One Swedish school’s approach to bullying

No matter what country you live in, school bullying happens. The short and long term effects can range from embarrassing to life-altering. We look at how one international school in Sweden tackles the issue to ensure its students thrive.

One Swedish school's approach to bullying
What do Swedish schools do about bullying? Photo: Getty Images

Taunting, mocking, rejecting and even physical attacks like pushing or worse, are pervasive in schools across the world and they can all occur with varying levels of severity. Bullying’s effects on children’s immediate mental health has long been known and recent research into the long-term consequences of prolonged victimised bullying points to negative social, health and economic effects in victims some four decades later. 

Globally, bullying is on the rise and Sweden is no different, notes Swedish anti-bullying group Friends.

However, school-based anti-bullying programs are proving to have success, with a 2021 Journal of School Psychology paper stating programs effectively reduced school bully perpetration by 19 to 20 percent. 

In Sweden, at coeducational independent boarding school Sigtuna Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL), the approach to anti-bullying sees the school and students collaborating to tackle the issue from all sides.

In addition to taking action when there is an acute situation, the big focus is on preventative measures. 

Swedish student Axel Geijer is a 19-year-old boarder at SSHL and president of the school’s student anti-bullying organisation Hjärter Ess (Ace of Hearts). The group works to stop bullying before it happens, aiming to ingrain inclusivity and kindness into students. 

“This way bullying won’t become a really big problem. Because if bullying starts, I feel like the problem has already gone overboard. It’s good if you start at the source,” he explains.

As well as being a group for kids to turn to if they’re subjected to bullying or have other issues, Hjärter Ess organises school-wide events and promotes a positive feeling of inclusivity. It has representatives of all ages and touts the motto “be yourself”.

Discover the benefits of a school committed to academic success as well as student wellbeing

SSHL’s student anti-bullying organisation, Hjärter Ess.

Student welfare at its core

Around 600 students attend SSHL, one of Sweden’s oldest schools located in Sigtuna just north of Stockholm. It takes anti-bullying so seriously it is embedded in its ethos

The school’s core commitment is to students’ academic success and positive wellbeing and pledges to “promote understanding of other people and the capacity for empathy. No one at school should be subjected to bullying. The school must actively combat harassment. Xenophobia and intolerance are the products of ignorance and fear, and must be countered with knowledge, open discussion and active measures.”

Anna Kalles is Assistant Principal of SSHL’s upper secondary school and leader of the school’s ‘equal treatment work’. She says she is proud that increasingly more students feel encouraged and empowered to approach staff and report bullying – whether it’s a feeling of loneliness, name-calling or something more serious. 

The school’s equal treatment work may be largely invisible to some, says Anna, but its work is incredibly important. It has worked to put a system in place that encourages transparency and communication between students and school leadership. This ensures a level of trust and security for students, and importantly for the school, the ability to tackle any bullying before issues can fester. 

Find out how your child can thrive at the Swedish boarding school with an international outlook, Sigtuna Humanistiska Läroverket (SSHL)

SSHL student and president of the school’s anti-bullying organisation Hjärter Ess, Axel Geijer.
Helping students be the best versions of themselves
Mazdak Sarvari, Head of Boarding at SSHL, is responsible for the 200 boarding students at the school. 

With 25 to 30 students in each boarding house, how does he ensure students not only get along, but also progress and grow during this important time of their lives? 

Clear structure, routine and rules are important, he says. “We have a few really clear rules and clear consequences. For example we are an alcohol-, drug- and bullying-free school. We teach the students how to be good friends to each other and how to be good people.”

The school’s no-bullying or harassment stance is made clear to new students and parents from day one, with students asked to sign statements to acknowledge they understand. 

“We take a lot of steps to make sure students are fully aware of what kind of school this is, which makes it easier to prevent but also to take action if needed,” says Mazdak.

The staff must also be good role models at all times, he adds. “How we treat each other, how we talk to each other and to students… it all matters.”

This notion of model behaviour and strong support is ongoing, with continuous dialogue between students and staff to coach and mentor them. 

“We have a vision – that all of our students can reach their goals and be the best version of themselves. The years they have here at SSHL should be important in that journey.”

SSHL’s Head of Boarding, Mazdak Sarvari.

Going above and beyond

Much of SSHL’s anti-bullying approach is done in accordance with the robust Swedish school laws, however, the school also has its own systems in place to go above and beyond what is expected, explains Anna.

This includes a weekly group meeting involving representatives from all corners of the school – vice principals, head of boarding, house parents, teachers from each of the school’s departments and sections. Following an alert that someone isn’t being treated well, an investigation is immediately carried out. “We act on it very quickly. We take this kind of thing seriously,” says Anna.

The hardest kind of bullying to deal with is actually when kids are feeling rejected or alone, says Anna. And often children don’t want teachers to speak to other students about their issues.

“We work with the class and talk about core values, perhaps together with a counsellor. We have different strategies. Sometimes we interview every single person, sometimes we do a survey. Then we make a plan around how to deal with the class so that students feel more comfortable again. And when this is done, we also follow up and do a survey again.” 

Sometimes it’s a case of children offending another child without even realising it. And this can particularly be the case where there are students from different cultures.

“With children and young adults, if you talk about it with them, and explain – not punish them for it – they’re usually very receptive,” says Anna. “Of course, you have to be very clear on what is and is not okay. That’s the baseline.”

Anna Kalles, Assistant Principal of SSHL’s upper secondary school and leader of the school’s ‘equal treatment work’.

Not-so-social media: cyberbullying

A new Swedish law, which came into effect this year, gives teachers the power to remove phones from students. It points to the problem of social media in the prevalence of bullying. When asked about the rise of bullying, both Axel and Anna refer to social media and cyberbullying.

“The biggest problem today is the technology that we have. Social media has made bullying anonymous. And that’s very frightening,” says Axel.

How to help your kids

If parents are concerned their child is being bullied, they should immediately talk to their child’s school, recommends Anna. “Whether it’s your child or another, if you know something, please contact the school so they can work on it.”

She also says it’s a myth that talking to teachers about bullying will make the issue worse. “If a parent or student comes to us, they can be anonymous. We’re going to listen to them and support them, and we’re going to do something about the issue – immediately.”

Axel echoes this sentiment, adding that students can feel comfortable talking to the “great staff” at SSHL.

It’s age-old advice, but Axel also says to encourage your kids to ignore the bully: “They want a reaction. When they don’t get it, often that’s where it all stops.

“Obviously, you always have some troublemakers. But there’s usually a good amount of people that actively try to be inclusive and help people.”

While the long-term trauma that bullying can cause is worrying, the majority of cases are fortunately not severe. Navigating the emotions and new social relationships of childhood and young adulthood are not simple for most people. Try not to worry too much, says Axel, adding that the future always brings something better; it’s just around the corner and the best is yet to come.

Learn more about SSHL, the inclusive boarding school just north of Stockholm

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Why prisoners in Sweden can no longer study at university

Sweden scrapped university-level teaching for incarcerated people with a high school diploma almost four years ago. US-based reporter Charlotte West looks into the reasons behind the decision in an article published in partnership with Open Campus.

Why prisoners in Sweden can no longer study at university

Those involved with criminal justice reform in the United States understandably gaze across the Atlantic with envy.

With an approach more often focused on rehabilitation than punishment, the Nordic countries beat most of the rest of the world on almost all metrics, ranging from incarceration rates to recidivism. Earlier this year, California governor Gavin Newsom drew inspiration from “the Norwegian model” in his plans for transforming San Quentin – the state’s oldest prison and home to its death row – into a centre of rehabilitation.

But it’s easy to put the Nordic countries up on a pedestal – and to lump them all together. You might be surprised to learn that in Swedish prisons, for example, university-level education was eliminated in 2019.

Approximately 30 people per year were enrolled in higher education prior to that decision. Since then, there have been no academic opportunities available to incarcerated people who already have a high school diploma.

That’s different from Sweden’s Nordic neighbours. The 2014 Norwegian Education Act guarantees prisoners access to education. People incarcerated at some Finnish prisons can enrol in online classes in high-demand fields such as artificial intelligence, and in Denmark, incarcerated people at some prisons can earn college credit alongside outside students who visit the prison.

As of 2022, there were approximately 6,150 people incarcerated in Swedish prisons, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention. 

Educating those who have had the fewest opportunities

The shift away from higher education in prison was a pragmatic decision, rather than a political one.

Lena Broo, an adult education expert at the Swedish prison service, told Open Campus that about half of the prison population has less than a grade-school education and officials decided to concentrate their resources on giving those who have had the fewest opportunities the best chance of success once they got out. That means incarcerated people in Sweden can earn up to a high-school diploma while inside. 

“To have any kind of chance in today’s job market, the minimum requirement is basically a high school education,” Broo wrote in an email. “That’s what Kriminalvården [The Swedish Prison and Probation Service] is focusing on.”

The prison service has a system-wide network of “learning centres”. The curriculum is the same as that offered through the municipal adult education system, known as Komvux.

The instructional model is hybrid; incarcerated students take computer-based classes offered across the system, but each of the approximately 45 prisons in the country has at least one teacher who provides in-person tutoring. Offering the classes through the agency’s secure network allows students to transfer between facilities without interrupting their education.  

Svartsjö, a minimum-security men’s prison outside of Stockholm, is very different from the US prisons portrayed on TV – there is no body scanner, the perimeter is a single chain link fence and the modular housing units are the same classic red associated with Swedish summer houses. During the day, the incarcerated men can leave the premises to work in the nearby wood workshop or to run the prison’s farm. 

Svartsjö is a minimum-security men’s prison on the outskirts of Stockholm. Incarcerated students there can earn up to a high school diploma through the Swedish prison service’s network of learning centres. Charlotte West/Open Campus

Svartsjö history teacher Henrik Busk teaches incarcerated students all over the country through the learning centre network. He said that prisoners need to be productively engaged at least six hours a day, whether that be in education, work, or treatment. 

He said that one of the biggest challenges the system is dealing with right now is the increasing criminality of young people, many of whom are from immigrant families.

“Most feel that Swedish society isn’t open to them,” Busk said of the growing number of young people in Swedish prisons. 

The Swedish government has in recent years adopted more tough-on-crime policies, such as lowering the age for a life sentence and gang enhancements, in response to an increase in shootings and gang violence.

These policies have led to a steady growth in the prison population, following a low in the mid-2010s when the country even started to close prisons. The resulting overcrowding has made it difficult to meet the needs of everyone who should be enrolled in education.

Prisoners who enter the system before they are 21 are prioritised for in-person instruction, Broo said. 

Nine university degrees 

Svartsjö is very different from the maximum security prisons like Kumla where Ricard Nilsson served almost 20 years of a life sentence.

Nilsson was released in 2019 – so he benefited from access to higher education offerings before they were eliminated. While incarcerated, Nilsson earned nine degrees and certificates, including a master’s of law. As a result of his education, he was admitted to the Swedish Union of Journalists while he was still incarcerated. 

Ricard Nilsson earned nine university degrees and certificates in prison between 2000 and 2019, when he was released. Charlotte West/Open Campus

Nilsson was able to enrol in a sociology programme at Örebro University shortly after he was incarcerated in 2000. Both outside students and professors visited the prison for some of the lectures. By 2005, online classes were starting to become more common, Nilsson told Open Campus. 

He was allowed to access his online classes and use university email while staff at the learning centre looked over his shoulder. He said that when he took his last courses in the late 2010s he was only given computer access 10 minutes at a time to respond to emails, download course materials and upload assignments. Then he completed his assignments on a secure, offline computer. 

Up until around 2019, incarcerated individuals like Nilsson were allowed to enrol in regular university classes if they were accepted to the degree programme. Some faculty were willing to make exceptions for requirements like attending lectures.

But over the years, higher education institutions were less able to accommodate individual incarcerated students, Broo said. As universities shifted more and more of their instruction online, it became nearly impossible for students to enrol without more direct internet access. 

Because of security concerns, a staff member had to sit with the student and watch the screen the entire time that a student was online. In 2018, the prison service suspended all supervised online learning. “We don’t have the staff for that today,” Broo said, in light of the increasing prison population.

Now, the only higher education that he’s aware is happening in Swedish prisons is if a professor is willing to do an independent study via snail mail, Nilsson said. 

It’s unclear why Swedish universities aren’t offering formal prison education programmes despite the fact that some of them, such as Uppsala University, have a long history of teaching incarcerated students that dates back at least until the 1970s.

Officials at the prison service have indicated they aren’t opposed to higher education opportunities if the logistics can be worked out. 

Nilsson is critical of Sweden’s shift. His experience of education inside served as a role model for others. “They are forgetting about the normative aspects of people being inspired by others who do positive things,” he said.

Charlotte West is a US-based national reporter who covers prisons and higher education for Open Campus. She lived in Sweden from 2002 to 2009 and was a frequent contributor to The Local. She earned her master’s in politics from Stockholm University. 

This story is published in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom in the US focused on higher education. Subscribe to College Inside, an Open Campus newsletter on the future of postsecondary education in prison.