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Jazmine's Bullying Case (in 3 parts)

Part 1: How’s your bullying policy?

A case in 2011 involving a Sydney school has demonstrated the importance of not only creating a comprehensive bullying policy, but also making sure your policy is followed and effective.

Jazmine, a pupil at the College, claimed that the College’s policies and practices in relation to bullying failed to protect her from a recognized and foreseeable risk of harm when she was subjected to relentless bullying while a student at the College.

The College had a duty of care to Jazmine. There was no question that it had foreseen that bullying could lead to a student being injured and that it took steps to prevent such harm from occurring, both through the policies which it had established and by their implementation in practice.

How did the College deal with bullying?

The College:

  • published policies directed at bullying. Its policies were under ongoing review, but were in some respects not in practical operation;
  • engaged an expert to advise it and its staff on how to detect and deal with bullying;
    conducted a student survey regarding bullying (which showed that it was a significant problem at the College);
  • appointed year co-ordinators with responsibilities to deal with bullying;
  • referred students to counselling.

What went wrong?

While the College was active in its attempts to deal with what was recognized as a bullying problem amongst the school cohort, its response proved to be ad hoc, rather than systematic. Its record keeping was haphazard. No clear record was maintained as to the course followed when complaints were received; what conclusions were drawn from any investigation conducted; and importantly, what was done by way of response, if bullying or other inappropriate behaviour towards the student was uncovered.

In Jazmine’s case, the record, such as it was, showed that the types of responses which the College’s policies envisaged would be implemented if complaints were received about bullying, did not result.

Confronted with persistent inappropriate behaviour and bullying, Jazmine began to suffer panic attacks (severe enough for her to be taken by ambulance from school to the hospital), a fear of the dark and nightmares, depression, suicidal thoughts and Jazimine began to subject herself to self-harm.

Jazmine claimed that the bullying to which she was subjected over the years was relentless, to the point where it came to occur almost every day, with the result that she repeatedly complained to various members of staff, without receiving effective assistance. Other than repeated referrals to the School Counsellor, Jazmine’s complaints received very little, or sometimes no response, from those who should have been able to help her.

The Bullying Policy

At the College, when a complaint of bullying was made, it was the year co-ordinator’s responsibility to document any investigation. The policy referred to incident reports being created, as well as a bullying register being kept, but the latter was not maintained. Nor were incident reports routinely created or kept on file, or diary notes made.

Parents were to be notified of bullying incidents. The process also, at one stage, envisaged mediation between the students, in which the year co-ordinator would be involved and a counsellor could become involved. Again, in Jazmine’s case there were no such mediations.

The policy then envisaged that a second incident of bullying would result in a behaviour contract being developed for the bully, so that they could understand why they were choosing to behave in that way. At this stage suspension could be considered.

A third incident would involve an interview with relevant parties and expulsion could be considered.

Was the policy well implemented?

In Jazmine’s case, incident reports and diary notes were not routinely made, mediation with the bullies was not undertaken, and (although one of the girls who was bullying Jazmine was under a behaviour contract) further incidents involving this girl remained ignored.

The Court was satisfied that the College failed to implement its paper bullying policy, or to take other adequate steps to bring the ongoing bullying directed at Jazmine under control. It was her removal from the College by her parents which appears to have achieved what the College did not. The Court found in favour of Jazmine.


Part 2:  Jazmine's Bullying Claim:  The Appeal

Jazmine was a student at a NSW school from 2002 to early 2005. In 2007, she brought a claim against the school in negligence alleging that she had suffered psychological harm as a result of bullying by other students. In 2011, the NSW Supreme Court awarded Jazmine $116,296.60 plus interest. An appeal from that decision has just been partly heard by the Court of Appeal which confirmed the primary judge’s decision that there has been a breach by the school of its duty of care. The other issues including importantly that of causation have been left for another day.

Readers of these Notes may recall that we reported on the case back in 2011. Jazmine’s school experience was a very unhappy one. We don’t have room here to recount all the details of the bullying she endured while at school, particularly during 2004. The full story can be found in the judgment of the Court of Appeal. Suffice to say here that the Court accepted that the school was aware that Jazmine claimed that she was being bullied from February 2004. The school ought to have investigated the matter then but did not. There were other incidents during 2004, particularly in April, May, November and December, which put the school on notice that bullying of Jazmine was continuing. While the bullying may not have been on a daily basis, the evidence established that it was on a fairly regular and continuing basis.

