Being bullied at college
Mike, 22, was bullied and physically attacked when he was doing his A-levels. Here he recalls how the attacks and the lack of help at his college made him feel depressed and alone.
A target for bullies
I was 17, studying my A-levels at college. I didn't have many friends, as I've always been shy. In the canteen, I didn't feel confident enough to approach anyone so I'd sit at a table on my own, trying not to attract attention to myself. I felt awkward and I guess that's what the bullies saw; someone they could pick on.
It started when a group studying in the year above me hassled me for money. One of them walked over to me in the canteen and asked for 50p. I gave him the money hoping that would be the end of it but he and his mates started asking me for money more frequently and insistently. If I said no, they'd keep on at me aggressively until I gave in. My tutor group was in a room opposite theirs, so I'd encounter them everyday.
Initially it was all verbal. They'd call me names; swear at me, calling me a 'twat'. Then they became more aggressive, trying to intimidate me. They'd bang into me with their shoulders when I passed them in the corridor, tripping me up and taking the piss. As they got bolder, they got more physical and started to shove me around.
A violent assault
Things came to a head when I was physically assaulted in the school toilets. Four of them followed me in and surrounded me. I tried to get past them but they moved and got in my way. I told them to leave me alone, which was like a red rag to a bull. They started to shove me around. One of them jabbed me in the throat with his fingers, right in my Adam's apple. As I was choking, he kneed me in the stomach. I doubled over in pain as another of the gang pushed me so hard I fell backwards. I smashed the back of my head against the cubicle door as I fell to the ground. My shoulder smashed into the floor tiles as they laughed at me. I was really scared. My heart was beating fast and I was shaking. They ran out, leaving me on the floor. I felt sick, wanting to cry. My clothes were wet from the toilet floor. I couldn't walk straight and my head was killing me. I couldn't cope with being around anyone, so I left. I didn't ever want to go back there again.
My search for support
After the attack, I stayed away from college for a couple of weeks. When I finally told my friends and parents, nobody took me seriously. I didn't want to talk to my tutor because I felt that would isolate me further; I'd be 'a grass'. It's the code of school culture that you don't tell on people. My Dad tried to phone the college anonymously to inform them bullying was happening but the receptionist made him leave his name, so it got traced back to me.
The principal's solution was for me to go into the bullies' tutor group and point them out in front of everyone. There was no way I was going to do that. Finally, I described them to him. He had a 'quiet word' with them. I found out later - when they came to taunt me about it - that he told them I was 'a sensitive boy', and he understood they were just 'larking around'. He didn't have any sympathy or insight into what it was like. It was like it was my fault, for being 'too sensitive'. All he did was give them more ammunition to use against me.
"Four of them followed me in and surrounded me. I tried to get past them but they moved and got in my way. I told them to leave me alone, which was like a red rag to a bull."
I felt let down by everybody. There was no support network at place in the college. If I'd had a friend who'd stood by me, or someone to talk to, it would have made a difference. Unless you've been on the receiving end, I don't think people take bullying seriously.
The whole experience made me feel very low. I was angry with myself because I couldn't stop it. I couldn't stand up to them. I felt very depressed to the point that I was having suicidal thoughts. My A-levels didn't mean anything to me; I just didn't care any more. I became withdrawn and stopped going to college.
My attendance was so bad I had to defer. That whole academic year was hell. It made me lose trust in people. It was such a humiliating experience sustained over a long period of time. In the end I just felt demoralised. I wasn't the most confident person to begin with and it's made me very wary of people.
Words of wisdom
For anyone going through a similar experience, it's vital you get support, but make sure it's on your terms. It's important you don't get singled out as a grass. Make sure you're properly protected and it's taken seriously.
If it's happening at your college and no one's helping, it might be worth moving to another college. This wasn't an option for me as I lived in the countryside and it was the only one in my local area. Because I'd deferred, I knew the bullies would have left by the time I went back to college as they had been in the year above me. I was determined not to let anyone take their place. I promised myself I would get the police involved if I were ever physically assaulted again and it wasn't being taken seriously. Luckily, I made a few friends in my new classes and resolved not to let myself become isolated. I hung around with my new friends and eventually got my A-levels.
Now I'm studying at university. It's taken me a while to get here and it hasn't been an easy ride, but I'm glad I stuck it out and didn't let the bullies win.
Interviewed by Marcella Carnevale