Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

We all faced school bullies, but Twitter is a step too far

Educating: 'Cool' Georgia

For those of us who found school to be a less than jolly experience, Channel 4's new series Educating Yorkshire has sometimes made for painful viewing.

The cameras followed the children and teachers at Thornhill Community Academy, near Dewsbury, for seven weeks in 2012 and last week the second of four episodes was screened.

Thursday's episode focused on two groups: the cool girls and the geeks. The cool girls admitted that they "tease" the geeks and call them names. The geeks said they didn't know what they had done to deserve such abuse. So far, so typical.

The programme focused on two incidents in which a "geek", Jac-Henry, lashed out physically after being teased by a girl called Georgia. The programme is fascinating in the way it continually challenges viewers' ideas of victim and villain – as it should, since, at age 15 or 16, nobody is a villain.

Jac-Henry used violence and accepted his punishment from the firm-but-fair head teacher Mr Mitchell. On the first occasion, Georgia was not punished.

At least, not by the school. On Twitter on Thursday night, viewers did it. "That Georgia" started trending, with hundreds of adults using her full name to abuse her looks, her character and more.

When I was 16, I knew a bully and there were days I would have traded my education to see her humiliated. But I am not 16 and the sight of adults handing out such abuse to a child is horrific.

Had Channel 4 hung the children out to dry? Absolutely not, I discovered – though the same cannot be said of Twitter.

In fact, the production company worked with the school, community, parents and children for months before consent was given. "We are working closely with an independent chartered child psychologist, who met the students before filming and is viewing the final programmes before they are broadcast," said a spokeswoman.

All the children were given advice about social media, privacy settings and how best to react to criticism – or not react.

In fact, on Friday, Georgia "was prepared for the reaction, she knew what to expect so is feeling okay with it all". To be fair, she seemed it. (If the Twitter account really is hers.) Was Georgia a bully? It looks that way and, obviously, that touches nerves. "That sort of story's always going to be a bit Marmite," Mr Mitchell told me on Friday, "because everybody knows somebody who was a bully and everybody knows somebody who was bullied."

His zero-tolerance of bullying is made clear. "In that programme, it may have come across that bullying hadn't been punished, but that wasn't the case," he said. "It was a reasonably accurate portrayal. Nothing major was left out, it was just some of the beef behind it couldn't be included.

"In retrospect, had I known exactly what went on, Georgia would in all likelihood have been punished, too." She had been punished for bullying before and Jac-Henry had received support.

Have children of the Twitter age evolved to have thicker skins? It's hard to judge when you're my, or Mr Mitchell's, age and assume bullying got left behind at school.

It's not Channel 4's fault, or Georgia's, or Jac-Henry's, but sadly the response to Educating Yorkshire suggests that we now accept bullying as part of life.

Georgia and Jac-Henry will be fine: they seem already to have understood that a happy life is the best revenge. But for their sake I'm sorry not everybody can be sent to stand outside the head's office until they learn how to behave.

School is hard enough, Twitter is an insult too far.

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