The Killer-Bullies in our Schools

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The Verdict By Olusegun Adeniyi, Email: olusegun.adeniyi@thisdaylive.com

James and Jennifer Crumbley, parents of the prime suspect in the recent deadly shooting at a Michigan (U.S.) high school, were charged last Friday with involuntary manslaughter. The alleged crime of the Crumbleys is that despite tell-tale signs that their teenage son could commit murder, a gun was carelessly left within his reach. In addition, when the school noticed unusual, and potentially dangerous, online activity by Ethan and alerted his parents, the only reprimand he received from his mother via text message was: “LOL I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.” Barely 24 hours later, Ethan fired the gun purchased last month by his father, killing four classmates and wounding seven others.

Despite being only 15 years old, Ethan Crumbley will be tried as an adult to face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. In also charging the parents, the Oakland county prosecutor, Karen McDonald said that while Ethan might have pulled the trigger, “there are other individuals who contributed to this. It is my intention to hold them accountable.”

Accountability. That is our greatest challenge in Nigeria where people are hardly ever held to account for egregious infractions. Over the years, we have witnessed numerous reported fatalities in our schools due to bullying. But beyond social media hysteria, nothing ever happens because concerned school management often conspires with parents of the bullies to ensure that victims are not availed justice. While we are still on the case of a 14-year-old girl allegedly raped to death at Premier Academy in Abuja, a 12-year-old student of Dowen College in Lagos, Sylvester Oromoni, was allegedly bullied to death by students whose names he reportedly mentioned.

The trending death-bed video of the boy is harrowing. And I fail to understand how Dowen College could claim that his plight arose while playing football. The less said about their “all our kids are morally upright” statement the better, especially since we have also heard from other sources, including family members of the deceased student. According to the bereaved father, the late Sylvester (Jnr.) stated that five boys had barged into his room, put off the lights, and beaten him up in the presence of other students. “Junior said, ‘Mummy, I didn’t play ball; I didn’t fall.’ He jumped off his hostel bed,” recounted the father. “They kicked him, marched on his waist. Other students ran off. They threatened to kill them all if they spoke a word to the school staff. They coerced Junior to say he sustained injuries while playing ball. They threatened him. If you ask the roommate, they’d all lie. They marched on his ribs and waist. All that pain for a 12-year-old.”

Sylvester Oromoni (Snr) said when first notified that his son had a football-related injury, he sent a family friend in Lagos to pick him up and take him to the hospital. The Oromoni family is based in Warri, Delta State. “When he (family friend) got there, he panicked, pointing out that he doubts it’s a football injury as the school claimed. He said the boy couldn’t stand because his waist was bent and swollen along with one side of his belly. His mouth was black. I asked my eldest son to fly to Lagos on November 24. On getting there, he screamed. ‘This is beyond football injury. Come to Lagos now,’ he told me over the phone.”

This is a case that requires an urgent and thorough investigation. But while that is going on, we must understand that the law presumes all accused persons to be innocent until proven otherwise. Cyber-bullying the promoters of Dowen College or families of suspects in this tragedy will also not be right, especially since there is going to be a coroner’s inquest. What we must ensure is that the law takes its course so as not to waste this watershed moment that can help in reforming a critical aspect of our school system.

In Nigeria, we like to bury our heads in the sand instead of confronting problems that other societies admit and deal with. Any parent who has had children in our secondary schools knows that when it comes to bullying, the unspoken rule is ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’. Even in rare cases when victimised children volunteer information about these scoundrels, the plea that usually follows would make a parent think twice before reporting to the school management. Most students would rather suffer silently than be ostracized by peers who would label them a ‘snitch’ for reporting bullies. And with that, the problem persists.

Between June and November 2019, a team of 14 Nigerian researchers whose report has been published in international journals interrogated ‘Bullying experience of pupils in Nigerian primary schools’ with three questions for 1080 pupils across the country: Have you been bullied (hit, kicked, threatened, locked inside a classroom, sent/said nasty and unpleasant things to) this academic session? Have you bullied someone this academic session? Have you witnessed someone being bullied this academic session?

