Cyberbullying incidents have "soared in number" during the pandemic, leaving children "only a click away from distress", an Oireachtas Committee meeting on the mental health impacts of school bullying has heard.
Bullying in schools has become more difficult to monitor and intervene on due to the “ever increasing catalogue of ways bullying can occur”.
Damian White, President of the Irish Primary Principals Network told the Joint Committee on Education that bullying has a “severe impact” on victims, as well as their friends and family who witness the bullying.
“If unchecked, it can have a devastating effect on those involved and on school morale in general. It can lead to social isolation, stress, depression and suicide,” he said.
More support is needed for school leaders, with updated resources on the various types of bullying which can occur in a school setting while emotional counselling should be available,” he said.
Schools also need to have a standalone anti-racism policy in order to make racism “something that is completely unacceptable in schools”, and more needs to be done to make teaching as a profession more racially diverse, Mr White told the Committee.
Rachel O'Connor, Principal at Ramsgrange Community School in Wexford said the focus of schools should be on prevention rather than intervention, as the move to the online space over the past 15 months has made it "far more difficult to monitor bullying".
Green Party TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh noted there is “something qualitatively different about cyberbullying in how it can travel inside and outside school gates, over weekends and countrywide in a very short space of time.”
He said there is a huge deficit of mental health services for school children in areas such as the South-East.
A positive school culture where people can feel free to speak out is essential to make sure bullying does not thrive in schools, John Irwin, General Secretary at the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools told the Committee.
Restorative practices are “hugely important” in instances of bullying, Mr Irwin said. “It takes time, but the evidence is very compelling as to how successful it is. There is significant evidence that forgiveness is a key element in what has to happen for all involved,” he said.
Schools need parents to buy into the restorative practice, and schools require time and resources to train staff and parents. Home school liaisons and project workers are “worth their weight in gold” as they help to break down the barriers between home and school and involve parents, Ms O’Connor said.
Punitive practices should be a “last resort” if perpetrators will not take responsibility for their actions.
It was also noted that children “lash out” more frequently where their basic needs are not met. Mr Irwin added that ideally, every school should have access to a psychotherapist. “Inclusive education is not cheap. You have to invest,” he said.