The clean-cut and smiling image of 13-year-old Daniel Fitzpatrick is haunting now.
The New York teenager’s photo was spread across newspapers and websites world-wide last month after he took his own life. He had been mercilessly bullied over a period of months.
Worse still, his suicide note claimed that he tried to reach out for help to his school, but Holy Angels Catholic Academy did nothing to stop the bullying.
A senseless and preventable death serves no purpose, but if there is a lesson to be learned, it’s this: bullying needs to be taken seriously.
That’s something that a group of Lyttelton Primary School parents pushed in July after several of their kids were physically attacked in the school’s playground over the period of a year, taking their cause to the media when they felt the school hadn’t taken them seriously.
So when should a school step in?
The Ministry of Education released a Bullying Prevention and Response guide for schools in 2015. To meet the national administration guideline requirements for a safe physical and emotional school environment, all schools should have a policy that defines bullying and sets out how the school community will address it. In short, the school needs to let parents know if their child is being bullied.
The grey area is around the definition of bullying.
What is bullying
Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behaviour among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behaviour is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumours, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.
However, we have to get beyond definitions and to the heart of the issue according to former teacher and student-led anti cyber bullying Sticks ‘n Stones project facilitator Karla Sanders.
“The terminology becomes the focus, which means that we are not focusing on the hurt that has been caused. That’s something that we need to address. If the child is being harmed, let’s deal with that first before we define exactly which category the behaviour falls into.”
She’ll be right
Part of the issue, according to Karla, is New Zealand’s culture.
“One of things that concerns us is there’s a “she’ll be right,” a “tough it out,” and “it’s part of growing up” attitude, and that’s really not helpful. It’s not like puberty or first love. It’s not something that we should expect kids have to go through. Bullying can impact people for the rest of their lives.”
Karla says solving bullying requires schools and parents to work together rather than feeling like they are on opposing sides. “Some parents connect with other parents first without addressing the issue with the school. I think that they genuinely believe that they’re doing the right thing for a quick resolution. But in our experience, that normally escalates the situation and makes it worse, especially for the child.”
It was complicated for schools, Karla said. Teachers were being asked to deal with a lot in regards to bullying disclosures and did not necessarily have the skills to do it effectively.
“They need support and training for how they can positively deal with bullying or harassment disclosures. I mean, if you have a class of 32 nine-year-olds and one boy doesn’t want to come into the class because of bullying, you need the skills to know how to gather the information and provide the support before you make decisions and take action.”
New Zealand’s track record
In the 2012 world-wide survey The Trends in Mathematics & Science Study, only two countries scored higher than New Zealand for bullying among year five students.
NetSafe statistics indicate that up to one in five people have been cyber-bullied, but Sticks ‘n Stones’ own survey of more than 1400 youth revealed a much more interesting picture: cyber bullying was the least common form of bullying in the data that they calculated for 11 to 16-year-olds: between 6 and 12 per cent of individual cases, compared to 32-60% experiencing verbal bullying. However, that figure grew when it was combined with verbal bullying: 14-21%. That was concerning said Karla, because of the speed, anonymity and audience reach that digital communication afforded. While bullying was once contained in the playground, it was now sprawled across social media for all to see, with seeming impunity.
How to talk with your child about bullying
When a parent learns that their child is being bullied, the response is often, “Why didn’t they tell me?”
There are several reasons for this according to the U.S Committee for Children. The first is that children don’t believe that adults will act. In fact, research shows that adults rarely intervene. Many adults believe that young people need to “work out” bullying problems like on their own.
Blenheim-based life coach Erena Oliver said that kids she had counselled often expressed that they didn’t believe their parents would listen to them.
“When you have a busy lifestyle, kids sometimes have the belief system that “Mum and Dad don’t have time for me.” I even had one boy whose mum was at home full time and he honestly believed that she didn’t care or listen to him. So it’s about communication and feeling connected with each other.”
Other reasons that kids don’t speak up are fear of retaliation, getting a reputation as a tattle-tale, not being aware of subtle forms of bullying such as spreading rumours, as well as feeling ashamed, afraid or powerless.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner recommends that if parents learn that their child is target of bullying, they should:
• Stay calm.
• Work out how to deal with the situation together.
• Reassure your child that they have done the right thing in talking about it, that the bullying is not their fault, and that you will work with the school to make things better.
• Agree on a plan of support for your child.
• Regularly check with your child to see how they are doing.
Prevention – the best cure
The best possible way to protect your child from bullying is to prepare them for how to deal with it before it happens.
Education is key, experts say. Talk about what bullying is, why it happens, how to recognise it and ways that you will deal with it together. Your child will come to you if you have regular, open communication with them and they know in advance that they can talk about bullying with you.
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