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Tau's picture
Bullying and the Second Battle

It has been argued that in self protection situations there are two battles; the actual event and then the aftermath. The aftermath may be explaining your actions to the Police or dealing with the black dog. Now we know that there is some truth in this argument although it's more... nuanced than that. The notion of "better to be tried by 12" is outdated.

However something that I've been forced to consider is the parallels with childhood bullying. As someone who did personally experience childhood bullying, as a nurse who has treated the victims of bullying and as a martial arts instructor teaching the recipients of bullying I strongly believe that the two battle is a genuine and current phenomenon. Frequently the victim will fear less their actions and more the reprisals. My student or patient's parents and I will be in congruence in educating the victim that they CAN use the skills I'm giving them and they DO have a right to defend themself including pre-emption. However this is in opposition to the post-event information that they get from teachers. Granted the problem is muddied by the bullys' lies. 

In my view this is the single biggest challenge in bullying. And I don't have an answer.

My juniors understand that they CAN act but they need to be able to explain why and what action they took beforehand. But this falls on the deaf ears of the teachers.

I welcome your thoughts and advice on this.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

When it comes to ensuring teachers know what the law is, and that our students are fairly treated by the school, these are things that fall outside of the martial arts instructor’s remit. For adult self-defence, we would not seek to act as our student’s solicitors, but instead would let the experts do their thing. The child does need an adequate advocate, which in the first instance would be the parent / guardian, but – if the school fails to act as it should – then legal advice may be required.

People sometimes forget that their school (and for adults, their employer) have to follow the laws of the land. They can’t override that law, reinterpret that law, or create laws of their own.

If a child has been a victim of crime, then the police should be involved. The government’s own advice is clear on this:

Some forms of bullying are illegal and should be reported to the police. These include:

• violence or assault

• theft

•  repeated harassment or intimidation, for example name calling, threats and abusive phone calls, emails or text messages

•  hate crimes


The school is legally obliged to have anti-bulling policies in place, but these do not override the law. Not all bullying is a crime (i.e. excluding a specific child from group activities, etc), but the school nevertheless has a legal obligation to address these issues. However, in this example we are taking about the use of a physical response in the face of physical harm / the threat of physical harm … which is a crime and therefore a police matter. The teachers are not stand-in police officers, solicitors, or judges. “Deaf ears” or not, they can’t override the law of the land.

Just like adults, children should be taught a range of skills (not just the physical) which would include de-escalation, escape, setting firm boundaries, etc. Also included would be the fact that everyone – adults and children – have a moral and legal right to protect themselves from the violence / threats of violence from others. How to navigate the aftermath is also important, and that would include the rights and legal obligations of all involved i.e. who to report things too, what should happen, what can be expected, etc. This reassurance is important.

As discussed, it could be that the teachers don’t understand / have not been sufficiently trained in the law as it relates to self-defence (and to be fair to them, I know of individual police officers who were surprised to find out it does not works as they assumed). They therefore may end up inadvertently acting in a way that is contrary to the law of the land (i.e. “you hit first, so you’re the one in trouble!”).

If it was one of my own children, and the school was seeking impose a punishment for them legally protecting themselves from unprovoked violence or intimidation, I would inform the school that a crime had taken place, it was a police matter and therefore should be reported (as they are obliged to do, but I’d do it if they didn’t), that I was firmly of the belief my child had acted within the law (never hurts to quote the relevant bits), and hence the school was in the wrong.

If it was a concerned parent that had raised it with me in my role as their child’s instructor, I would explain the law as I understand it and suggest they seek the guidance of legal professional and one of the numerous anti-bulling charities (i.e. Child Line). I would not seek to make any direct representation to the school myself – i.e. adopt the role of an advocate for the child and parent – as I feel that would be inappropriate and outside the remint of a martial arts instructor.

We also all have group child protection policies in place (legal requirement under Section 11 of Children Act 2004), so if a child was to raise a concern with us independently of their parent / guardian then we should follow the prescribed procedures in that policy.

All the best,


deltabluesman's picture

This is an interesting thread.  I can certainly relate to the problem you are describing.  I had a lot of issues with bullies when I was a kid, but one of the most difficult issues I faced was my school's "zero tolerance" policy.  The administrators were crystal clear:  if two kids were involved in a fight, it didn't matter whether one of them was the aggressor or whether one of them could show that he or she acted in self-defense.  Both kids would be punished.  I still vividly remember the day that I received detention after standing up to a bully in class.  They actually made us sit right next to each other in the same room and work through multiple choice problems.  That was around 25 years ago, but similar problems are still an issue in some American schools today.

