Second Opinion: Anti-bullying policy is clear, so schools should act on it
Implementing the new procedures will make children’s school experiences a whole lot healthier. Photograph: Thinkstock
What can parents and children expect from the excellent new anti-bullying policy from the Department of Education and Skills (DES)? Not a lot ,it seems. Eight months ago the DES wrote to all schools about the anti-bullying procedures for primary and post-primary schools. It said: “Boards of management are now required to immediately commence the necessary arrangements for developing and formally adopting an anti-bullying policy which fully complies with the requirements of these procedures. It is expected that this will be completed by each school as early as possible in the 2013/14 school year but in any event by no later than the end of the second term of the 2013/14 school year.”
The third term has just started and by now all schools should have the new procedures in place.
The circular from the DES specified that the anti-bullying procedures must be “published on the school website (or, where none exists, be readily accessible to parents and pupils)”.
In the spirit of research, I contacted 10 schools in Galway city. My sample consisted of two large mixed primary schools, two large all-girls schools, one large all-boys primary school, three large mixed second-level schools, one all-girls secondary school and one all-boys secondary school.
Only three of the schools had a bullying policy on their website: two of these were based on the 1993 guidelines, which are now outdated, and the third listed a bullying policy that I could not download.
One policy states some pupils “may act as bystanders, in which case they are equally guilty of bullying”: the new procedures rule out this attitude.
Very clear circular
This is an extraordinary situation. The September 2013 circular could not have been clearer. Schools were given two terms to comply, yet two weeks after the deadline 10 Galway schools either have no policy on their websites or are using 20-year-old procedures.
Schools listed plenty of other policies about issues such as pastoral care, school tours, mobile phones, and relationships and sexuality programmes. All 10 schools had codes of behaviour and most of these referred to bullying. This is not enough.
The circular from the DES said schools’ anti-bullying policies must comply with the new procedures.
Boards of management have no excuse for not complying as the procedures include an easy-to-use policy template.
What is going on? Are boards of management worried that the sight of an anti-bullying policy on their schools’ websites will make parents think twice about sending children to those schools? (“They have an anti-bullying policy, so there must be bullying.”) Parents are not that naive. By now everyone knows there are bullies in all schools, just as there are bullies in all workplaces.
The new procedures differ from the 1993 guidelines in a number of important respects. Children who are bullied are no longer blamed for contributing to their torment.
Victim-blaming phrases such as “It is of note that some pupils can unwittingly behave in a very provocative manner which attracts bullying behaviour”, are absent from the new procedures. Cyberbullying and identity-based bullying, such as homophobic and racist bullying, are now included.
The 1993 guidelines stated that “isolated incidents of aggressive behaviour can scarcely be described as bullying” whereas the new procedures acknowledge that
“a single incident can have a serious effect”.
Placing a once-off offensive message or image on a social networking site, which can be viewed and shared by others, is now regarded as bullying.
The new procedures recognise that observers and bystanders, who can be badly affected by bullying behaviour, need support and not censure.
Bullying is a problem in Irish schools, with 20-30 per cent of all students bullied on a regular basis.
Immediate health impacts include depression, anxiety disorders and suicide ideation. Decreased educational and occupational attainments have long-term health consequences. Witnesses to bullying are also affected.
If schools follow the DES policy template, everyone will know which teachers are responsible for investigating and dealing with bullying, the prevention strategies used, procedures for investigation, follow-up and recording of bullying behaviour, intervention strategies used, and what the school does to support pupils affected by bullying.
Implementing the new procedures will make children’s school experiences a whole lot healthier. U
nfortunately, schools are not required to inform the DES when they have adopted a policy in accordance with the procedures.
It is time for this to change and the DES must spell out the consequences if boards of management do not comply. Children’s health depends on it.
Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion
The DES antibullying policy is at iti.ms/1hOgZMc