To counter teen suicide, French schools turn to lessons in empathy
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A spate of teen suicides in France has drawn fresh attention to the threat that bullies pose. How can schools build more resilient children and break the silence cloaking school harassment?
Ms. Revy started suffering from anxiety and depression, and refused to go to school. At the end of fourth grade, her parents pulled her out and she started private lessons at home. A half-dozen of her parents’ friends came over regularly as part of a makeshift suicide-watch team.
“I didn’t know how to kill myself, but I knew how to make myself fall asleep,” says Ms. Revy. “Later, I found notes I had written about wanting to die. My dad told me recently that his worst fear when he came home from work was that the house would be silent.”
Now, Ms. Revy is working to make sure other kids don’t suffer as she did. Her nonprofit, Athénaïs, which she created with her father last year to share her story with schoolchildren and young adults, is one of many working alongside the French government to fight bullying in schools. Nonprofits say at least 1 in 10 French students suffer school abuse, and France has seen a spate of youth suicides – including one already this school year.
The outpouring of emotion over the deaths – with some as young as age 13 – has created a #MeToo-like moment; actors, politicians, and young people themselves are telling their own stories of school harassment in public.
Now, more French schools are asking themselves how they can build more resilient kids and break the silence cloaking such harassment.
Anti-bullying efforts are putting a new focus on punishing the bullies, rather than taking steps that punish victims by removing them from the familiar environments of their schools. But some say France’s current educational environment makes it hard for kids and parents to report abuse, and there is a debate about just how bullies should be punished.
“Is there more harassment than before? I don’t know, but there’s definitely more awareness,” says Justine Atlan, executive director of E-Enfance, a nonprofit that works to protect children and operates France’s national harassment help line. “Parents know harassment is not allowed and young people know that if they’re faced with a situation, they have the right to ask for help. Now we just need the resources to put plans into action.”
When the victims are punished
The French government has made school harassment a national cause since a 13-year-old named Lindsay died by suicide last spring in the Pas-de-Calais region after months of abuse.
The prime minister introduced a series of measures to combat the problem: recruit more school psychologists, oblige school principals to report harassment, provide more teacher training, and target online harassment.
But in September, on the second day of school, 15-year-old Nicolas killed himself in the suburbs of Paris. His parents say they had alerted the education authorities to their son’s harassment at school on numerous occasions, but that the only response had been a warning to adopt a “constructive and respectful attitude” toward educators or risk penal consequences.
Nicolas’ death caused uproar across France, sparking new debate over how best to deal with bullies and their victims.
That is an issue that angers Virginie, a mother in the south of France, whose youngest daughter faced harassment at school five years ago when she was 13. She suffered from repeated illness due to the stress.
“I confronted the kids who were harassing my daughter, told the school, and sent letters to the education authority,” says Virginie, who asked not to be fully identified to protect her daughter. Their response was to suggest she hold her daughter back a year, to avoid her aggressors.
“In the end, my daughter was the one who was punished,” she says.
The French government says it wants to make sure situations like this never happen again. It has expanded its existing anti-harassment school program and introduced several new measures that focus on prevention, detection, and solutions.
Harassers will now have their cellphones confiscated, be banned from social media, and be forced to change schools if necessary. In extreme cases, the law will intervene.
In late September, police handcuffed and removed a 14-year-old student in the middle of class, following complaints that he was inciting a transgender student to die by suicide. The incident created a heated debate about the lengths to which law enforcement should be used in cases of school harassment.
“Police and the judicial system should only be used when all other options have been exhausted,” says Caroline Veltcheff, the adviser to the Paris school district on school harassment. “The goal is to break up the harasser’s group dynamic. That means meeting the harasser and the others who might laugh along, and explaining the situation.
“You’re not necessarily looking for the cause of the harassment, just that it stops,” she adds. “This works really well to help kids build awareness and oftentimes, they simply stop.”
At least online, “once harassers receive punishment and become aware of the effect of what they’re doing, they just stop,” she says. In a 2020 study of online harassment by E-Enfance, 9 times out of 10, harassers recognized their acts after facing consequences.
Teachers should be polite, too
Bullying is most common in junior high, say experts, who are urging the government to introduce preventive measures well before then. Last year, a test group of preschools began rolling out courses in empathy, based on a 20-year-old Danish teaching model called Fri for Mobberi – “free from harassment.” The government aims to make the classes mandatory nationwide by the 2024-25 school year.
Already, a growing number of French schools have started exploring alternative ways of learning that focus on well-being and confidence-building. But some say French schools should change the way they operate if they want to see change in student behavior.
“Teachers can’t just have one class on empathy per week and call it a day. They have to practice what they preach,” says Cécile Vienot, a Paris-based child psychologist. “If a teacher … asks students to be polite but then doesn’t even say hello to them in the hallway, it creates … an environment of disdain. We need to take baby steps on this to move forward.”
Since 2015, the French education ministry has experimented with student ambassadors who are trained to spot harassment and help resolve conflicts. Ms. Veltcheff, the school harassment adviser, says the training makes students “not just the problem but the solution.”
Giving students more autonomy in dealing with harassment could help schools manage scarce resources. The government cut 1,500 teaching jobs at the start of this year, and France has one of the highest student-teacher ratios in Europe – 26.6 per class compared with the average of 21 across the Continent.
In the meantime, public awareness about the detrimental effects of school harassment is growing. Many victims have taken to X, formerly known as Twitter, to recount their stories using the hashtag #CaAuraitPuEtreMoi – “It could have been me.” Last September, French Deputy Virginie Lanlo gave a speech in Parliament about her own experience of school harassment.
Outing harassment publicly, says Ms. Revy, is essential to eradicating it. While her nonprofit work in schools hasn’t yet allowed her to fully turn the page, it is certainly helping her and her family process her school trauma.
“When you make fun of someone, you never know the harm you could be causing,” says Ms. Revy, who, despite dropping out of school at age 18 due to her school phobia, has since finished high school and is currently attending college. “For my entire childhood, I looked for ways to kill myself. Today, I’m happy. But the pain is still there.”