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School Bullying Has Always Been With Us - But Time Now To Tackle It

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

I was a bit astonished to see Family First's take on the recent school bullying debate.

They have blamed, amongst other things, the rise of children's rights, undermining of parental authority and declining media standards as contributors to the rise in playground bullying. By saying that, they are insinuating that bullying has just been invented and has arisen due to an excessive overdose of social liberalism - or as right wing commentators are wont to put it 'political correctness.'

Well, I have news for Family First - bullying has always been around and it certainly wasn't invented yesterday. Having been a victim of school bullying 25 years ago due to having a disability, I can say that many of those same arguments could have been raised when I was at secondary school. During my time at both intermediate and high school, I suffered physical and emotional abuse from a minority of students. I can vividly recall, for example, being kicked in the back while sitting in my wheelchair at high school, having a knife held against my back while I wasn't looking when cycling home one day from intermediate and being spat on by some students and victimised also at high school. 

I have moved on with my life since that time but I haven't forgotten the humiliation I was subjected to at times. Since then, I have spoken with a number of students from the high school I attended and they too (even those who were able bodied) reported being bullied at the same time I was. I even recall hearing that one of my high school teachers had been attacked by a student. Injunctions by the school principal against bullying were absolutely useless and while most of the staff were empathetic and did their best, some disappointingly counselled that ignoring it was the best way to deal with it. The advice the staff offered came about because they were either scared of the situation or didn't know what to do about it. Bullying in the 1980s was endemic - just as it is now.

However, I understand that things have gotten worse over the last three decades. Information technology in the form of texting and email now enables bullies to follow their victims into what was previously a sanctuary - their home. Mobile phones and cameras have also enabled quick time uploads of school fights which are, really, insidious attacks launched by bullies against their victims. While schoolyard scraps were common in my day, they have increased in intensity from what I am given to understand. One only has to look at the recent footage of the Wanganui schoolgirl who was viciously attacked by another girl to realise this.

What started this renewed discussion around bullying was the You Tube video of Aussie teen Casey Heynes doing to his tormentor what I would practically have liked to have done to some of mine - deliver justice by body slam! Of course, I have to say that as a person with social liberal tendencies, I don't usually travel with the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth revenge brigade but on this occasion, I merely recounted the thinking that went on in my head as a tormented teen. Otherwise, I wouldn't counsel such a course either.

What did get me thinking about, though, is the claim that victims rights are overlooked in school bullying. The claim has been made that the outcomes of restorative justice style conferences, which seek to bring bullies together with their victims, tend to favour bullies. I would like to see the statistics on this to form an empirically based judgement, but on the anecdotal evidence, this isn't good enough. Yes, I am as a social liberal and favour restorative justice as part of victim and offender rehabilitation in the justice system. However, I also believe that, particularly for recidivist bullies, they need to be placed in alternative educational settings in order to be taken out of the schools they have wreaked havoc in altogether. While I am a fan of fully inclusive education for all disabled children, I would make a personal exception where children with severe behavioural issues are involved.

But the most common type of bully is the kid next door type. One of my high school bullies, for example, came from a well known family in the area where I lived. It is these bullies who tend to be overlooked in the debate too. Perhaps restorative justice would work more with this type of bully who has a supportive family but who needs to realise the consequences of their actions, along with their family/whanau. I believe that such conferences can deliver good outcomes but they need to be utilised on a case by case basis.

I am also pleased that the Government is spending $60 million on a school anti-bullying campaign. While I am not usually an advocate of targeted spending either, I just wonder about the efficacy of the programme given the incidents we have heard about recently. While John Key and Education Minister Anne Tolley can write letters to boards of trustees asking them to take bullying seriously, their needs to be legislative back up. I believe that bullying should be treated as a specific offence under the Education Act and/or Crimes Act.  If that were the case, I believe that kids, irrespective of their class background, should be subject to either restorative justice conferences or Youth Court appearances dependent on the severity of their offending and removal from the school environment and appropriate reparation to the victims where this is warranted. Further, I believe that the Human Rights Act should be amended to make hate crimes on the grounds of race, gender, religion, disability, sexual orientation a punishable offence including in schools and workplaces.

While we may not completely eradicate bullying, I believe that moves to drastically reduce its incidence should be tackled by the whole Parliament (with cross-party involvement) and society itself. Yes, Family First is right in outlining some of the societal triggers for bullying behaviour but they must be aware that bullying has always been a problem. The best way to tackle the problem, though, is to acknowledge the issues of violence and hate across society as a whole with domestic violence and street violence and workplace bullying being seen as part of the mix. To paraphrase the seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, bullying is a part of the 'nasty and brutish' battle for power that some people engage in. Of course we all need to have some power and control over our lives but a minority will aggressively do so at the emotional and physical expense of others.


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