As parents we send our children to school in the hope it’s a safe place for them to grow academically, socially and emotionally. But while schooldays are often fondly referred to as “the best days of our lives”, for many children their experience is far removed from the platitude.
The ISPCC's interim head of frontline services, Aoife Griffin, says "regrettably, bullying is an issue which continues to affect significant numbers of children and young people in Ireland. Through the group's Childline service – anyone up to age 18 can contact the service: 1800 66 66 66 (24 hours), texting to 50101 or chatting online at childline.ie (both 10am-4am) – we see how this type of behaviour can have a detrimental effect on young people's lives and on their self-esteem. Bullying can take many forms, and can happen in a wide variety of settings, including both online and offline."
Sophie (15) experienced bullying throughout primary school, transitioning from a happy-go-lucky child to an “introverted, quiet child, who spent hours alone in her bedroom, refusing to engage in any activities which didn’t involve immediate family”, her mother, Anne-Marie, says.
Anxiety and panic attacks became a real issue at home. Her self-esteem was shattered
“Sophie was singled out at yard time, called names, put down, blamed for incidents that didn’t involve her and her personal possessions would go missing. Anxiety and panic attacks became a real issue at home. Her self-esteem was shattered.”
Anne-Marie tried to deal with the issue within the family unit. “I worked tirelessly with Sophie to realise her self-worth and that none of this was her fault. Eventually I started calling other parents to see if I could get more information and I have to admit a few were quite helpful, discussing in a gentle way with their own children ways to help build a support network for Sophie within the class.
“It’s very stressful as a parent dropping your child off every morning to school not knowing what to expect when you collect your child in the afternoon.”
When Anne-Marie initially involved the school she felt the teacher “turned a blind eye on the situation and didn’t want to know about the emotionally vulnerable child in the class”. A panic attack in yard following a further incident changed this, and a meeting took place with the principal to ensure Sophie was coming “to a safe environment” in school.
“The biggest factor in helping Sophie was building her back up again,” her mother says. “This was a long road involving play therapy over a number of months. This equipped her with what she needed to be comfortable with herself, those around her and the confidence to face anything new.”
Amy’s (16) bullying problems began when she started secondary school. It was “slow and subtle” at first, her mother, Hazel, explains and took the form of “exclusion and intimidation”.
They would knock Amy's books out of her hands. Stand in front of her locker so she couldn't get to it
“Amy would go to lunch and the girls wouldn’t move over or save her a spot. They would make plans for the weekend and not include her and then talk about it in school on Monday in front of her. They would ignore her when they were talking.
“They would knock Amy’s books out of her hands. Stand in front of her locker so she couldn’t get to it. Shoulder her as she was walking down the halls. Speak loudly about her so others could hear.”
As Amy attempted to make new friends, those bullying her targeted them, sending texts asking: “What the f*ck are you doing with Amy? How dare you have Amy for a sleepover?”
“Amy became quiet, very anxious and withdrawn in school. She gave up dancing because they were in it – something she had been doing since junior infants. Amy started to believe that something must be wrong with her. They had chipped away at her for so long and well before we knew what was really going on.”
Hazel found the school to be of little support. “The year-head said, ‘Oh, girls fight. They’ll be friends again.’ The teacher kind of implied that Amy brought it on herself,” Hazel adds. “She had no time for the anxiety Amy was feeling. She would call her selfish and lazy for not going to the board or putting her hand up.”
Hazel’s own mother died recently. “I feel we didn’t fight Amy’s corner enough with the school as we assumed they would deal with the bullying appropriately which they didn’t – especially in third year,” she explains. “I always thought my kids would come to me with anything but learned that Amy didn’t as Mam was sick and she felt I had enough to deal with. I feel sad that she felt like that and grateful that my daughter is kind and caring and sees beyond herself.” Amy now attends counselling fortnightly.
Alan’s son Sean (14) has autism, ADHD, dyspraxia, reading difficulties and physical tics. Alan describes Sean as “a pleasant boy, never ordinarily in trouble”.
“There were two different bullies. One was physically intimidating and threatening him. Eventually it resulted in him being attacked and suffering injuries. The others would get him into trouble by saying he had said or done things he hadn’t.”
He was sent from the class numerous times just for not understanding what he was doing and being too scared to ask the teacher to repeat it
In spite of Sean’s diagnoses, Alan says one teacher would continually pass negative comments in class, which Alan feels “definitely made things worse”.
“He was sent from the class numerous times just for not understanding what he was doing and being too scared to ask the teacher to repeat it.
“It was very frustrating having to deal with the school. Until the physical assault happened, their attitude was he had brought it on himself by telling on this other boy. When that happened, they reluctantly took steps to ensure he was safe during school hours. His elder brother was affected as the boy in question was in his class. Thankfully he listened to us and didn’t take matters into his own hands.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education and Skills advised that: "The Action Plan on Bullying published in January 2013, sets out the department's approach to tackling bullying." The actions contained within "aim to ensure that all forms of bullying, including cyber bullying, are addressed".
Alan, however, believes “closer liaison between the school and the parents” is needed and “that similar to the education plans that are put in place for children with learning difficulties, a plan should also be put in place for children who have been bullied”.