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Icon   THE SCAPEGOAT IN THE CLASSROOM
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This page contains information about the (Dutch language) book "The zondebok in de klas", in English: "The Scapegoat in the Classroom", written by Dr. Bob van der Meer.

In February 1988 "The Scapegoat in the Classroom" was first published. The book deals with the scapegoat-phenomenon in school (i.e. mobbing, bullying) and consists of three chapters:
  • Chapter One deals with questions as: what is bullying, who become scapegoats, what do the bullies with their victims? Answers to these and other questions are given. In between, letters from scapegoats and their parents, and interviews with children are being published.
  • Chapter Two consists of a theory of scapegoating
  • Chapter Three - about one half of the book - presents two sorts of solutions: the curative (confrontational and non-confrontational) and the preventative method.
Summary

In every class there is bound to be a scapegoat. The lowest in the group's hierarchy. Life at school can be a hell for this pupil. A few classmates vent their agression on him or her. The rest of the class thinks he is pathetic, but do not do anything about it, for fear of becoming a victim themselves. Teachers often fail to notice the phenomenon. If they do notice it, then the solutions are limited in relation to the size of the problem. What kind of humiliations do scapegoats suffer at school? What are the consequences of this type of treatment? Who runs the risk of being humiliated in this way? Is the phenomenon noticed? Why does it happen? But particularly: what can teachers do about it?

The scapegoat phenomenon is to be found everywhere. It is not restricted to one particular social class. It arises among groups too. It is a social phenomenon and one that applies to any period of history. It can be witnessed in the animal kingdom. It is also to be found within families, the army, institutions and clubs. The persecution of the witches and the persecution of the Jews are both examples of this phenomenon. It is a constantly recurring theme in the Gospels.


Humiliation

It also happens in the classroom, at school. That is why we can best listen to an ex-pupil from a secondary school: "I wore glasses with fairly thick lenses and I often wore the same clothes: my mother washed them every evening and dried them, so that I could wear them to school next day. My life at school was a hell due to all the bullying. Classmates put drawing-pins and glue on my chair. I was wedged tight between chair and desk during the lessons. I found notes with threats in my bag. I was forced into corners in the playground. I often found a chain on my bike with a code-lock which was not mine. A necklace was cut through with a pair of pliers during the handicraft lesson. A new coat was ripped open with a knife. In order to get my bike back I had to run round the playground in my socks and I only got them back when I began to cry. On my way to school I had to carry the boys who lived nearby one for one on my back. I can still feel the humiliation when I think back to that time".

Consequences

A pupil who is treated like this is always affected for life, without fail. The feeling of dignity may, as they say themselves, reach rock bottom. They also say that they have since become frightened of failure. A low level of self-esteem, and little self-confidence may be the result. They may be distrustful of other people, even if their motives are good. A scapegoat on this point: "The new school was like a palace to me. Understanding and attention from teachers and pupils who liked me at last. This just did not register at first. I thought they were going to play games with me again and I even begged a pupil to stop being so nice". Another complaint is that you are quickly browbeaten and let other people use you. If other people do not speak to him, the scapegoat thinks he has done something wrong again. He may become the nervy type. He may feel powerless and shut out. He may always feel humiliated, or feel he must always be on guard. He may contemplate suicide. A pupil had the follwing to say on this: "If you are bullied at school and you cannot talk about it at home, you just have to fill the gap with something else. I took refuge in keeping pets. Pets are fantastic. They are as honest as the day is long and they don't look to see if you are an easy-mixer or good-looking. They look at your inner self, they are good judges and they won't divulge your secrets. Without pets I would probably have committed suicide".

Prejudices

Nevertheless a scapegoat is often held responsible for his treatment. He brings it upon himself, they say. Others maintain that it is a sort of natural phenomenon which cannot be remedied and which therefore does not demand action against it. There are others who maintain that the only thing you can do is: promote group cohesion. In this way you soften the scapegoats pain and alleviate his position. "You must not paint too black a picture", is another view. The scapegoat also has advantages. He gets attention from his parents. They will ask him what has happened at school every day. He has a good excuse for his bad school reports. He will be allowed to stay at home for the day now and again, to be extra spoilt by mother or father. And finally one hears the opinion expressed that it is not unhealthy to find yourself in isolation. You only function differently, that is all". Interesting prejudices, which are not supported by scape-goats nor by research. It is as if the behaviour of the bullies, the aggressors, is being excused. We look at the behaviour of an isolated pupil and solve the problem in the most simple manner: he is to blame for his bad treatment. He will just have to become a little "harder".

