Anti-bullying policies in schools cannot be tokenistic, committee hears

Parents also play a huge role in establishing a culture where bullying is not tolerated

Schools and parents must also acknowledge that bullying is an inevitability in schools, committee hears.

Schools and parents must also acknowledge that bullying is an inevitability in schools, committee hears.

 

Schools must be held accountable to ensure they properly implement anti-bullying policies, but equally they must be provided with the resources and expertise to tackle the issue, the Oireachtas Education Committee has heard.

Child psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor said a “poster at the entrance” is not sufficient for tackling the issue of bullying, and schools must cultivate a culture of respect.

“There has to be an accountability of results and outcomes rather than just a tokenistic effort,” he said.

Parents also play a “huge role” in establishing a culture where bullying is not tolerated.

He said many parents believe their child is not capable of being perpetrators. There must be a degree of “buy-in” from the parents of both the victim and the bully to actively follow up on instances of bullying, he said.

Stella O’Malley, a psychotherapist based in Co Offaly, told the Committee that bullying policies are too often “in the background” and schools must focus on executing their programmes properly, she said. Bystanders are the “silent majority” who nod along and are complicit. Schools must foster an environment that encourages bystanders to become “upstanders” when they observe instances of bullying, she said.

Acknowledge

Schools and parents must also acknowledge that bullying is an inevitability in schools, Ms O’Malley said. Parents must come to terms with the fact their child could be a bully and “that is okay”, she said.

“There is a kind of a vilification of bullying and they [parents] are so frightened of their child being a bully that they kind of deny it,” she said. Schools that successfully deal with bullying provide support and plans for the bully who has “gone askew and needs to be helped”.

Ms O’Malley said sexual assault is “very common” and young girls often don’t realise they are being assaulted.

“They think the boys are being mean… This has to be called out and it has to be acknowledged on a much clearer basis,” she added.

Dr Noctor said it has been proven internationally that therapeutic supports in school have a positive influence on reducing bullying. Currently teachers are being asked to take on complex mediation roles, and dealing with accusations of bullying can be contentious and litigious, he said.

‘Very little engagement’

Children’s Ombudsman Niall Muldoon said there has been “very little engagement” from ministers about piloting independent therapists or counsellors within schools. Such a move has been shown internationally to offer “enormous advantages” to school and their communities by making it normal for a child to speak about their emotions, he said.

“What I am looking for is availability of a therapist or counsellor, so it may be one therapist for two or three primary schools… I think it would take a huge amount of pressure off a lot of the teachers and the parents,” he said.

He said schools are still the best place for dealing with bullying that takes place off-site, and most principals are willing to deal with this. He said a culture change that promotes diversity and respect would “carry through regardless” of where the bullying takes place.

More than 400 complaints about bullying in schools have been made to the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman since 2018, making up almost 10 per cent of all complaints received in that period.