Religious education teachers have expressed concern that practising Catholics are singled out for bullying more than non-religious students, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Citing research from DCU’s Anti-Bullying Centre, Prof James O’Higgins Norman said such pupils were often seen as “old fashioned or out of the mainstream culture” due to a decline in the number of children who practice religion.
“In addressing that we need to promote understanding of difference, that difference is the norm and a good thing, and no two kids are the same,” he said.
Prof O’Higgins Norman and his academic team were addressing the Oireachtas Committee on Education, which is examining the issue of school bullying and its effects on mental health.
In 2013, an official action plan was introduced to schools but the DCU academic staff suggested that it be audited to ensure the inclusion of more recent research.
In its submission to the committee, the academics also recommended efforts be made to raise awareness around the vulnerability of students based on identity, notably in the areas of religious adherence, sexual orientation and ethnicity.
The committee heard that physical appearance was “the top reason for being bullied”.
“It is well established in research that negative childhood experiences have a negative effect on the development of a child, particularly when the bullying is related to identity. Our research shows that school principals understand and recognise this,” Prof O’Higgins Norman said.
However, the DCU submission also noted that just 51 per cent of schools have appointed a specific member of staff to investigate and tackle bullying. It called for greater transparency regarding how cases are reported and dealt with in individual schools.
Fianna Fáil Senator Fiona O'Loughlin asked the witnesses whether there would be any merit to some form of national bullying database whereby schools would record incidents and types of bullying.
Tracking bullying activity
Prof O’Higgins Norman said he would support such a database that tracked bullying activity because “having good quality data allows us to make informed decisions about the initiatives that we use and about how effective they are”.
Dr Mairéad Foody also said it would be a good idea if it could be done confidentially, so schools would not be concerned about such data affecting attendance rates.
On the issue of cyber activity, increasingly to the fore in the school bullying debate, Dr Foody noted that it was still less prevalent than more traditional forms but that it could have a more severe impact on victims.
“One incident of cyber-bullying might be enough for somebody to feel so isolated and alone that their mental health is under severe pressure whereas offline bullying might continue for a little bit more time before they would need to seek help,” she said.
Prof O’Higgins Norman said parents and teachers were also “rightly concerned” about cyber-bullying but noted that improvements in online moderation were increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence designed to identify bullying before it was seen.
“[However] we don’t have a full picture of how well it’s working because the metrics are within companies and access to them is quite limited,” he said.