Australia: We must bully-proof our schools if we want to bully-proof the workplace and our society

In brief - Schools must do more than simply create an anti-bullying policy

Schools must take the initiative to educate students, parents and teachers about bullying behaviour and its prevention, rather than merely responding to bullying incidents when they occur.

Bullying on the increase and bullies getting younger

Unfortunately, bullying has been and will continue to be a significant concern for our schools. Bullying in schools has existed for a very long time, however the explosion of the bullying phenomenon means it is not uncommon for all students to be bullied at school.

The age at which students start to bully is becoming younger and younger and it is not uncommon for pre-school and pre-preparatory/kindergarten children to be bullied. Individuals are not born bullies, but learn bullying behaviours at home and bring this behaviour into the school.

What is bullying in a school context?

Although there is no one universal definition of bullying, most definitions contain two elements: the repetitive nature of bullying and the illegitimate exercise of power.

Almost anyone can be a target, a bully or both and most children have the potential to bully, become a bystander or be a target.

The National Safe Schools Framework defines bullying as:

...a pattern of repeated physical, verbal, psychological or social aggression that is directed towards a specific student by someone with more power and is intended to cause harm, distress and/or create fear (emphasis added).

Bullying in all its forms is basically an abuse of power. Bullying can be carried out overtly (face to face) or covertly, which is difficult to detect and is "hidden" behaviour in the form of exclusion, whispering, stealing friends, gossiping and social isolation.

Teachers and parents are more likely to intervene when bullying involves physical behaviour, simply because it is easier to identify and invokes a response. Then there are the bystanders, those who aid and abet the bullying by not speaking up and stepping in, instead remaining silent and thereby giving their silent approval.

Negative impact and long-term effects of bullying

A target can be bullied consistently by one person, by a group or can confront many different bullies over time. The reality is, however, that bullying degrades, belittles, humiliates and threatens targets.

Bullying can impact a person physically, psychologically and socially. It has a negative impact on students and in some instances can have severe long term effects on a target's studies, career, relationships and financial wellbeing, as well as their physical and mental health.

Anti-bullying strategies need to be specific to each school

In order to control bullying, Australian schools are mandated to have anti-bullying policies. Every school must have a comprehensive strategy in place to tackle bullying in order for its classrooms and playgrounds to be safe.

However, each school is left to its own devices as to how it manages bullying and there is no one collective approach. Bullying strategies need to be individualised to the school and be unique to address specific issues relevant to the school.

Schools must have written anti-bullying policies and procedures

As the nature of bullying has continued to evolve, so too has the school's responsibility to its students to protect them from harm. Bullying was once seen as a normal part of growing up and whilst schools did not have a defined consistent approach to bullying, it was broadly not accepted and largely left to teacher discretion.

Much has been done in the way of formalising how schools manage bullying. Schools are expected and mandated to have written anti-bullying policies and procedures in place.

Bullying prevention strategies more effective than a reactive approach

Eliminating bullying takes time and is a process which requires consistent and ongoing effort on the part of schools. For a number of years, schools have been involved in a significant transition period in responding and adapting to the ever increasing rate of bullying. Part of this process has involved the development, implementation, review and refinement of anti-bullying policies and programs.

Schools are now slowly starting to shift away from being reactive in addressing specific instances of bullying, to realising that this is an issue in which a school must be both proactive and as a last instance, reactive. Directing energies to preventing bullying creates a far better outcome than attempting to manage bullying and being reactive in dealing with situations as they arise.

How have schools failed in bullying prevention to date?

Schools usually take bullying very seriously. However, at times schools have not managed bullying well.

In addressing bullying, schools often fall down in two areas: activities and response.

That is, either the bullying activities or behaviours of students go unnoticed by the school; and/or there is a lack of response from the teachers and schools in dealing with the bullying behaviour when it became known to them or ought to have been known by them. A lack of response from teachers can include no response at all, or a failure to respond adequately and effectively in the particular circumstances.

The case of Oyston v St Patrick's College [2011] NSWSC 269 is reflective of the practical difficulties schools often face in addressing bullying. (For more information about this case please see our article School breached its duty of care to student by not responding adequately to bullying.)

Schools need a multi-pronged approach to preventing bullying

There is still much to be learnt about bullying.

By adopting a multi-disciplined approach towards bullying, a school has the greatest opportunity to protect its students and itself. Schools should be looking to adopt a multi-disciplined approach, drawing resources and implementing a plan from:

  • A clear bullying policy and action plan
  • A document trail
  • Open communication
  • Ensuring teachers are trained in recognising and responding to bullying
  • Consultation with experts

Whilst some of these approaches are already adopted by schools, it is how these resources are used that is important.

Anti-bullying policies need regular review to ensure they are adequate and current

A school cannot have an anti-bulling program without an operative and effective anti-bullying policy. An anti-bullying policy is just one of the many shields a school can have in place to address bullying. Any anti-bullying program should be centred upon this vital document, as a policy allows a school to address its duty of care towards students.

What is required is a clear whole school definition of bullying and a clear anti-bullying policy that is easy for all students to comprehend, yet sophisticated enough to be able to be implemented and enforced.

Ideally, the policy should be developed in collaboration with staff, students and parents/carers. Such policies allow for a consistent approach in dealing with bullying. The policy should take into consideration any previous bullying issues that have arisen and be continually reviewed to ensure the policy remains current, relevant and that it adequately responds to bullying incidents within the school.

Action plan must define the process for dealing with bullying

A bullying policy should contain procedural steps to respond to bullying incidents such as investigation, conflict resolution, counselling, coaching, peer support, parental notification and punishment where appropriate.

An action plan needs to define clearly the process for dealing with bullying and the roles and responsibilities of staff, students and parents/carers in dealing with bullying. Also, it is important to account for who the bullying incident needs to be reported to within the school and who will be dealing with the incident.

Danger of "discretion" and of having an anti-bullying policy in theory only

Discretion in dealing with bullying can be problematic and needs to be treated cautiously. Discretion gives rise to a lack of consistency in managing bullying. Allowing discretion in a bullying policy can be the very start of failure for a school in not responding to bullying, regardless of how good its anti-bullying policy actually is.

The implementation of any policy or anti-bullying strategy is of little value unless it is put into practice, evaluated for its effectiveness and appropriately refined. The regular surveying of students is invaluable and can assist in identifying any shortfalls in a school's strategy to manage bullying.

Schools must protect themselves by formally documenting all incidents of bullying

The importance of a school maintaining a paper trail on bullying cannot be underestimated. Maintaining accurate documentation is critical and provides evidence that bullying policies and procedures are being adhered to. Where schools are put on notice of bullying, it is not enough to rely on bullying policies as a shield and that is where the document trail becomes important.

All incidents of bullying of which a teacher or staff member is aware should be formally recorded, reported to the leadership group and kept on student files. Schools and in particular, school authorities should be guiding teachers on the use of templates as to the type of information that should be captured. The process of dealing with a bullying incident should be documented fully and followed through.

Students must be taught to feel confident about reporting bullying

It is important to create an open environment where students can approach teachers and openly discuss bullying, knowing that it will be acted on. Students need to recognise that they are not powerless when it comes to bullying and that they need to help their fellow classmates.

Discussing bullying with students should be promoted in a supportive environment with a clear message that bullying in any form is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Students need to feel confident in reporting bullying to the teacher and they should be championed for doing so and taking a stand.

Communication about bullying between teachers, staff and the school leadership team

All teachers and staff need to be able to discuss and report bullying with the school leadership team and outline what action has been taken and by whom. The school should also have open communications with education offices about bullying and share information to ensure everyone is informed and kept up to date.

Being able to discuss bullying amongst the school's staff allows for greater ease of communication in discussing bullying with students and their parents. The school also needs to support the students and their families through regular communication with parents.

Training teachers to identify and recognise bullying

Despite bullying being a major issue in our schools, there is no requirement for teachers to have training on bullying. All teachers should undertake intensive personal development, be trained in recognising bullying and be confident in responding to incidents.

Training will allow teachers to be able actively to identify and recognise bullying behaviour, so that they can remain alert and able to detect key changes in student behaviour and personality, which are reflective of bullying behaviour being present.

Anti-bullying experts can give schools practical advice and help students build resilience

It is important for schools and education offices to establish dialogue with anti-bullying experts to obtain practical advice to keep up to date in this ever-changing field. Many of these experts are former teachers or psychologists who understand and work directly with bullying targets and bullies.

Experts can also assist schools with having a focus on working with their students in a broader sense. Whilst many schools will have a personal development program of sorts for their students, such programs need to have a focus on building resilience, language skills, special abilities and skills, assertiveness, coping strategies, group mechanism, motives for bullying and how to be an effective bystander.

Bullying must be eliminated from schools so it does not become part of the workplace

Dealing with bullying is a complex task and it is an issue for which a one-size-fits-all approach is not possible. Schools need to shift their focus from being reactive to proactive in tackling bullying and continually review how they can do better to bully-proof their school.

While society may not fully appreciate the impact of bullying, it does affect us all. If bullying cannot be stamped out in schools, society will have an even greater issue as the next generation of students goes into the workplace.

Schools play an important role in developing students and preparing them for the challenges that lie ahead in life. The bullies at school will also go to work one day. Students will eventually become working adults and the bullying behaviour, if not dealt with at an early stage at school, will creep into boardrooms and workplaces.

If schools do not succeed in stamping out bullying, such behaviours will continue to be an even greater issue for society. Schools need to recognise and acknowledge the important role they play and take a firm stance on bullying, not only to bully-proof their own school to strive towards successful education, but to assist in bully-proofing society.

This article is a condensed version of a paper presented at the Australia and New Zealand Education Law Association's 22nd Annual Conference in Hobart in October 2013. Colin Biggers & Paisley was a sponsor of the conference.

Natalie Bodak

Key Contact:
Kristen Lopes
Colin Biggers & Paisley

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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