What can schools do about bullying?

by Alan Knowsley - Rainey Collins Lawyers

Bullying is still a common occurrence within the New Zealand school system, despite many powerful and prominent anti-bullying campaigns. Fortunately, there are many things schools can do to help prevent or resolve bullying issues.

Schools’ legal duties

Schools have a series of obligations they need to meet to prevent bullying.

Under the National Administration Guidelines, each school and their Board of Trustees is required to provide a safe physical and emotional environment for their students. This means that schools should be bully free.

As well as this, under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, schools are legally obligated to take all practicable steps to ensure that no harm befalls their students. Schools which tolerate bullying or take no action could face prosecution for breaches of health and safety legislation.

The Teachers Council likewise places an ethical obligation on all registered teachers to prevent bullying. Complaints can be issued against a teacher if they are seen to be acting or failing to act in a way that breaches their code of ethics.

Powerful pro-active policies

There are several guidelines available for schools on how to design and implement powerful anti-bullying policies.

Policies empower staff, pupils, and parents if they:
  • Set out common sense proactive measures designed to prevent bullying behaviours;
  • Establish processes for recognising and responding to bullying in the classroom or on the playground;
  • Cover all common types of bullying (including lower level instances, physical bullying, cyberbullying, and bullying which raises human rights issues);
  • Set out processes for evaluation of common bullying issues and appropriate responses; and
  • Provide clear and fair processes when escalation is necessary. This includes clear processes for disciplinary actions against those found to be instigating bullying.

It is important that any policies put in place by a school achieve buy in from the wider school community. This means schools should engage in an active consultation process when designing policies.

Policies should also be communicated out to the wider school community, and should be readily available for anyone who wants to consult them (especially staff and parents). At a practical level, this means there should be a copy of the policy available on the school’s website, at the school office, and in each new student’s enrolment pack.

Respect for the victim or complainant

Staff need to be trained to ensure that those who report or are victims of bullying behaviour feel the school:

  • ACKNOWLEDGE their complaint, and take it seriously;
  • INVESTIGATE to quickly get to the bottom of what’s going on, and why;
  • FOLLOW UP by taking the appropriate steps under the relevant policies and processes in place; and
  • COMMUNICATE each step of the way, so that the victim or complainant knows what the school is doing.

Respect for the instigator 

Schools provide a sense of community for all our kids. When dealing with those who have instigated bullying, a broad view is best and staff should be empowered by policies that allow them the flexibly to address what might be going on in the background.

Rights of natural or procedural justice also apply if disciplinary action is initiated. This means the person accused of bullying has a right to be told what the accusation is, have a right to respond to that, and have a right to be involved in decisions made about them.

Discipline outcomes

It is important to obtain a full understanding of exactly what happened and how this fits into the school’s policies and processes for dealing with bullying.

As a result, for lower level incidents teachers may simply talk to those involved or give the instigator a detention or, in more serious cases, refer the dispute to the Principal in accordance with the school’s policies.

At this point other disciplinary actions might be considered. This could include stand downs and suspensions. Where this happens, a full process must be adequately followed to ensure that rights are respected.

The school board can also deal with exclusions and expulsions if the matter is serious enough. Once again a full and fair process must be followed.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that discipline is only one tool in the toolbox. To fully address bullying, schools need to be comprehensive in their response.

External agencies and support

In some cases, another agency may need to become involved.

For example, with bullying based on sexual orientation, gender, race or disability is involved, it may be appropriate to consider contacting the Human Rights Commission for help.

In other cases, wider issues might be at play and it may be appropriate to contact the Police or Child Youth and Family for support.

The Education Review Office, the Ministry of Education, the New Zealand School Trustees Association, the Human Rights Commission, and the Office of the Ombudsman also have resources available to help schools handling complex bullying problems.

In some cases, it may also be appropriate to contact the school’s legal advisors (including where there are insurance risks).

Complaints processes

If parents are not satisfied with the way the school has handled a bullying problem, an effective complaints process can help ensure all issues are adequately addressed at a lower level.

As part of this, parents might broach the subject with the Board of Trustees through a written complaint. If they do so, they should be invited to attend any meetings where the issue will be discussed.

In some circumstances parents may also complain to the Education Review Office, the Ministry of Education, the Ombudsman or the Human Rights Commission (if an issue involves victimisation on the basis of sex, race, sexual orientation or disability). In each case, schools should engage in any process in a proactive manner and take advice at an early stage from the School Trustees Association.

For more information on this topic, please contact the Rainey Collins office (04 4736850)
or the article author - Alan Knowsley.

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