildren suggests that 40 percent of Czech school kids experience bullying - either psychological or physical - at one time or another in the course of primary and secondary school. Experts say this alarming figure is largely due to the fact that the problem has not received proper attention and that teachers themselves do not know how to deal with it. Petr Sokol graduated as a teacher a few years ago:

"We don't speak about bullying in the Czech Republic. It is not considered a problem. There are people who would say it is not bullying, just boys fighting or something like that... and many teachers don't realize how dangerous bullying is. I myself graduated only a few years ago and we were told nothing about the problem. And when teachers don't acknowledge bullying as a problem then the pupils obviously don't turn to them for help. So we need to open up the topic, to speak about it and to give teachers the tools to deal with bullying."

Today Petr heads a pilot project involving nine Czech schools and over one hundred head teachers. He says bullying is a problem that can be successfully treated -if you acknowledge it and know what to do. Teachers are taught how to detect the first signs of bullying, how to approach the victims, bullies and witnesses and how to deal with the problem by involving the whole class. The main rule he says is to forget about the simple solution used in the past: transferring the victim or bully to another class.

This method has already proved successful in one Czech school - the main thing now, Petr says, is to get it into the 4,000 or so schools around the country.

"There is a special programme against bullying that was tested in one Czech school and the results were great. After four months there was an average 42 percent decrease in bullying and as much as a 75 percent decrease in some classes. This is a significant improvement in just four months. But it also entailed very intensive work with one school which is quite impossible to do for 4,000 schools. So we are looking for a way to take the heart of the matter and deliver it to as many teachers as possible."

Nine schools out of four thousand is not a great deal, but the experts involved are hoping that the positive results will convince other schools to join up next year. Many still feel that admitting they have a problem could damage their image. Psychologists say there's a lot more at stake - since the psychological damage done does not only affect the victim, but to a great measure also the bully and to some extent the witnesses who for some reason failed to put a stop to the wrongdoing.