Our children have the right to feel safe in school and the Assembly must achieve this, writes Ken Reid.
Staff at Morriston hospital in Swansea treated 34 pupils in a single term for injuries arising from serious incidents of bullying. The injuries, as reported last term, included broken bones, cuts and bruises, as well as the forced taking of drugs.
Such incidents must be a cause for concern. Although it is always possible to involve the police in specific cases, it is clear that much more needs to be done.
Most bullying in schools goes undetected. There are good reasons for this.
First, in serious cases, some victims are too anxious or terrified to report their suffering.
Sometimes reprisals can be brutal and out of all proportion to the cause.
Many pupils who are bullied do not inform their parents or carers because they are too ashamed - and for similar reasons are unwilling to report an incident to an authority figure within their school.
For every reported case of bullying, it is estimated there are between four and eight similar events. New victims have often observed what has happened to previous victims.
Rather like rape victims, some bullied pupils become double victims as preventive measures wrongly lead to their exclusion from school and placement in outside units, rather than the removal of the perpetrators.
Victims often start with low self-esteem, which is further reduced by bullying. And when a victim fails to report the first offence, the bullying gradually worsens and becomes more intense as the perpetrator grows confident that their victim is too afraid to report them.
For teachers, the position is equally complex. Many acts of reportable bullying take place out of school, within the community or on the way to or from a school. These may or may not be school-related.
It is often exceedingly difficult for teachers to detect unreported bullying, irrespective of cause. Some pupils fail to do homework, play truant, feign illness or become anorexic. But others display few or no discernible symptoms until they are pushed too far and over-react. For parents, the best clues are often persistent sleeplessness, cold sweats or a tendency to break into tears without any perceived reason.
Although most schools in Wales have reasonable policies on bullying, there is often a considerable gap between theory and practice in implementing them, especially when acts go unreported or pupils lack confidence in the system.
Schools must get the message across better to parents and pupils alike that all perceived cases of bullying must be reported and will be investigated.
It should not matter whether the act of bullying is major or minor, real or imagined, psychological, verbal or physical. What needs to be recognised is that a threat appears to have been made. Schools should then record the alleged incident, investigate it immediately and, if necessary, involve the police.
Of course this is time-consuming and is not always clear-cut. For example, what is intended as an amusing text message to one person can be interpreted as bullying by another.
Penalties given to pupils who perpetrate acts of bullying must be seen to be proportionate to their crime, thereby ensuring that other potential or actual victims feel safe in school and bullying within the school is eradicated.
In my own research, conducted in schools throughout England and Wales, the extent and significance of bullying varies from school to school. In some, more than 35 per cent of all non-attendance cases are attributable to acts of bullying. In others, no cases of reportable bullying have ever been detected.
Headteachers, governing bodies and parents all need to feel confident that their pupils feel totally safe within school and on the way to and from them. While bullying has always taken place and used to be accepted almost as a part of everyday growing up, the nature of today's bullying has changed. Acts of bullying are becoming increasingly violent, intimidating, aggressive, instantaneous and shocking.
In turn, this is causing the parents or carers of victims to seek even more punitive measures by way of retaliation; not least by either involving the police andor the media. This adverse publicity then often negatively affects individual schools and local education authorities.
The time has come for the government to give a clear lead on how best to outlaw the bullying of school-aged pupils throughout Wales. All children have the right to feel safe in schools.
Hopefully the task force on bullying will come up with some workable and sustained proposals soon. Things cannot be allowed to get much worse.
Heads, teachers, caring professionals, parents and pupils alike can all unite on the need to do something.
Professor Ken Reid is deputy principal of Swansea Institute of Higher Education
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