Minister vows huge anti-bullying effort

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Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen plans to launch what he calls the biggest anti-bullying campaign in a decade, after yet another child’s death has been linked to tormenters at school. The latest case has also climaxed with the alleged bullies being bullied themselves online.

Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen is making another effort to tackle bullying in Norway. He's shown here with bullying victim Margit Kristina Akselsen, who went public with her story of a tormented childhood at a government-hosted meeting last winter. PHOTO: Kunnskapsdepartementet

Education Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen is making another effort to tackle bullying in Norway. He’s shown here with another bullying victim, Margit Kristina Akselsen, who went public with her story of a tormented childhood at a government-hosted meeting last winter. PHOTO: Kunnskapsdepartementet

It’s called mobbing in Norwegian, and it’s an age-old problem that’s sparked numerous efforts to control it over the years. Every single state government in the past several decades has made an issue of bullying and tried to combat it, yet bullying continues, potentially ruining the lives of an estimated 17,000 Norwegian children a year.

“The battle against mobbing has a long history in Norway,” wrote commentator Per Anders Madsen in newspaper Aftenposten Wednesday morning. “It has by no means been crowned with a victory.”

Instead, a 13-year-old girl from the affluent Oslo suburb of Bærum became the latest to die of apparent starvation on New Year’s Eve. She was a victim of severe eating disorders allegedly brought on by years of bullying at elementary school in Bærum’s seemingly idyllic residential valley of Lommedalen. She had been forced to change schools and the bullying let up, only to return when she encountered her former tormenters after they all wound up at the same junior high school in Lommedalen.

Her case has taken on dramatic dimensions in Norway, and been the subject of massive media coverage, since her mother was arrested and charged with gross negligence in caring for her daughter’s needs. The girl had not been attending school at all since leaving the Mølladammen School in September. She and her mother reportedly had been living mostly at the family’s hytte at Beitostølen in the mountains of Valdres, where the girl, according to her mother’s defense attorney, suddenly collapsed and died on New Year’s Eve.

The mother was arrested after ambulance personnel, alarmed by how thin the girl was, contacted local police who filed charges against her. That was before reports of her daughter’s bullying emerged, along with testimonials from family, friends and even the mother of another teenage bullying victim named Odin who committed suicide, all of whom defended the mother and said she’d spent years trying to help her daughter. She allegedly never received the support needed from school, child welfare or other public agencies. Her attorney has since called her arrest “absurd.”

Bullies now bullied
As police moved forward with attempts to have the mother held in custody while they investigate the case, public outcry has arisen over the bullying that’s been confirmed by Bærum officials and the mother’s defense attorney. Over the past several days, other young teenagers in Lommedalen have been subjected to online harassment in social media: “The bullies took her life,” wrote one person on Facebook. “Arrest those who bullied the girl,” wrote another. Norwegians have long been reluctant to punish bullies, believing them to also be victims who haven’t received the guidance they need.

“We have received reports from parents in Lommedalen who are in despair and frightened,” Kristin Oudmayer of UNICEF Norge told NRK. “Several of the comments are threatening, and are spreading like fire in dry grass.” Parents of children at all three schools involved in the case of the 13-year-old were invited to a meeting at Lommedalen Church on Wednesday, to clear the air and share concerns, while the mayor of Bærum, Lisbeth Hammer Krog, was calling for calm and restraint.

‘A tragic case’
Now the education minister Isaksen has had enough. “I’ve met so many bullying victims, parents and school officials who describe a system that clearly isn’t solving serious bullying cases,” Isaksen told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday. “I’ve heard about children who report bullying, but aren’t heard, about measures implemented but not followed up. About desperate parents who don’t know where they can go to get help.”

Isaksen called the death of the 13-year-old “a tragic case. We know that the mother reported the bullying, but not enough about how this all fit together.” He was reluctant to comment further on the case but said the scenario was all too well-known, and that there’s been a pattern of how the victims of bullying are the ones forced to change schools.

“I think that’s wrong,” Isaksen said. “We should, to a larger degree, transfer those who do the bullying, when other measures don’t work.” Parents of bullied children have told him how school officials themselves often “advise” them to transfer their child to another school. “That’s an extra burden that the child and the child’s family should be relieved of,” Isaksen told Dagsavisen.

‘Biggest changes in years’
He claimed his staff was working hard to implement what he called “the biggest changes in anti-bullying efforts for at least 10 years.” Much of it involves putting into place a long list of measures proposed by an expert commission last year. They involved clear and detailed rules for how schools should handle cases of bullying, tougher anti-bullying measures in the schools and tougher monitoring of them, fines imposed on schools where bullying continues, simpler means of filing complaints about bullying and measures like forced transfers of bullies, not their victims.

“When a school is warned that bullying is going on, the alarms should ring,” Isaksen said. His new anti-bullying campaign, following up on one last winter that involved pop music star Morten Harket talking about he was also bullied, is due to be launched by Easter.

Meanwhile, the defense attorney for the 13-year-old’s mother was calling for her release on Wednesday. Both she and her attorney have called her arrest “absurd,” while she’s been receiving medical care and psyhiatric monitoring since her daughter died.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund