From gangster to kindest: Curbing school violence

Worldwide, it is reported that one in every two students between 13-15 are victims of bullying.

My school is no different.

My school in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah is located close to squatter homes which is known as a bad area. It had a reputation for gangsterism, bullying and vandalism. People used to look down on students from my school thinking we would not have a good future.

I can proudly say that is now in the past.

The students in our school were behaving poorly and aggressively. Not because we are bad people, but because we were so often treated as if we didn’t matter and nothing we did would amount to anything.

But one day, things changed. The teachers started being kinder to us. Not just in a one-off campaign, but every single day. And slowly, these small acts of kindness started making us feel more valued and respected. We had someone waiting for us at the school gates who acknowledged us and made us feel like we belong. And we were given the opportunity to show kindness to others.

That was when the transformation began.

A young man leans over the shoulders of two female colleagues
© UNICEF/Malaysia/HearfieldUNICEF Youth Advocate Muhd. Saiful Ikhwan bin Musa from Malaysia working with two colleagues at the UNICEF #ENDviolence drafting of the Youth Manifesto in Johannesburg, South Africa in December 2018.

This is how we did it; we looked for ways to curb violence and promote kindness. We carried out various activities such as “Act It Out” a theatrical performance to show how violence affects other people, “plogging” which combined running and picking up trash to show kindness to the environment, having a wall of kindness to show appreciation to the canteen operators, and greeting students when they came to school. We didn’t just receive kindness – we wanted to share it with others.

Today my school, SMK SANZAC, has changed completely. We have earned a good reputation with the students behaving better, getting better grades in their studies, and having better relationship with teachers and administrators. Our school also participated in the national #StandTogether and Kindness Project campaigns supported by UNICEF – we even won the contest and were named the Kindest school in Malaysia!

What made it work was that we were all in it together. The school principal could have decided to go after bullies using corporal punishment. She did not. Instead, she led school administrators, teachers, and students to collectively curb violence without resorting to violence!

Taking kindness global

At the end of November, I travelled 10,000 km to Johannesburg, South Africa to attend the African Youth Development Summit. I represented Malaysia to develop the global #ENDviolence Youth Manifesto calling on world leaders to take action against violence in schools.

It was the biggest trip of my life and I was nervous at first – afraid my English was not good enough and no one would be able to understand me. But I realized that it was all in my head. Everyone was a friend and was so excited to be at the summit to share their experiences. We were united in our goal; to make the world a better place for future generations.

I shared my ideas about what my school was doing to build a safer world and we agreed to adopt the motto: “Kindess is a responsibility that begins with all of us.”

A young man sits at a table giving the thumbs-up sign.
© UNICEF/Malaysia/HearfieldIkhwan: “Ending violence in schools is important to me because bullying happens around the world, in every country. There are many forms of bullying – mental, emotional, physical, cyberbullying. I discovered that every year so many students experience bullying. I am committed to ending violence because we are all human beings, we need each other to make the world a better place.”

Using kindness to end violence

While in South Africa, we visited Mandela’s house and museum to learn about Apartheid and the struggle to achieve freedom. I learned that to end violence, there must be an opportunity to heal, which can only happen through kindness.

Bullying is a similar form of violence. We should help the victim, we shouldn’t blame but support and encourage them. We should not blame students for acts of bullying they may have done in the past. Instead of expelling bullies from school, we need to give them a second chance.

I am committed to ending violence because we are all humans who need each other to make the world a better place.

I hope that young people will not be afraid to speak up for themselves because the world needs to hear our voice. We are the ones responsible to make the world a better place in the future. So speak up, be kind to one another, always smile and help others when they need it. Kindness is contagious and kindness begins with us.

It began with me. If it worked in my school, it can happen anywhere.


Sailful Ikhwan, 19, just completed high school and is volunteering with the Blood Donors Association. Active in sports, he does not like it when people try to knock others down.


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