Behaviour - Removing the stain of prejudice from schools

Racist bullying can have serious, even criminal, consequences, but too few teachers know how to handle it – so follow this guide
26th September 2014, 1:00am
Varsha Shah


Behaviour - Removing the stain of prejudice from schools

You witness an incident of racial bullying: a student being called a "terrorist", having his accent mimicked or derogatory references being made to his skin colour. What action does your school require you to take?

If you are not sure, you are not alone. It turns out that many teachers have little or no guidance in this area, often because their school leaders are not aware of the proper protocol.

More than 1,400 young people contacted Childline to seek counselling for racist bullying in 2012-13. According to the charity, many of the victims said that when they reported the issue to teachers, either nothing happened or they were advised simply to ignore the bullies. When action was taken - such as racism being discussed in whole-school assemblies - Childline says that many young people felt the situation was made worse, because the action in effect "advertised" the issue and increased bullying behaviour.

Legal ramifications

Anecdotally, too, teachers and parents report that racism is not being treated with the seriousness it requires. One mother, whose son was bullied for being Jewish, said that she had to go to the local authority, schools inspectorate Ofsted and the police before the school would act. What makes this slow response more serious is that the police should have been involved already. When racist bullying is reported, schools have to decide if it amounts to a hate crime. If it does they are required to report the matter to the police.

The government definition of a hate crime is broad enough to encompass a wide variety of incidents. The Home Office website states that "crimes committed against someone because of their disability, gender identity, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation are hate crimes and should be reported to the police. Hate crimes can include: threatening behaviour, assault, robbery, damage to property, inciting others to commit hate crimes [and] harassment."

Failure to act properly when racism is reported, particularly if it amounts to a hate crime, could result in a school being taken to court. Institutions are required to have clear policies that set out what processes an employee should follow if they suspect racial bullying. A school that does not do enough to combat racist bullying risks censure from Ofsted, damage to its reputation and, ultimately, legal action for negligence.

How to get it right

  • So what should schools be doing? You can use the following guide to inform official procedures:
  • Deal with the incident in accordance with the school's behaviour policy.
  • Report the matter to relevant senior staff.
  • Take appropriate steps to prevent further bullying (this may involve excluding the perpetrators).
  • Consider contacting the police where a hate crime is suspected.
  • Inform the parents of the bullied child about the incident and reassure them about the steps the school is taking.
  • Inform the parents of the alleged bully about the incident, what will happen next and the possible consequences for their child.
  • Leadership teams should also seek appropriate advice. There is plenty of support and guidance available, not least from colleagues at nearby schools.
  • Use lessons learned from incidents to guide future training of staff.
    • Vicki Hunt of school support service Judicium Education says that these points should not be seen as a checklist to tick off but a reminder of key concerns.

      "Human expertise and judgement are crucial," she says. "The above isn't a prescriptive list, and is in no particular order. Rather, it's a coordinated response - and the school will need to run several of the steps simultaneously."

      It is important to note that this procedure still applies if the bullying occurs outside school. Teachers have the power to discipline pupils for misbehaving away from school premises when, for example, the misbehaviour presents a threat to another pupil or the perpetrator is in school uniform or otherwise identifiable as a member of the school. In terms of combating cyberbullying, the Education Act 2011 gives teachers in England the specific power to search for and, if necessary, delete inappropriate files on electronic devices, including mobile phones.

      A balance must be struck here. Schools must apply disciplinary measures fairly, consistently and reasonably, taking account of any special educational needs or disabilities that bullies may have. The motivations behind bullying behaviour should be considered - and it may turn out that the perpetrator is in need of support themselves.

      Whatever the situation, schools need to know how to act, and ensure that protocols are written down so that every teacher is aware of what is expected of them. The consequences of not acting properly could be disastrous for all concerned.

      Varsha Shah is a teacher in North London

      What else?

      Hold a thought-provoking assembly on racism and xenophobia with this resource.

      Ensure that pupils understand the impact of racism and the motivations behind prejudice.

      Use this worksheet to help pupils articulate the prejudice they have experienced from adults.

      A brother and sister discuss their experiences of racism in this BBC video.

      Read government advice on how to prevent bullying.

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