Although the school wasn’t required to ensure or guarantee that Jazmine was not bullied, it was obliged, in performing its duty of care towards her, to take reasonable steps to ensure that she was protected from bullying, including taking reasonable steps to ascertain the identity of the perpetrators and to take such action as was reasonable to prevent repetition by those persons of such conduct. The school recognised that it had these obligations because it had set them out in its policies and had reiterated them in statements read to all students. The Court found that the teacher at the centre of this whole sorry affair was well aware that bullying was a serious ongoing problem and failed to take the necessary steps to eradicate it.

The Court also found that the school was aware from February 2004 that Jazmine was vulnerable in that she suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. Whether or not those attacks were brought on in whole or in part by bullying, it should have been clear to the school that she was likely to be susceptible to psychological harm caused by such conduct. Indeed, the teacher acknowledged that bullying, if unaddressed, could occasion a depressive condition in some people suffering from anxiety. The risk of psychological harm to Jazmine was both foreseeable and not insignificant. The school was clearly required to take such active steps as were reasonable in order to prevent that risk from eventuating. Those steps were recorded in its own policies.

The school was essentially judged by the standards that it had itself laid down in its policies. In accordance with those policies, it was insufficient merely to request teachers to keep an eye out for bullying. Once a complaint of bullying was received, it required investigation and, if substantiated, action against the perpetrator. Jazmine claims she was regularly bullied by certain identified other students. Reasonable steps should have been taken by the teacher to carefully investigate Jazmine's allegations and to act on them if she was satisfied that they were justified.

In August 2004, one of the other student’s was required to enter into a behaviour contract and was threatened with expulsion by the Principal if she reoffended. She did, but nothing was done about it. The Court held that there could be no doubt that the failure to take action in accordance with the school's policies against known perpetrators would send the wrong message to others who might be considering similar behaviour. Steps ought to have been taken which would have brought home to perpetrators the unacceptability of their conduct. If that required the threat of expulsion to be carried out, so be it. The message which expulsion would have conveyed to other actual or potential bullies was that bullying would not be tolerated in any form, and that is exactly what the school's policy clearly stated. Empty threats were of no use.

It is an interesting suggestion by Tobias AJA that a school’s duty of care might extend to an obligation to expel another student. In 1987, the NSW Court of Appeal, when faced with another bully, considered whether disciplinary action could prevent injury. The trial judge had held that a school, by failing to restrain the school bully, was in breach of its duty to a female student injured by the bully. He found that, as the bully’s aggressive conduct occurred regularly in the school quadrangle (which was supervised by teachers), the teachers either knew or ought to have known of the bully’s aggressive disposition. Accordingly, the judge said that the bully’s conduct ‘called for strict disciplinary measures ... together with careful supervision’. On appeal, the judges discussed the issue of the school’s responsibility for disciplining and supervising the bully. One judge argued that if the bully had been detained in the classroom until his behaviour improved then, by the time of the incident, his behaviour would have improved or he would have been detained inside. But another judge felt that reasonable care did not entail the use of disciplinary measures which, if pursued, would have prevented the incident and that it was only speculative as to whether lesser measures, such as detaining the bully, would have succeeded in eliminating his anti-social behaviour.

Tobias AJA said “It would be inappropriate at this point to comment upon whether the steps which ought to have been taken (short of expulsion) would have brought the bullying of [Jazmine] to an end and, if so, when. Expulsion would obviously have brought to an end bullying by the individual student who was expelled, but what effect it would have had on that student's friends is another matter.” It will be interesting to see how the Court approaches the issue of causation when it hears the rest of the appeal. Will it find that the failure to discipline the bullies in accordance with the school’s policies was the cause of Jazmine’s psychological injury?

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Part 3:  The Appeal Part 2 – Causation

In Term 2’s edition of Education Law Notes, we reported that the NSW Court of Appeal had upheld the trial judge’s decision that Jazmine’s school had failed in its duty of care to her. To summarise:

The School, through the Year 9 Coordinator, who was responsible for investigating any reports of bullying, recognised that bullying could affect the well-being of a student and could occasion a depressive condition in an adolescent girl already suffering from anxiety, as was Jazmine to the Coordinator’s knowledge.

The School was well aware that bullying was taking place and of the impact of bullying upon individual students, which it had recognised by putting in place an anti-bullying policy which required action to be taken in response to any complaints about bullying.

Not only were complaints of bullying to be investigated, but a specific procedure was laid down in the policy depending upon whether the bullying by a particular perpetrator was the first, second or third incident of such conduct by that student.

