Are schools expected to act as judge and juror in bullying cases?
The anti-bullying strategy to be introduced is far from perfect and may cause issues
Bullying is not something that arose through the availability of new technology: it has been a part of school life for as long as there have been schools.
Bullying has been a persistent problem in our primary and post-primary schools, and one that is exceptionally difficult to control. By its nature it is a hidden, surreptitious thing that can poison a child’s school life and produce scars that will be carried into adult life.
Nor is it anything new. It is not something that arose through the availability of mobile phone texting, or access to tablets or laptops. It has been a part of school life for as long as there have been schools.
The universality of bullying comes from an almost instinctive human tendency to accept some and exclude others from the group, to gain supposed social status among one’s peers by targeting a weaker opponent. This makes it particularly difficult to eliminate.
The new anti-bullying procedures to be adopted by all our schools represent the latest attempt to halt, or at least reduce, bullying behaviours. It is based on schools devising their own procedures in co-operation with school officials and teachers, parents and children.
This fresh effort to stop bullying is something to be welcomed if it can protect children from this hateful and upsetting behaviour. It will be a tall order to achieve its goals however.
The strategy aims to create an inclusive accepting environment in schools, but this will not prevent children from forming alliances and excluding anyone branded as different or weak.
There is also the question of how to identify whether it is taking place. The victim of bullying may feel isolated, but will be reluctant to report it and to become known as a “teller”, something they might fear could attract yet more bullying. There is also the issue of natural justice.
Schools already have procedures that are meant to reduce bullying and also to sanction those caught doing it. But how are school authorities to prove bullying has occurred and the perpetrator has been identified?
Are schools to act as judge and jury to decide such issues? Are they competent to do so? If a child is accused by another, how is evidence to be adduced?
Parents are necessarily going to be involved and will seek to defend their own children, but this could inflame an already difficult situation.
The Department of Education’s anti-bullying strategy places responsibility for devising procedures in the hands of the school authorities, with a strong emphasis on changing student attitudes to bullying as a way to stop it occurring in the first place.
Dealing with it
Yet bullying will still arise and schools will have to decide how to deal with the consequences. The plan suggests the introduction of procedures to investigate claims of bullying and ways to deal with it.
How many schools will feel happy to challenge a parent who refuses to accept that their child might have bullied another? And how realistic is it for the plan to suggest that blame should not be apportioned even as bullying behaviour is identified?