Who become scapegoats?

Every pupil that diverges from the group norm runs the risk of becoming a scapegoat: the pupil who wants to get good results and therefore constantly tells his classmates to be silent, the pupil who likes classical music and says so openly. This sort of pupil may arouse jealousy and irritation. So too, the intelligent pupil who always has an answer to the ready to any question you might put. The child who has learned norms and values at home which are divergent from those of his classmates may be ostracized because of it. Pupils who are or were mistreated at home and therefore have not learned to stick up for themselves, run a great risk of it happening to them. Being bad at sport, wearing different clothes, different habits and sometimes another skin pigmentation may be enough to make them bear the brunt of the harsh treatment. Assertivity training given to scapegoats, no matter how valuable, does not solve the problem. The aggressors looks for a new victim. Moving the scapegoat to another class doesn't help either. Newcomers to a class are, on the whole, regarded with dislike by their fellow-pupils.

Cause

If every child may become a scapegoat, and moving class or assertivity training are not the answer, what is? Solutions for this problem can only be found if one bears the causes well in mind. The cause of the need to appoint and bully scapegoats is to be found in the troubled balance inside or outside of a group of pupils. The authoritarian behaviour of teachers, a feeling of constantly experienced anonymity, feeling unsafe in a group, constantly being encouraged to compete with one another. Due to all this, the group or individuals in the group experience a sense of frustration. This frustration may be converted into aggression against the "lesser gods" in the social pecking-order. Pupils have more than one way of dealing with a shaky balan-ce or crisis. Passive or active resistance against the school, destroying school furniture, criminal behaviour, not attending school, playing truant or leaving school early are all possibilities. For the scapegoat the solutions are: psychosomatic complaints, depression, automutilation and finally suicide.
The teacher who notices these type of "falling-out phenomena" in his class, and cannot (yet) do anything about the cause of the crisis, can point out to the class what the cause of the troubled balance is, and their "natural" reaction to it. He can teach his pupils to handle frustrations in a creative fashion. Aggression can, to a certain extent, be channelled through sport and discussion. He can spend some time talking about prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice and discrimination lead automatically to choosing and baiting a scapegoat. If the "falling-out phenomenon" is not tackled or is handled wrongly, there is only one way left for the class: to choose a scapegoat.

Secret

It is often the latter choice, that of a scapegoat, which goes unnoticed. The scapegoat is not about to say anything. He thinks that he will not be believed and is frightened of what his classmates might do to him, if they find out he has "told on" them. The aggressors are not going to say any-thing: they are enjoying the power they can wield over a defenseless being and are enjoying the "game". The rest of the class joins in or lets it continue, for fear of becoming the victim themselves. But sometimes it comes out into the open. If one still does nothing, one indicates that the aggressors behaviour is acceptable. One has to do something. But what?

Approach

The teacher can - as a first step - confront the class with their behaviour. He or she can take sides and tell them that this type of behaviour offends him too. He can explain why. After that he can spend an lesson on the subject and direct their attention to "getting on with one another" and towards possible solutions. Spending a part of a gym lesson on being ostracized is another possibility. When a teacher - as the next step - suspects that the scapegoat phenomenon might be present in the class, then the confrontation method is not very useful: the class will deny it. He could though introduce the subject "war and peace", and slowly but surely get the talk around to war in the class. He can also give them an assignment to do a drawing about the maltreatment of children and after carefully dealing with the subject make the "maltreatment" present in the class open for discussion. Having a talk with a class in which two pupils are always rowing, is a starting-point. When this type of row has been talked through and the pupils become accustomed to talking about problems with one another, the teacher may introduce "the scapegoat in the class". These are examples of a non-confrontational method for curing the problem. In the third place there is the prevention method. This is directed towards changing attitudes teachers show to pupils, towards changes in subject areas and towards activities which fall under the heading of pastoral care of pupils. One may spend some time on the prejudices and discrimination shown by pupils. Through doing so you prevent pupils and teachers being chosen as scapegoats. Channelling aggression through sport and discussions, is another preventative method. One may try to stop school frustrations in a creative manner. Avoiding competition between pupils is another possibility. One may try to wipe out authoritarian behaviour on the part of teachers by appointing an intermediary. His job is to deal with complaints about getting on with one another and to come up with solutions. Pupils should be less anonymus, whereby social control is increased, this can be a preventative method. Making people responsible, giving them insight into the rules and letting them have a say in matters, is another approach worth considering. A last preventative method, is to be in charge of a class from first school day onwards and to give guidance, so that the struggle for power, the war in the class, is steered into quite different channels.

