Behaviour - Schools could get the power to take bullies to court
The most serious sanction that principals can currently impose on bullies is exclusion from school. But under controversial plans, teachers are to be given sweeping powers to deal with their students' behaviour in the courts.
Reforms going through Parliament recommend that principals in England and Wales should be given the right to request injunctions against children who are abusive to others.
But although the move has garnered support from some quarters, there has been a strong backlash from campaign groups that are concerned that it could criminalise children from vulnerable backgrounds and even lead to custodial sentences.
The injunctions are planned as one of the replacements for antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos), with MPs voting in favour of school and college principals being added to a list of people who can seek them.
The BeatBullying charity, which is backing the move, said that it is important to have a strong deterrent against bullying.
"We need to give out a message that bullying is not tolerated in our society and there are implications for people who break the rules," said Anthony Smythe, managing director of the charity. "Injunctions would be used if all else fails. They would be a deterrent."
The plan follows a number of high-profile cases in which victims of bullying have taken their own lives. BeatBullying researchers have found that 44 per cent of suicides among children aged 11-14 are linked to bullying.
The injunction would be a civil order; recipients would be told to address the underlying causes of their behaviour and given help to do so. Breach of the injunction, which could only be sought for children who were at least 10 years old, would be contempt of court and could lead to a maximum penalty for a young person aged 14-17 of a three-month detention order.
"Children and young people are just as entitled to justice as everybody else," Mr Smythe said. "Our discussions with the Home Office will cover how these powers can be used in a way that is non-discriminatory and fair, and which protects vulnerable children."
But other groups have strongly criticised the proposed injunctions. Luke Tryl, senior education officer at gay rights charity Stonewall, which has worked extensively to tackle homophobic bullying, said the move would encourage schools to "abdicate their responsibility to protect young people".
"There is a wide body of research to show that criminalisation of activities such as bullying is simply not a deterrent to young people," Mr Tryl said. "Instead, all that laws such as this do is make it even harder for young people to engage with society by labelling them as criminals.
"Even more disturbing is the fact that there is significant evidence to suggest that the types of pupils who fall foul of these laws are those from low-income or minority ethnic backgrounds."
New Zealand, Sweden and several US states have already introduced anti- bullying legislation. But Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he is against it.
"If there is an issue with antisocial behaviour, including bullying, which is serious enough, then schools would involve the police and leave the aspect of injunctions up to the police," he said.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, said the plans are "not necessarily a bad idea", but added that there is no great demand from schools for extra powers.
"This will be another string to the bow and in some circumstances schools could find it useful. But they do not want to criminalise young people, cut off their prospects and alienate them from their communities," he said.
A Home Office spokesman said: "Antisocial behaviour causes enormous harm to our communities. That is why the government is ensuring victims get a better response. Injunctions are flexible and designed to deal with a wide range of antisocial behaviour, including the bullying of children and adults."
The move to give more powers to schools in England and Wales to tackle bullying is being spearheaded by Shy Keenan, whose 14-year-old son Ayden Olson apparently took his own life earlier this year. Ms Keenan says her son was bullied at school before his death.
The campaign to introduce "Ayden's Law" is backed by newspaper The Sun. Those supporting the campaign also want a national anti-bullying strategy to be implemented.