The findings were shocking but not surprising. 51.4% of male respondents and 50.8% of females said they had experienced bullying. 51.8% of males and 49.5% of females confessed being perpetrators of bullying. 39.6% of males and 42.9% of females confirmed being bystanders while colleagues were bullied. The report concluded that bullying is “an increasing problem among Nigerian schoolchildren” while urging government, at all levels, to initiate policies to counter the menace. It is, of course, expecting too much to imagine that our government would act based on academic research!

Following a similar heartbreaking story of the JSS1 student who was brutally molested at the Deeper Life High School in Akwa Ibom State last December, I wrote: “If such abuse and criminality can happen in a faith-based school where parents pay exorbitant fees, one can only imagine what happens in our public schools where anything goes. Based on the response of authorities concerned, it is easy to see that there is more interest in managing the optics than the welfare of the traumatised boy.”

In countries where they take bullying seriously, the law requires the school to report, document and investigate allegations within a specific number of days and take appropriate action. But what we have in Nigeria is a culture of silence and cover-up. In the United States where intentional aggression, power imbalance between aggressor and victim, and repetition of aggression, constitute bullying in schools, all 50 states have laws that offer protection to the victims. There are also federal laws regarding school bullying. In our country, bullying has almost become part of the school curriculum. Currently trending is a video of a female student in her school uniform assaulting a junior female student. The incident was said to have occurred at the Federal Government Girls College, Owerri, Imo State, earlier this year.

Besides the fact that we live in a country where might is deemed right and bullying is a national pastime (as is evident on the Nigerian social media), I fail to understand how we can pretend that we do not have a problem that even advanced societies contend with. A 2019 global report, based on a survey of 260,000 teachers across 48 countries, revealed that “Nearly three in ten (29 per cent) secondary school head teachers in England said bullying occurred at least weekly among students – the fourth highest among the 48 countries surveyed.” Rather than being defensive, UK authorities followed up on the report. On 4th February 2020, the House of Commons published a Briefing Paper titled, ‘Bullying in UK Schools’, which disaggregated the survey among EU countries on the percentage of principals reporting that physical and non-physical forms of bullying among students and what needs to be done to tackle the challenge.

On 1st September this year, Northern Ireland introduced new legislation to deal with the problem of bullying in schools. Last week, France went a step further when its parliament approved draft legislation that would make school bullying a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. The law, expected to be in force by February 2022, would also impose fines for bullying of up to €45,000 on culprits. The pertinent question is: If schools in Finland (where 29.4% bullying was recorded), Sweden (27.9%) and France (27.2%) could have bullies, how do we imagine that the Nigerian school system does not habour such miscreants? Meanwhile, in April 2017, a number of male final year students of Ireti Grammar School in Falomo, Lagos State, raped their female colleagues in broad daylight. Following the usual public outcry at the time, four of these animals in school uniforms were arrested by the police. Today, nobody knows what has happened to that case!

On a personal note, I have in the past two decades interacted with thousands of teenagers through a church ministry I superintend. So, I am quite aware that violent bullying, drug abuse, sex (of all variants), alcoholism, cultism and other vices are very prevalent in our secondary schools. And for parents who vouch for their children, believing they are too ‘angelic’ to be involved in bullying at school, let me share a story. At a session with some dozens of teenagers about six years ago, I distributed pieces of paper and asked them to write anything about themselves without putting their names. One responded with a loaded one-line: “My parents don’t even know me!”

I started this piece with the recent school killings in the United States. In response to those who question why a 15-year-old boy would face such heavy charges, the Oakland county prosecutor, Karen McDonald said her goal was to reflect the wider impact of the tragedy. “What about all the children who ran, screaming, hiding under desks? What about all the children at home right now who can’t eat and can’t sleep and can’t imagine a world where they could ever step foot back in that school?” she asked. “Those are victims, too, and so are their families and so is the community.”

When tragedies like this happen in other societies, two things usually follow. One, the perpetrators and collaborators are held to account. Since the Lagos State Police Commissioner, Hakeem Odumosu, has already confirmed that five students from Dowen College are currently assisting the police in their investigation, we await the outcome. Two, policies are usually initiated where none existed to deal with such problems. While we expect the coroner’s inquest scheduled for 15th December to unravel how Sylvester (Jnr) died and secure justice for the family, we should understand that this is not an isolated case. It is therefore important that all stakeholders (parents, school administrators, lawmakers etc.) come together to find appropriate measures to confront the menace of bullying in Nigerian schools.

