If you’ve noticed a change in your child’s mood or behaviour, it may be that they’re dealing with schoolyard bullying. Parents and schools need to work together to ensure that bullying is stamped out.
Bullying can take many shapes and forms so it’s difficult to give a precise definition, but it’s generally understood that there are three basic elements:
- Typically, bullying involves a power imbalance between the bully or bullies and their victim. This power imbalance may arise due to the physical size of the bully or the size of the group targeting the victim.
- The behaviour must be repeated. Generally speaking, one single act does not constitute bullying.
- The bullying must cause harm to the victim.
In today’s digital age, young people must also contend with new forms of bullying. The rise of Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms has seen an increase in cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is an area of great concern and can be just as erosive and damaging as physical bullying. In some circumstances, it can also constitute defamation.
Rights and responsibilities
In simple terms, the school has a responsibility to keep your child safe. This means that your child should expect to attend school without experiencing emotional or physical harm.
The school should:
- have an adequate bullying policy in place
- provide adequate supervision of pupils, and
- take action when bullying is reported.
If you’ve made a report to your child’s school about bullying, the school should check into the welfare of your child and ensure that reasonable steps are taken to prevent the bullying.
Schools need to have enough counsellors to assist kids who are experiencing bullying. It can be helpful for them to also arrange seminars about bullying and the effects it can have on victims.
When your child is being bullied
If your child is being bullied (or you suspect they’re being bullied), notify the school as soon as possible. Always follow up verbal communication with an email or letter. Keep a copy so you have a record of when you reported the bullying and what was said.
Try to provide the school with as much information about the alleged bullying as possible. This gives them the best chance of fixing the problem.
While the school is investigating, try to limit your child’s exposure to the bullying. For example, pick them up from school if they’re being physically or verbally abused on their way home.
If the bullying is severe, and particularly if your child’s safety is in danger, consider contacting the police.
When your child has been accused of bullying
If your child has been accused of bullying (or you suspect they’re engaging in bullying behaviour), speak with your child and their school about the allegation. Explore ways of managing your child’s behaviour to minimise the possibility of them bullying other kids. For example, limit their access to social media if you suspect that they’re posting negative things about classmates.
You may need to consider seeking specialist advice from a behavioural or mental health professional.
In some circumstances, schoolyard bullying can lead to legal proceedings. In NSW, a student from St Patrick’s College took legal action against her school for breaching its duty of care. Among other things, the student claimed that the school failed to adequately act upon her complaints about being bullied. When the case went to trial the student was successful in showing that the school had breached its duty of care and was awarded over $115,000.
The judge found that the school did little more than provide counselling to the aggrieved student. What was needed was an investigation into the allegation and positive action to prevent the bullying. Indeed, the school’s own bullying policy required that when bullying was reported, the matter was to be investigated and, if substantiated, action was to be taken against the perpetrator.
The NSW Supreme Court of Appeal found in favour of the student, agreeing that the school had breached its duty of care.
There is no one solution for bullying. Parents need to work with the school to manage their child’s behaviour or exposure to bullying. If you’re concerned that your child is being bullied, or if you suspect that they may be bullying others, speak with their school.
Make sure the school has an adequate anti-bullying policy in place and that it takes bullying seriously. The consequences of bullying can be severe and long-lasting. By working with your child and their school you can help prevent, minimise or put a stop to bullying before it gets out of hand.
Dimi Ioannou is a principal in Maurice Blackburn's Melbourne office.