Two independent watchdogs have launched a campaign to make all schools record every case of bullying and adopt anti-bullying moves that have been proven to work.
Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft and new Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon say New Zealand’s high bullying rate – among the worst in the world – means the problem can no longer be left up to individual schools.
Foon, who was bullied himself as a student in Gisborne, has decided to focus on schools so racism can be “nipped in the bud” as early as possible in Kiwi lives.
“Racism happens at school, and as Race Relations Commissioner [I believe] we need to start at school,” he said.
He wants schools to adopt “evidence-based programmes” such as a Finnish project called KiVa, which now runs in 51 NZ schools and claims to have reduced bullying by 42 per cent in schools where it has run for three years.
A 10-year-old student at St Michael’s Catholic School in Remuera, Stavro Purdie, said the school’s KiVa team helped him to choose three “supporters” in his Year 6 class after he was bullied.
“People were throwing things at me and just kept on saying really rude things,” he said.
“It was three people doing it to me and it was very overwhelming because I just couldn’t handle situations like that.
“The principal got each one of those out of the class and talked to them about how rude that was and how I wanted it all better.”
School principal Ann McKeown said that as soon as bullying became a repeated pattern, the KiVa team of senior teachers stopped seeking explanations from both sides and simply asked those doing the bullying, “What goals can you make that will ensure that you never do this again?”
“They’re goals like, ‘I’ll include them in my games,’ or ‘I will build people up rather than putting them down,'” she said.
“In the majority of cases the bullying stopped. There is not even a handful of cases where the bullying has been repeated.”
New Zealand 15-year-olds reported the second-highest rate of bullying in the 35-nation OECD in 2015, behind Latvia. A quarter (26 per cent) experienced some kind of bullying at least few times a month, most often saying “other students made fun of me” (17 per cent).
The Education Review Office said in May that 38 per cent of NZ schools were working towards a bullying-free environment “to a great extent”, 45 per cent “to some extent” and 17 per cent “to a limited extent”.
Becroft said the report revealed a “patchwork quilt” where bullying prevention was “not systematically driven in a forceful way”.
“It’s not good enough,” he said.
“We need to be insisting that within six months, by the start of the next school year, every board of trustees in New Zealand needs to be able to clearly demonstrate and document consistently that there is a strategy that is in place, that the students have been involved in the design of, and it’s well known to the whole school, and it is being used, and that the incidence of bullying is coming down.”
Foon said the Ministry of Education should fund programmes like KiVa, which cost St Michael’s School $3200.
“Everything costs money,” he said. “But if you can save lives – and kids have committed suicide because of bullying – this is life and death in a lot of cases.”
He said he was told to “f*** off home” by another student at school in Gisborne in the 1970s because of his Chinese ethnicity.
“I felt very unsafe, intimidated, fearful every time I saw this particular person,” he said.
“My nephew goes to school in Whangārei. I saw him in the weekend, and because his eyes are smaller, some of his Pākehā friends say, ‘Can you see, mate?’
“It still happens, and there needs to be a huge change in the programmes at the present time. There are programmes right through schools, but they are not working, and the only one that is working, simply from an evidence base, is KiVa.”
But the NZ Association of Counsellors school counsellors’ spokeswoman, Jean Andrews, said there was “a whole raft of evidence-based programmes” and the key was to build “a culture that is about restorative practice, inclusion and celebrating differences”.
Māori Principals Association Te Akatea president Myles Ferris said both bullies and their victims needed “trauma-informed practice” – help to cope with traumas in their lives without lashing out at others.
Associate Education Minister Tracey Martin said overseas experience suggested that “requiring schools to have a bullying prevention plan alone would be unlikely to prevent or reduce bullying”.
“This is an area, along with the collection of data, that is complicated by the independence of our school boards,” she said.
“That said, it’s important that schools collect data to see how effective their approaches are and to chart change over time.”