New research shows that New Zealand’s schools’ anti-bullying policies are not up to scratch. What else can we do? JUDE BARBACK confronts this uncomfortable topic.

At the end of the 2011 school year, a 13-year-old girl from a west Auckland school was punched in the face by two 14-year-old girls from her school as she waited for her bus. In the same week it also emerged a 15-year-old from Pukekohe was sexually violated in front of other students. Two more examples of bullying to make headlines as the 2011 school year came to a close, and who knows how many more incidents went unseen or unreported?

The saddest thing about these cases is that they will almost certainly be replaced by new examples in the new school year; they will become old news, forgotten incidents. A cruel component of New Zealand students are giving media so many opportunities to replenish their news with yet more stories of bullying in our schools. A coroner’s report from 1997 expressed, “I believe that schools … have a positive duty to be vigilant … to guard against bullying and to deal with it and stamp it out if it occurs. The consequences of a failure to do that can be very profound.” Fast-forward 15 years and New Zealand’s bullying problem is, if anything, worse than ever. It is a subject that sadly continues to bear relevance and constantly needs addressing.

This certainly isn’t the first article – and it won’t be the last – to question why, despite our increased awareness, bullying keeps happening in our schools. What are we doing about it? What more needs to be done?

We know a lot about bullying. Research tells us that bullies tend to be confident, aggressive and physically strong, or anxious, academically weak and insecure, or those who bully in some situations and are bullied in others. We know that victims of bullying often have poor social skills, low confidence levels, lack support, blame themselves, are desperate to ‘fit in’ and are unlikely to seek help.

Bullying comes in many different guises. The advent and availability of mobile phones and social media has introduced the nasty phenomenon of cyber bullying, which experts say can cause more psychological damage than traditional bullying. Research from Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom shows that cyber-victims can suffer more because they feel unable to escape from online and mobile phone threats. The threat is heightened by the hidden identities of cyber-bullies as well as the ability for messages and images to ‘go viral’. “Anti-bullying campaigns and professionals working with young people need to be smarter and more in tune with technology so they pick it up, because cyber-bullying poses a serious public health problem,” says Steve Walker, who led the research.

Massey University’s Dr Juliana Raskauskas agrees. Her research shows 15 per cent of early adolescents, from a sample of 565 New Zealand students aged from ten to 13 years, had been text-bullied, which led her to the conclusion that education about text-bullying should start at intermediate school or even earlier.

A recent study by University of Otago Medical School (UOMS) in collaboration with Australian Catholic University (ACU) supports this thinking. Their research shows that only around one-third of the 253 New Zealand schools and 93 Australian schools included in the study had cyber-safety policies as part of their anti-bullying programme. Lead Victorian researcher Professor Sheryl Hemphill, from ACU’s school of psychology, says there was little attention given to whether bullying extended beyond school grounds or occurred after school hours – such as through social media.

“Schools need to acknowledge the impact of a diverse society and rapidly changing technology and respond appropriately. Having modern and comprehensive policies in place will give schools a better chance of reducing bullying,” says Hemphill.

And just as bullying takes many guises, so do approaches to counter such behaviour. In Nelson, the Anti-bullying Diversity Tour 2011, with support from Q-Youth and the PPTA, was aimed at addressing homophobic bullying through the promotion of student-led Queer-Straight Alliance groups at Nelson schools.

In greater Wellington, a group of eight young refugees from Burma, Sudan, Rwandaand Iraq who found themselves targeted by bullies, often because of a poor grasp of English, met in a youth drama and advocacy project through ChangeMakers Refugee Forum. The students formed the group Collabor8, and have developed a resource kit for use in New Zealand secondary schools to help reduce the bullying of refugee students.

These brave student groups are helping to fulfil Ministry of Education and New Zealand Police objectives. The police website states that “schools not only have a moral obligation to reduce bullying, their charter agreement between the school’s trustees and the Minister of Education specifically directs the school to ‘provide a safe physical and emotional environment’.”

It then sets out a seemingly exhaustive set of guidelines and further resources to help stamp out bullying in our schools. There is a step-by-step guide for dealing with a bullying incident, how to change the behaviour of bullies and a ‘whole school approach’ to stop bullying including curriculum, teacher and pupil action.

However, the recent study conducted by UOMS and ACU found that many school anti-bullying policies are inadequate – leaving both children and teachers at risk. Of the schools included in the research, the current policies do not usually include bullying on the grounds of homophobia, religion or disability. Most policies were also lacking in detail on how to prevent and follow up incidents of bullying.

It was also found that the anti-bullying policies of New Zealand schools fell short of those in Australian schools. The researchers note there are stronger expectations and greater resources to facilitate the development of anti-bullying policies in Australian schools. Their policies were also more comprehensive than in New Zealand schools – in the ways bullying was defined and the procedures detailed for reporting and responding to incidents.

Interestingly, schools in New Zealand are not specifically required to have an anti-bullying policy, and instead use their own governance structure to formulate policy. This could mean that schools take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying such as expulsion or suspension, or use more restorative practices such as mediation or counselling to keep pupils in school.

Leaving it up to schools to decide how to deal with bullying can be problematic and dangerous. This was clear in the incident involving a school in the Hutt Valley, which came under criticism for failing to protect victims of bullying, alert parents or report attacks to police. The New Zealand Herald gave details of a scathing report issued by the Office of the Ombudsmen in September last year, in which the incident was exposed.

The niggly thing about this case is that it begs the question of how many other similar incidents are being hushed or downplayed for fear of media attention. So it is with an ironic pencil this article is written. And yet surely the more exposure this topic receives, the more awareness there will be, and the more that will be done to obliterate it from our schools? One can only hope.

The Hutt Valley cover-up incident prompted Human Rights Commissioner David Rutherford to once again urge for the fight against bullying to become a priority for New Zealand.

“That is a major human rights issue in New Zealand because it threatens the right to life. There is clearly more we can do because it’s unacceptable.”

Everyone agrees, but where are the answers? Do we keep pursuing the same dogged approach in the hope that one day it will work – and let’s be clear, many schools are reporting fewer bullying incidents thanks to anti-bullying campaigns – and bullying will be a rare occurrence? One has to wonder if there is too much emphasis on placing the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and whether we need to be looking more closely at fixing the fence at the top. Metaphors aside, do we need to take a more proactive role in addressing the issues underlying bullies and working with these individuals at a younger age?

Bullying has occurred since the dawn of time at every stage of life and perhaps nothing will ever eliminate it, but it is clear we need to continue the fight against it, or pursue new avenues in dealing with it. Because as the recent cases, and the countless examples prior, show, the status quo is, to quote the Human Rights Commissioner, “unacceptable”.

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