Ombudsman fields over 400 grievances about school bullying

Oireachtas Education committee to hear of rise in serious bullying from Niall Muldoon

One submission will say ‘what some children describe as “bullying” can be more accurately described as robust banter’. File photograph: Getty

One submission will say ‘what some children describe as “bullying” can be more accurately described as robust banter’. File photograph: Getty

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

Ombudsman Niall Muldoon will on Tuesday tell the Oireachtas Education Committee there is an increase in cases of serious bullying resulting in physical and/or sexual assault.

He will say that some schools fail to report child-protection and welfare issues arising from bullying cases to Tusla, the child and family agency.

In a submission provided to committee members in advance of discussion on the problem of school bullying and its impact on mental health, Dr Muldoon says a State monitoring framework, the Anti-Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post-Primary Schools, is not doing anything more than checking if schools have a policy for responding to bullying.

His office recommended in 2016 that authorities should collate specific information and data on bullying countrywide to determine the issues and solutions that were occurring in schools.

“In light of a number of consultations we have had with children who say that within their schools they have experienced issues such as racism, homophobia and negative commentary about their mental health, we believe it is long overdue,” he says in his submission.

“It is also long overdue to review the department’s anti-bullying procedures to take account of issues such as those and cyberbullying because it may be time to start differentiating what constitutes bullying so that more refined solutions can be generated across the education system.”

Dr Muldoon also repeats a call to “have an independent therapist/counsellor available to every primary school in the country”, which he says has been shown internationally “to offer enormous advantages to schools and their communities by affording children the opportunity to normalise speaking to someone about their emotions or if they are feeling down”.

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley will tell the committee that research shows “schools that are more competitive and more focused on their students’ results in education than their emotional wellbeing tend to minimise bullying”.

As an example, she highlights three schools she deals with where one “appears to handle bullying very effectively, another does reasonably well, while the third school encounters bullying on an almost continuous basis”.

“This is remarkable as the kids are from mostly similar backgrounds,” she will say in her submission.

Making an intervention

Ms O’Malley says that an estimated 75 to 90 per cent of children do not bully, but only 20 per cent are prepared to intervene when instances occur. The role of adults, she says, is to encourage “bystanders” to intervene and become “upstanders”.

Dr Colman Noctor, in his submission, will say “what some children describe as ‘bullying’ can be more accurately described as robust banter”.

“If we over dilute the term I fear it will lose its significance and I believe language is an important player in the management of this dynamic. The key differentiation in this for me is intent.”

Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Claire Hayes will warn the committee that “there may even be a danger that by constantly exposing children to the word ‘bullying’ we could be reinforcing it as an option”.

She will say the focus should be on helping schoolchildren to develop resilience. “It involves challenging beliefs.”