Conclusion

Paying attention to the scapegoat in the class, is closely related to the care of the "weak" in society. A school which holds up this principle as a model and puts it into practice, is working in its own way on a more viable society.

Contents of the book

Chapter One

The Phenomenon
1 Scapegoats talking
2 Phenomenon
3 Extracts from interviews
4 Behaviour of scapegoats
5 What kind of children become scapegoat?
6 Interviews with bullies
7 Behaviour of bullies
8 Reactions of people around
9 What can the school do?
10 Can the problem be reduced?

Chapter two

Background to the Scapegoating Phenomenon
1 A general theory
2 Influences from the class as a group
2 1 Basic needs
2 2 Group processes
2 3 Negative group norms
2 4 Group aims and cohesion
2 5 Positions in the group
2 6 Group roles
2 7 The group as a system
2 8 Class and group
3 Influences from outside
3 1 The familiy background
3 2 Authoritarian behaviour of teachers
3 3 Allocating roles
3 4 Anonymity

Chapter Three

Possible ways of dealing with the problem

1 solution: the confrontational method
1 1 A statement of position
1 2 A talk with the class
1 3 An example from literature
1 4 Showing a video
1 5 Drawing a picture
1 6 A disciplinary talk with the bully
An exercise

2 The nonconfrontational method

2 1 The method of Allan: war and peace
2 2 A lesson in PE: being excluded
2 3 A drawing exercise: ill-treatment of children
2 4 Stanford's method
An exercise

3 The preventive method
3 1 Lesson material about prejudices and discrimination
3 2 Prejudices of teachers
Prejudices of men about women
Prejudices of teachers about female children
Prejudices of teachers about lower social class children
Prejudices of teachers in general
3 3 Applying the scapegoat phenomenon
4 Prevention: cooperation
4 1 Possibilities for cooperation in PE
4 2 Conclusions
5 Approaches to reduce aggressive behaviour
5 1 Channeling aggression
Sport
Discussion
5 2 Changing aggressive behaviour
5 3 Physical and psychological approaches
5 4 Ways to reduce behaviour that causes aggression
5 5 Conclusion
6 Attention to anonymity
6 1 Counselling pupils
6 2 Teacher behaviour
6 3 Home-visiting
6 4 Appearance
7 Ways of producing positive group norms
7 1 The teachers at first meeting of class
7 2 The class arrives at the norms
7 3 Positive and negative sides of group cohesion
Exercise

A school policy

References

Notes

About the author

Dr. Bob van der Meer, psychologist and former teacher of physical education, works at the Algemeen Pedadogisch Studiecentrum (APS). The APS is a Dutch nationwide institute for improving education, which works for the Department of Education, schools and for other institutions and organisations.

In 1988 he published the first book in the Netherlands about bullying in schools, titled The Scapegoat in the Classroom. It aroused an enormous attention for this neglected subject. Since than he gave - and gives uptill now - interviews on radio, TV, and daily and weekly papers, and gives workshops and lectures to all kinds of groups: parents; teachers of primary and secondary education; students and teachers of teachers training centres; and institutions who support schools.

He initiated the first Dutch nationwide research on bullying in primary and secondary education; was member of the guidance boards on the Dutch research on violence in secondary education and on bullying in primary and secondary education; was involved in the nationwide action against bullying in schools, initiated by the Dutch Parents Associations; was member of the committee on Violence, which was in charge by the Secretary of the Department of Education; was member of the so-called "Small Committee", who carried out the campaign "The Save School" for the Department of Education and published recently the book School and violence, causes and approaches.

Contact information

Dr. Bob van der Meer
Algemeen Pedagogisch Studiecentrum
Postbus 85475
3508 AL Utrecht
++ 31 (0)30 285 6766
b.vandermeer@aps.nl

Hildebrandstraat 14
5242 GE Rosmalen
++ 31 (0)73 521 7753


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Last Updated: June 18th, 2000


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