Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Chris and Joe challenge bullying

Here's a story I heard the other day. It's second/third hand, but I'm as sure as I can be it's true, I've made up all the names.

It started about 4 years ago in a Further Education college in North West England.

You don't need to know much about this college, it's very much like many other FE colleges, apart from the fact it has a culture that takes sport very seriously, particularly rugby. Let's say if you're in the rugby team, you're somebody at this college.

The college, just like many others has an education programme for disabled students, and like most other colleges, 'integration' didn't automatically happen just because disabled and non-disabled students shared some of the same spaces.

One day, Chris a disabled student was in the canteen getting lunch, when a few of the students started to pick on him. Chris stood out because of his size as well as his disability, and this made him a regular target for all kinds of micro-aggressions.

It started with those 'jokey' remarks that aren't really jokes. It was getting nasty very rapidly. Chris guessed from his experience that if he lost his temper, it would be him, and not the bullies who would get into the most trouble.

Joe, one of the rugby team spotted what was going on. He was a big lad himself, and he understood all too well the way that this can make you a target for bullying, he'd lived with this himself in his first years at school. Joe went up to the table where Chris was sitting, and sat next to him. "Have you got a problem with my friend?" he asked the group. Even though Joe is actually one of the most gentle guys around, his size and strength meant that he had a certain presence about him. Even though he and Chris were considerably outnumbered, they somehow looked much more formidable sat together, making smart remarks no longer seemed quite as much fun, the group of bullies melted away.

Chris didn't know Joe, but he did know that he was in the Rugby team. The shirt he was wearing was a clue, it said "Rugby Team" on it.

So later that day Chris told his mum Eileen what had happened. And his mum wanted to thank Joe, but couldn't work out a way to do it, until Chris told her that Joe was in the Rugby Team.

So Eileen wrote to Tom, the college rugby coach, telling him what had happened and asking him to thank the player who had stood up for Chris. A week later, she got a letter back from Tom. "This will never happen again" was the gist of it.

Tom had been so struck by Eileen's letter that he had read it out to the full Rugby Team at their next training session. "What is this team going to do, to prevent this kind of bullying and make sure every student feels welcome in our college?" he asked.

They talked together, and agreed on a course of action - in the first couple of weeks of every new term, when new students are trying to work out the ropes, team members began deliberately greeting, sitting next to and befriending the disabled students. It became their policy. It became what you did if you wanted to be part of the rugby team.

It worked. Seeing the rugby team behaving in this way sent all kinds of messages that these students were as much part of the college as anybody else.

It's stuck for the following 3 years. Tom has made sure that every new team member knows that this is expected of them, that acceptance and inclusion is part of their values and their ethos.

The college does plenty of other things - and has had success in involving disabled students in sports (some of their students have played at a national level), but this particular story of practical welcoming by admired students struck me as something that needs to be shared, which is why I've written it up as a story.