This week, a 16-year-old girl was tragically found dead at her school in Cornwall. It’s believed that Dagmara Przybysz, originally from Poland, had suffered racist bullying.
Two years ago, she’d spoken about experiencing racism on social media site Ask.fm and after her death this week, her friends suggested that the bullying had continued:
“It is so sad what people do to make people do this stuff,” wrote one. “Such a beautiful girl, died a such a young age because of absolute p***ks,” said another.
A coroner will look into Przybysz’s death at a later date and it is currently unclear whether racist bullying played a part. But the tragic case does shine a light on the torment that goes on everyday in British schools.
“Even though we have made tremendous progress, bullying is still a major issue in schools and there’s still a lot around race,” says Anastasia de Waal, chair of Bullying UK. “Appearances and differences have always been an easy thing to latch onto.”
A recent survey from anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label found 1.5 million young people have been bullied within the past year in the UK, and those who had an ethnic minority profile were at a much higher risk of being bullied than a young Caucasian person.
This is something Billie Gianfrancesco has direct experience of. The 26-year-old PR manager is half-Caribbean, and when she was at school in rural Norfolk, found herself the target of bullies.
“I experienced ignorant racism, which wasn’t really an issue as I just ignored it,” she says. “But then one of the senior girls at my private school started targeting me and calling me a ‘Paki’, telling me to go back to where I came from (which was Norwich).
“Once she locked me in the changing rooms for the whole of a PE lesson because I was slow getting changed and a ‘paki bitch’. I was 13 at the time.”
When she was 16, a boy in Gianfrancesco’s school year began “a racist bullying campaign” against her after she rejected his advances.
“My social media accounts were hacked and all my photos changed to pictures of monkeys, and there were messages talking about my mother as ‘having aids because she was a black monkey.’”
What happened to Gianfrancesco is shocking, but it is by no means an anomaly. Liam Hackett, CEO of anti-bullying charity Ditch The Label, explains: “Young people are now being bullied in their safe spaces, like at home or at the dining table, because of online technology. It makes it more traumatic for young people because it’s overwhelming and they can’t escape it.
“It’s often verbal but physical bullying is quite common as well. Guys are a lot more physical but girls are more verbal and indirect. It can be direct racist comments or taunts. It can be humiliating someone in a classroom or rejecting someone from social activities. One of the biggest issues is cultural differences.”
For Gianfrancesco, it was obvious that her bullying was rooted in racism. Her skin colour was targeted in direct ways, but other young people have more subtle experiences. De Waal says she has come across children and teenagers bullied for cultural clothing, habits and even the food they eat.
“A lot of people might think it’s just about the skin colour but if a kid has an accent, the bullying might centre on that. It’s not always tangible – like being a different colour or having different hair.
“We know if children use racist terms that schools react swiftly, but if they’re being teased for the food they bring to school – which we know in the past is a fairly common issue – then it’s much harder. Parents and schools need to work together to make sure it’s nipped in the bud.”
Ultimately it comes down to adults to act – both guardians and those in schools – to ensure bullying ends immediately.
But Gianfrancesco says she felt let down by her teachers. When she reported the head girl calling her a ‘Paki’, she says “nobody took any action because she was senior”.
“One teacher told me that I should just ignore it because I wasn’t Asian and couldn’t understand why I was bothered,” she says. When her social media account was hacked a few years later, the police became involved and confiscated her laptop but “nothing was ever done.”
In the end, faced with a campaign of bullying at the hands of the male pupil she’d rejected, Gianfrancesco took action into her own hands, supported by her mother.
“I started a petition and got people at school to sign it who had witnessed the racism or experienced bullying themselves. After collecting a page of signatures my head of year expelled him on the spot. I didn’t take further action (even though my mum was pretty adamant that I did), because I actually felt very sorry for the boy in the end. He was clearly very sad and confused.”
Gianfrancesco’s determination meant she was able to stop the bullying and make sure the perpetrator was punished, but not every young person is capable of that. It’s why Hackett says they need the support of an adult.
“It’s important to encourage the young person to talk about it and have an honest dialogue with them,” he stresses. “Be pro-active and don’t just wait for something to happen. Look out for behavioural changes, such as the child isolating themselves, losing their appetite or becoming aggressive. It’s important the young person understands they’re not being bullied because of the colour of their skin – it’s because the bullies have their own issues.”
He says parents should speak to teachers to crack down on the bullying, but in the long term, the answer to prevention lies in education. De Waal agrees: “The main thing is continuing to make sure we’re educating young people about bullying being a problem and that they understand racism.
“Young people need to recognise the impact it has and that attacking someone’s identity is harmful to them.”
Samaritans are available round the clock on 116 123
How to spot if someone’s being bullied
According to anti-bullying charity Ditch The Label, these are the most common signs of bullying in teens:
Their moods. People who have been bullied will often have a sense of low-worth and this can be seen through their mood and attitude. They will often lose motivation for certain things and tasks that they might otherwise enjoy.
A loss in appetite. This ties in with a change in mood since we all know that when you are feeling low, the last thing that you probably want to do is eat. This can cause a large amount of problems if it is happening on a regular basis.
A desire for isolation. With people becoming more and more reliant on the internet and the things on it, the web can be a very dangerous place for young people. Through our research we have found that there has been a rise in young people spending more time online, more time alone and less time spent outdoors and with family.
More time spent playing computer games. Although there is a large population of young people and even adults who playing video games, for some people, this is used as an escape so it may be a good idea to keep an eye on the amount of time spent on these platforms.
Time spent sleeping. Through this research we have also found that a noticeable percentage of young people will spend more time sleeping, it may be related to the wide world of video gaming but this could also result in them not wanting to wake up for school.
Decrease in time spent focusing on their studies and less time thinking about the future. The future is supposed to be an exciting prospect with things like university and careers around the corner so this could be a red flag in terms of suspecting that you child is being bullied.
Written by Radhika Sanghani, Published on the Telegraph website