I will share a few comments on the legal aspects of this in the USA.  Note:  I am an attorney, but I am not giving legal advice.  I am only speaking generally about the state of things here (which I understand is different from the UK).  Perhaps the comparison will be interesting.  When we're looking at the legal aspects of bullying in the States, there are at least three quesions that have to be considered:  civil liability, criminal penalties, and school policy.  Civil and criminal laws vary across all 50 states, so it's not feasible to discuss them all.  But the key point is that even if you act in a manner consistent with civil and criminal laws (i.e., you act "legally"), you may still face discipline from the school itself. 

Here's one case to serve as an example:  in Brett, N. v. Community Unit School Dist. No. 303, a federal district court in Illinois dealt with the question of "whether a high school student has a fundamental right to defend himself from physical attack while at school."  After a brief discussion of applicable case law, the court determined that there was no precedent establishing "a broadly applicable constitutional right to self-defense, or a particularized right of self-defense in a school setting."  Based on this and other reasons, the court upheld the application of a zero tolerance policy and upheld the school's decision to suspend a student for five days even though he fought in self-defense.  (Note that this is a fairly narrow ruling and that other jurisdictions (e.g., Georgia) have taken a different approach to these policies.  Each state law has to be handled on its own terms.)

So, although I think it's crucial to get sound legal advice if you're dealing with a self-defense matter (or if you're trying to act preventatively to get a school to take action), it's important to note that the attorney may not be able to solve the problem.  Also, just knowing about criminal laws relating to self-defense may be insufficient; there could be more to the story.  A few other suggestions:

• I think martial arts instructors need to be very careful of their role in this.  The martial arts instructor can be a valuable facilitator, mentor, and support person, but I don't think the instructor's in a good position to solve serious bullying problems (echoing what Iain pointed out, above).

• For parents thinking of hiring an attorney, here are a few considerations.  First, try to find an attorney who has experience in this area of the law.  These laws aren't always straightforward.  Keep in mind that your attorney is going to be squaring off against a school attorney who probably has years of expreience in this area.  It may be an uphill battle.  If you can't find an experienced attorney, see if you can get a recommendation from someone you trust.  Your local bar association may be able to help.

• Think very carefully before you dive into serious litigation.  You may find an attorney who is perfectly willing to take your money while he crusades against the school district, but there's a very real question of whether your legal challenges will actually do much to help your child.  Putting down the sword and trying to work collaboratively with a supportive teacher may be the better option.

• Bullying tends to escalate over time.  For parents who notice this trend, I'd advise that they start by contacting the school directly and explaining what's going on.  Try to be as civil as possible.  Approach this issue as if you and the teacher were on the same team; don't be adversarial unless you have to.

• In rare circumstances, you can even try going to a public school board meeting.  You might do this if you couldn't afford an attorney and you were being stonewalled by the administration and teachers.  Understand that there's no guarantee this will work, and it's not a good option if you want to handle things privately.

• Document, document, document.  Describe things in detail, including the emotional, physical, and social impacts on your child.  Each time there's a noteworthy event, consider e-mailing the school to explain the issue.  When you e-mail the school, you build a record.  Remember that your e-mails are not just between you and the school:  you may want to use them as evidence in the future.  Since that's the case, write them as if they were going to be read by a lawyer, by a judge, or even by the public.  Be civil and professional.  On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who's going to send off a profanity-laced e-mail to the teacher or school district, silence yourself and hire a lawyer instead (angry tirades may do a lot more harm than good).  I doubt that's a problem for many kareteka, but I think it's worth mentioning nonetheless.

Again, I am speaking generally (not providing legal advice or guidance).  These are ideas based on my own experiences with bullying.  Ultimately, I agree with you that it's a problem worth thinking about and certainly a challenge for many kids.  Great thread topic.



Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

deltabluesman wrote:
This is an interesting thread.  I can certainly relate to the problem you are describing ... [SNIP]

A great post! Thanks for the contribution. Lots of useful insights and information in there.

All the best,


deltabluesman's picture

Thanks!  I appreciate it. 

I know that the US system isn't relevant to most readers of the forum, but I thought the comparison might be interesting.  Naturally, I strongly oppose these zero tolerance policies.  

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

deltabluesman wrote:
I know that the US system isn't relevant to most readers of the forum …

Actually, it is! Around 40% of the traffic originates from the USA. The UK and Germany are 2nd and 3rd, but most readers are from your part of thew world.

All the best,