I commiserate with the Oromonis on the tragic death of Sylvester (Jnr). And I stand with their resolve to secure justice for him. To rid our education space of killer-gangsters, those who manage our schools cannot continue to inhabit the fool’s paradise that “all our kids are morally upright.”

The Omicron Discrimination
Last Friday at the instance of the Health Minister, Dr Osagie Ehinare, I moderated a high-level conversation on ‘Health and the Economy: Role for Vaccines’ in Abuja. Discussants included the World Health Organisation (WHO) Representative in Nigeria, Dr. Walter Mulombo, World Bank Country Director, Mr Shubham Chaudhuri, Lagos State Commissioner for Health, Prof Akin Abayomi, CEO, Flying Doctors Investment Company, Dr. Ola Brown, NAFDAC Director General, Prof. Mojisola Adeyeye and the COO of Biovaccines Nigeria Limited, Mr Everest Okeapu. Former Health Minister, Prof. Onyebushi Chukwu and the Minister of State for Health, Dr Olorunnibe Mamora were also part of the discussion. So was Enihare himself as well as the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Mr Mahmuda Mamman, Director of Planning, Research and Statistics, Dr Ngozi Azodoh and Commissioners of Health from the 36 states.

Speaking on hindrances to indigenous private sector healthcare investment/financing in Nigeria, Ola Brown highlighted what the authorities need to do as well as the timelines that must be put in place for deliverables. Since achieving universal health coverage (UHC) and equity in healthcare remain central to the goal of ending poverty by 2030, Chaudhuri’s intervention was on how the World Bank/International Finance Cooperation could support Nigeria to embark on vaccine manufacturing as a strong business case for human capital development. He also shared perspectives on what we can learn from India. Adeyeye spoke on the various efforts embarked upon by NAFDAC and the regulations that are in place to encourage production of vaccines in the country. Her position aligned with that of Mulongo. The WHO representative believes in the innate capacity of Nigeria to be the hub in vaccines production for the continent. Abayomi, the only discussant not physically present, joined by Zoom from Lagos, to speak on the problems of access to vaccines in developing countries and what Nigeria can do to make a difference.

In all, it was quite a productive conversation. Given that the epidemiology of Omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant, remains unpredictable, the local production of vaccines to tackle the pandemic is the surest way to go. Sadly, that conversation is now redundant considering how the pandemic has become a political tool for authorities in certain countries, especially the United Kingdom. Responses are no longer guided by science but rather as means for enforcing controversial immigration policies and enthroning petty prejudices. That is the only explanation for the recent UK Red List of countries which included Nigeria in their travel bans.

Ever since the pandemic became global early last year, there has been a death-wish in the developed world for people in Africa. Now, there seems to be a conspiracy to punish us for not conforming to that expectation. If some countries are unhappy that Africans are not falling and dying in droves from Covid-19 complications as they predicted, there is nothing we can do about that. It is perhaps in the bid to make that prophecy inevitable that Africa has received little support in fighting a pandemic that was thrust upon us and for which we are now being scapegoated.

It was therefore most fitting that African leaders derided the Covid-19 vaccine inequity at the 67th UN General Assembly in September. With more than 82 per cent of doses acquired by wealthy countries, less than 1 per cent have been sent to low-income nations. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa proposed a temporary waiver of trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights to enable developing countries to also produce vaccines. Ramaphosa was joined by others who argued that profit should not come before global health. “It is truly disheartening to see that whilst most of our countries have inoculated less than 2 per cent of our populace and thus seek more vaccines for our people, other countries are about to roll out the third dose,” said Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of the United Republic of Tanzania.
Hopefully, by the 20th of this month when the UK travel policy is due for a review, commonsense will prevail in London on the Covid-19 Red List. There should be no basis for what the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, has most appropriately dubbed an ‘apartheid’ policy against Nigeria and other African countries.

• You can follow me on my Twitter handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com