The explosive revelation of bullying at Alliance High School, long considered the nation’s citadel of academic achievement and chivalry, has lifted the lid on one of the country’s best-kept secrets -- that most public schools are simply no longer what they used to be.
Vices such as cheating in examinations, setting buildings on fire, sodomy, drug abuse and bullying have become too prevalent.
In the 1970s and 1980s it was difficult to link any public secondary school with such anti-social tendencies.
Then the schools were fewer, less congested and more closely monitored by the education officials.
Today, public secondary schools have increased exponentially, thanks to a national campaign to raise the transition rate from primary schools and most of them are congested because enrolment has not been matched with infrastructure upgrade.
Because of overcrowding, managing schools has become a headache for teachers, who have delegated the duty of monitoring the goings-on, especially in the dormitories, to prefects.
It is there that bullying, sodomy and lesbianism happen and it is there where drugs are abused with the direct complicity of some prefects.
It is no wonder then that when emotions boil over, it is the dormitories that first go up in smoke for they are the symbol of bondage and misery.
Granted, bullying, exam cheating and drug abuse are not peculiar to Kenya.
Most public schools the world over are grappling with them.
But the fact that the revered reputation of Alliance has been torn to shreds because of these vices should be taken as a blessing to the society despite the irony of the situation.
PREYING ON THE WEAK
For if the elite Alliance is the mirror by which other schools should be held, what happens in those less revered public schools?
Isn’t this a pointer that our public secondary education is broken? The Alliance news only broke after one of the boys spilled the beans to his father, a senior education official, who pulled him out of the school and ordered investigations.
If the boy hadn’t spoken to his father, the world would probably never have known about it.
The most horrifying thing about bullying is targeting the most vulnerable -- mostly Form Ones still trying to grapple with a new environment.
The bullies invariably identify the weakest, smallest and the gentlest of students and harass them to complete submission.
The victims then lose self-esteem, feel ashamed, suffer endless anxiety and develop a deep hatred for school.
Some take to playing truant just to break free from the bondage.
They don’t report the incidents for fear of reprisals and derision, coupled with ingrained doubts that teachers will protect them.
They consequently fall behind in their school work and most end up traumatised for long.
Most bullies are usually from broken homes and have suffered abuse and grown up believing that violence is the way of negotiating relationships and gaining recognition.
It is a means to shore up their own self-esteem. Some teachers and principals view bullying as an ineluctable part of school life and are happy to live with it as long as no student dies within the compound.
Schools must open communication channels for students to freely air their grievances.
This could be done through holding barazas where students discuss their problems with their teachers without fear of reprisals.
Schools should also introduce well-secured suggestion boxes for students.
But the Ministry of Education must revamp and expand its quality assurance department to help nip problems in the bud.
It’s heartening that the Alliance students suspected of bullying others are already in court.
They must face full punishment in accordance with the law if found guilty, if for nothing else but to raise awareness about bullying as not only horrible, but also too dangerous to even contemplate.
Mr Waihenya is an Associate Editor of the Daily Nation and a specialist on education issues. [email protected]