Is PH the school bullying capital of the world? | Inquirer Opinion
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Is PH the school bullying capital of the world?

In the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), 65 percent of the Filipino students surveyed said that they experienced some form of bullying a few times a month, and 40 percent reported being bullied frequently (once a week or more). These percentages were highest among all countries and territories that participated in Pisa 2018, which has led some observers to wonder if the Philippines is the school bullying capital of the world.

What exactly were the types of experiences that students were asked to report? These acts included verbal bullying: “Other students made fun of me”; physical bullying: “Other students took away or destroyed things that belong to me”; and “I got hit or pushed around by other students”; and a combination of both: “I was threatened by other students.” It also included relational bullying: “Other students left me out of things on purpose”; and “Other students spread nasty rumors about me.”

Interestingly, the Pisa survey did not use the word bullying, so we do not know whether the Filipino students considered themselves to be bullied. But what we know is that they experience these acts in school, outside school, and on social media.

Is school bullying actually “normal” in Philippine schools? I shared these statistics with younger friends who have fresher memories of their high school lives as students, and asked them if the numbers seemed right, or perhaps the survey got it wrong. One friend shrugged and said, “That was our life in high school … experiencing those acts was normal in our school, and we just dealt with it.” The Pisa results also showed that over 21 percent of Filipino students disagreed that joining in bullying is wrong; 22 percent also disagreed that they like it when someone stands up for bullied students. Let’s think about this again: One out of five students do not think that there is something wrong with bullying, and one out of five also don’t like it when fellow students try to defend the bullying victims. Some might say, one out of five is not bad. But two studies conducted by researchers from De La Salle University for the Second Congressional Commission on Education (EdCom II) provide more insight into the matter.

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A study by the team led by Dr. Thomas Tiam-Lee used machine learning to identify different clusters of schools based on the different social experiences of students, and the biggest cluster was that of schools with very high levels of reported bullying. That cluster of schools also had students with the lowest levels of negative attitudes toward bullying. A statistical regression study led by Dr. Rene Nob identified the school characteristics that predict higher rates of reported bullying in schools. Measured at the school level, a lower negative attitude toward bullying predicted more bullying among the students.

Taken together, the two studies suggest that the schools where more bullying happens are those schools where students are less likely to have negative attitudes toward bullying—or in my interpretation, schools where students are more likely to normalize bullying. The studies cannot indicate which causes what. We don’t know whether it is the students’ normalizing bullying that allows more bullying to happen, or whether the high levels of bullying is what makes students less likely to reject it. But the two causal scenarios are equally problematic.

During the EdCom II meeting discussing these results, one of the discussants was the renowned clinical psychologist, Dr. Maria Lourdes Carandang. She reminded the participants in the meeting that the normalizing of bullying is probably not just happening in our schools but in families, communities, and Philippine society as a whole.

So is school bullying in the Philippines merely a reflection of the various forms of bullying that occur in Philippine society? That question requires much more careful analysis and reflection.

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But as I desperately try to look for something positive, there is a bit of good news from the more recent 2022 Pisa survey: The percentage of Filipino students who experienced bullying frequently went down a bit (but the Philippines still had the dubious honor of being the top-ranked country in reported bullying). Some schools have probably implemented effective anti-bullying programs, and we need to share and scale up such programs. But more work needs to be done if we want to stop being the school bullying capital of the world.

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Dr. Allan B.I. Bernardo is a distinguished university professor and university fellow at De La Salle University. He is a member of the standing subcommittee on basic education of EdCom II.

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