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MT 19 October 2014

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maltatoday, Sunday, 19 OctOber 2014 16 News "We are going against the cur- rent, but in order to do that, we first have to know what the current is…" Speaking from her office in Hamrun – expansive and functional, it forms part of the Dun Gorg Preca Primary School – former guidance counsel- lor Sandra Cortis seems vocal and pro-active about her current post: as Services Manager at the educa- tion Psycho-Social Services Depart- ment. The Department offers a help- ing hand to schools in cases of psychological and social problems, normally using individual guidance counsellors – "our little soldiers," Cortis calls them – to serve as inter- mediaries between schools and the Department. Unsurprisingly, the persistent problem of bullying takes up a large chunk of the Department's time and, bolstered by the recently an- nounced 'Respect for All Frame- work' government initiative, Cortis and her colleagues appear keen to seek out long-term solutions that would nip the problem of bullying in the bud. The "current", in this case, would be the tide of negative factors that contribute to bullying: be they sim- ple cases of peer pressure among students or thornier issues, such as long-standing problems at home. "I know this from my years as a guidance counsellor – you have to get as much of a feel for the problem as you can. So if, say, during a guid- ance session a student mentions a particular local pub or bar where these behaviours are taking root, then it's up to us to take initiative and visit the bar ourselves to suss out exactly what's going on there…" The ultimate aim for Cortis is that "every students feels safe at school", though the challenges to this goal are many. elisavet Arkolaki, who as founder of the online portal Malta Mum – a discussion forum for Maltese moth- ers – is familiar with the grievances of many local parents, describes bullying as being "different from normal social conflict, and one that requires an adult's intervention". "In bullying, what happens most of the time is that someone's iden- tity is attacked – as in 'you are silly', 'you have big ears'. Someone's looks and learning abilities are a core part of who they are, cannot be changed, and thus leave the individual feeling attacked, powerless and emotionally damaged." Arkolaki also suggests that Cor- tis's own Student Services should be consulted if the problem persists, though she also notes that children who are bullied tend to be ashamed of the fact, and may not be all that willing to speak up. OnlIne bullying is arguably one of the greatest contemporary chal- lenges to parents and educators, by dint of the fact that it's not only difficult to adequately monitor, but also because, unlike bullying in the 'analog' world, it can keep going on long after school hours. Social media like Facebook and Twitter allow the bully to victim- ise their targets relentlessly, while forums like Ask.Fm have been con- sistently criticised for facilitating cruel humiliation of their users – so much so that they've even led to cases of suicide. While stating that cyber-bullying is "one of the best-documented as- pects of digital culture studies," dig- ital strategist Alex Grech concedes that the way we approach social media and the internet may need to be substantially 're-wired' if we are to tackle the problem in a concrete way. "The only way out is to re-engineer our education. We're still stuck in 20th century paradigms. We've in- vested in teaching young people ICT skills, but have done very little in the way of acquiring digital literacies. By this, I mean having the knowledge and ability to effectively and criti- cally navigate, evaluate and create information using a range of digital technology tools," Grech said. Sandra Cortis in fact identifies the onset of the internet – particularly that of social media – as paving the way to new bullying behaviours. "Since the opening of our anti- bullying service in the late 90s, it is believed that the nature of bullying incidents hasn't really changed ex- cept for the onset of cyber-bullying since the incursion of social media," Cortis said, while also speculating that "perhaps the incidence of bul- lying might give the impression that it has increased, however it would be wise to question whether this is due to more awareness, which leads to wider reporting of the issue". Cortis adds that parents often ad- mit to feeling "helpless" when faced with this new technology. "Some parents feel that they do not have the necessary IT know-how to deal with this… so we do our best to teach our students certain basics: who to accept as your friend, how to block users on Facebook and Twit- ter, and so on," Cortis said. "But it's also important that par- ents and pupils abide by certain laws that are there to protect them. So if the law states that children below the age of 13 shouldn't have a Face- book account, then that law should be followed," she added. Grech however wishes for a more thorough overhaul of the way schools navigate through digital me- dia, stating that, "what we have right now is a recipe for disaster". "My 12 year-old is taught at school how to develop a PowerPoint for his computer driving licence – those kind of skills are pretty outdated now, and easily acquired online via video tutorials. I'd much rather he's helped to acquire digital literacy skills than learn how to use Word. The trouble is that educators them- selves have yet to recognise the para- digm shift." "We get self-referrals nowadays: students are coming to us themselves – our team is known to the school children, and this helps us a lot" – Sandra Cortis With the new school year now well underway, of the most regrettable, but sadly enduring, Going against the current: bullying in schools What about the web? Elisavet Arkolaki, Founder of www. maltamum.com Alex Grech

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