Particularly during 2004, Jazmine was regularly, if not relentlessly, bullied, in particular by JP and LM.

The School was aware that Jazmine claimed that she was being bullied at least from 6 February 2004. There were a number of particular incidents of bullying during 2004, particularly in April, May, November and December, all of which put the School on notice that bullying of Jazmine was continuing.

The School was obliged by its duty of care to Jazmine to take reasonable steps to ensure that she was protected from bullying, including taking reasonable steps to ascertain the identity of the perpetrators and to take such action as was reasonable to prevent repetition by those persons of such conduct. In particular, the Coordinator was well aware that bullying was a serious ongoing problem in the school. She knew that to stop the bullying it was going to be necessary to take the steps the policy required.

The School was aware from February 2004 that Jazmine was vulnerable, that she suffered from anxiety and panic attacks and, therefore, that she was likely to be susceptible to psychological harm if bullied.

The steps taken by the Coordinator during 2004 did not provide a reasonable response to the not insignificant risk of harm to students such as Jazmine if bullying of them continued. It was insufficient for the School merely to request teachers to keep an eye out for bullying once a complaint of bullying had been received. Once such a complaint was received it required investigation and, if substantiated, action against the perpetrator. Although Jazmine was regularly bullied by JP and LM and, to a lesser extent, by a third student, no reasonable steps were taken by the Coordinator to investigate Jazmine's allegations of bullying by those students or to act on them (assuming she was satisfied that they were justified).

Accordingly, the trial judge's conclusion that Jazmine was subject to ongoing bullying in 2004, that the School was aware that this was so and that it failed to take reasonable steps to bring that conduct to an end, was amply justified by the evidence.

The issue then remaining was whether it was more probable than not that Jazmine would not have suffered a psychological injury if the School had exercised reasonable care in relation to the risk of bullying to the minimum extent required for the performance of its duty to take such care.

The School argued that the steps which the Court found ought to have been taken by the School would not have changed the bullying behaviour to which Jazmine was subjected by some of her fellow students. For example, the School said that, even if one of the bullies had been expelled following a number of bullying incidents involving Jazmine and others, that would not have prevented Jazmine from being bullied by the other students. Essentially, the School said that it could not be shown that meting out the appropriate punishment as per the policy at each point would have yielded a different result.

Jazmine submitted that, had the School’s policy been implemented, as the Court said it should have been, the probable course of events that would have ensued was that disciplinary action against the major perpetrators of the bullying of Jazmine would have deterred those students and other potential bullies. Consequently, the bullying of Jazmine would have ceased. What was lacking in the School’s attempts to deter bullying was the reinforcement of its stance by action; a firm message needed to be sent. By contrast, the School’s failure to implement the policy condoned bullying and sent the wrong message to those students inclined towards such behaviour.

The Court of Appeal noted that the law requires that the relevant negligent acts or omissions have been a necessary condition of the occurrence of the psychological injury to the student. It is enough that a school’s negligence be just one cause as long as the negligence has played some part in contributing to the psychological injury. One has to consider the probable course of events had the omissions not occurred.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the application of common sense led to the conclusion that it was more probable than not that, but for the failure of the School to actively implement the policy, the psychological injury to Jazmine would not have occurred or at least would have been minimised. Whilst the Court accepted that domestic issues contributed to her condition, there could be little doubt, upon the unchallenged medical evidence, that her psychological injuries were materially contributed to by the bullying that she was forced to endure during 2004 as a consequence of the School’s breach of its duty of care.

The final result of this long saga is that the damages awarded to Jazmine were increased!

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Bullying is a serious problem!

In 1994, Ben Cox was in kindergarten at a NSW public school. There he was exposed to an older boy, TH. Over several months in 1994, and into 1995, TH subjected Ben to repeated harassment, with various incidents of bullying. Soon after starting at the school, Ben’s mother, Mrs Cox, observed a change in his behaviour at home. He began to suffer headaches, experience nightmares, and his behaviour and his schoolwork deteriorated. He began refusing to attend school. Ben told Mrs Cox that there had been “a boy pinching things off him, schoolbooks, pencils, and he was shoving him into the walls at school, and he was scaring him.” This was happening before school, at recess, and at lunch. Ben came home from school upset and crying. Mrs Cox told a teacher at the school what was happening. The teacher said that they would “keep an eye on Ben”.

