Tolerating school bullying is accommodating it – Meng Foon

Tolerating school bullying is accommodating it – Meng Foon

October 29, 2019

If Government and schools took bullying prevention seriously, it would be impossible to estimate the positive flow on effects. International research shows school-aged bullying victims will face higher risk of experiencing poorer health, economic and relational outcomes as adults. Prevention is a chance to futureproof our country from countless, related social issues and the associated economic costs. Framed positively, all our young people would learn lifelong skills to become fair, non-bullying adults. As the Race Relations Commissioner, I am adding my voice to the Children’s Commissioner -- I am calling for Government to mandate bullying prevention. I also want it to be compulsory for schools to collect bullying data. 

New Zealand has built up an unnatural tolerance for bullying. We rank very poorly in international bullying statistics. Initiatives over the past five years have not improved these figures. 94% of teachers indicate that bullying occurs in their school. Government, school leaders and by virtue, New Zealanders, have accepted bullying as a reality. Tolerating school bullying is tantamount to accommodating it. Please note: Bullying is not a rite of passage or a marker of youth resilience. Neither is it an occupational hazard or a test of professional grit for teachers. If we don’t put a spike in the pathway of bullying behaviour now, it will be the norm in our adult life. 

For example, workplace harassment and bullying is now firmly cemented in the New Zealand employment lexicon. No workplace, including the one I now represent, is immune from bullying and harassment complaints. Media, advocates and Government Inquiries can give complainants a hearing. But, why should we have to accommodate the prolonged negative effects of bullying behaviour, years after the fact? 

So how do we stop bullying? This is a topic where ideas are abundant. However, not all are without risks. Even seemingly straightforward solutions can sometimes have unintended consequences. One solution that has been suggested is having cameras in schools or personal security devices to record, and to deter physical bullying. This is predicated on the idea and scientific evidence that we behave better when people are watching. On the plus side, this approach has kept lots of people safer such as public transport commuters and people dealing with authorities. But from a human rights lens, balancing the right to safety with the right to privacy is required. For instance, if video footage of bullying went viral, it would haunt victims for years, or inspire copycat or revenge videos. In the end, attempts to curb physical bullying, could ironically lead to more online bullying which is already a major problem for young people. Moreover, what message does it send our children if we’re installing cameras in playgrounds and classrooms? If schools are only safe with surveillance, then we’re ignoring the bigger issues. 

So, enough hypothesizing. The Human Rights Commission suggests that our best chance to eliminate bullying will require Government and all schools to commit to two key actions. 

The first action is mandatory, evidence-based bullying prevention programmes in schools. For years, the Commission along with the Ombudsman, several United Nations Committees, the Law Commission and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner have all called for these prevention programmes in schools. To date, the Government has not acted on this advice. I am affirming our long-held position. 

While some schools, kura and communities have implemented good anti-bullying practice, there is no meaningful accountability for schools who haven’t. Furthermore, interventions should be evaluated for effectiveness. An example of the type of programme that should be mandated and funded is KiVa, which has been scientifically proven to work. A  primary evaluation showed excellent results in 30 New Zealand schools. Bullying decreased between students and even between teachers. 

Secondly, Government must make it mandatory for schools to collect bullying statistics and monitor students’ experiences of bullying. This not a question of whether bullying occurs, this is the data on frequency and causes. The gathering of family violence data was a game changer in recognising the prevalence of the issue and designing suitable prevention. Without bullying data, we will not have an accurate picture of its extent, and it will be impossible to assess whether initiatives are effective. 

Continuing to deprioritise prevention, is another sign that we have normalised bullying in the same way we have learnt to tolerate our high rates of abuse, family violence and suicide. Addressing bullying could help restrain these violent forces. Let’s prevent and futureproof our children from the corrosive effects of bullying now.

This first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on the 29th of October.