In February 1995, Mrs Cox spoke to the principal, who knew that the perpetrator of the harassment was TH. The principal told Mrs Cox that TH suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder and that could be the explanation for his conduct towards Ben. She told Mrs Cox that they would try to keep Ben and TH separate at school times.

On 23 February, Mrs Cox, getting a call from the school, went there and found Ben “shaking and crying” with red marks on the front of his neck and what looked like burn marks on the back of his neck. A teacher told her that TH had attempted to strangle Ben with his hands. Later that day, Mrs Cox spoke to the vice-principal who told her that he would reprimand TH. That night Ben was severely traumatised. He didn’t return to school for about 2 weeks.

Following these events, Mrs Cox spoke to yet another member of the school staff, who again told her that TH suffered from ADD and suggested that caused TH’s behaviour. He asked if Ben had done anything to provoke the attack to which Mrs Cox replied “No”. Mrs Cox then spoke to two Department officers. She recounted the strangulation incident and complained that the school authorities had not acted. One of the officers told her that bullying builds character and that he thought it was a good thing that Ben got bullied.

Some time after the 23 February incident, Ben told Mrs Cox that TH was “scaring him, pushing him into the walls of the school as he walked past him, jumping out from behind buildings, including the school toilets, and scaring him so much that he couldn’t even use the toilets at the time.” Mrs Cox spoke again to the vice-principal who told her that TH’s parents would be required to come to the school and supervise TH during recess and before and after school. There was no evidence that this happened.

At the end of July 1995, when Mrs Cox picked Ben up from school, he was crying and very red, saying “The big boy has hurt me again.” There were red welts across the back of his body. Ben said that TH had done this and that TH threatened that, if he reported the matter to a teacher, he would be hurt again. Mrs Cox walked with Ben back into the school, and again saw the vice-principal who said that TH would be placed on detention, that a letter would be sent home and that one of his parents would be required to come to the school to supervise TH. Again, there was no evidence that this proposal was implemented. Ben didn’t return to school for about 2 weeks. On 8 August, the school telephoned Mrs Cox to tell her that Ben had been in a fight. She went to the school to find Ben in the office, crying, his mouth bleeding. A lower tooth was missing and his lip was swollen, cut and bleeding. Ben told her that TH had tried to shove his jumper down his throat. Mrs Cox spoke to the vice-principal and the new principal. They told her yet again that a letter would be sent home to TH's parents, and that TH would be placed on detention. Ben refused to return to school.

Mrs Cox reported the incident to the local police. A local policeman visited TH’s parents at home. Two days later, when Ben had returned to school, TH accosted him, saying: “It was funny how the police came to my house. And if they come again, I’ll threaten to kill you.”
In September 1995, Ben stopped attending school altogether. Mrs Cox told the principal that she was taking Ben out of school, because the school could not provide a safe place for him. She also said: “I am not going to submit my son to any more bullying and hurting.” The principal replied: “You lose some kids and keep some.”  While trying to find a new school for Ben, Mrs Cox contacted the Department officer again. Once more, he said that “bullying builds character”.

Today, Ben suffers from psychiatric conditions identified as Depression and Anxiety Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is unemployable and is in receipt of a disability pension.

Not surprisingly, the Court found the teachers and the Department in breach of their duty of care to Ben because they had failed to take any reasonable steps to protect him from repeated harassment and bullying. The Court noted “that the conduct of TH was expressly and repeatedly brought to the attention of various teachers, including at the highest level in the school. ...this was not an isolated incident, which occurred unexpectedly, and which the school could not reasonably be expected to have foreseen. This conduct was conduct which was not only foreseeable, but of which the school had actual and repeated notice. As a consequence, it was necessary that the school take greater than normal steps to eliminate the bullying in this case.” The Court also said that “the suggestions that TH suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder imply that the staff were well aware of his behavioural problems....TH’s propensities were known to the school authorities independently of anything brought to their attention by Mrs Cox; and even if that were not so, the school was thoroughly on notice after Mrs Cox’s repeated complaints about the behaviour of TH towards [Ben].” There was no evidence to suggest that the school had done anything to implement effective anti-bullying programs, to educate staff and students, to have a management plan for eradicating bullying, or anything else. Basically, the Court said, “The staff made no attempt to deal with a serious problem.” And, “The school authorities responded quite inadequately to an escalating problem and failed to take such steps as were reasonably required to protect [Ben] from the conduct of a plainly behaviourally disturbed older pupil.”

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How are your bullying strategies?

A recent survey of West Australian primary school children undertaken by Edith Cowan University in WA revealed that more than half are bullied at school at least once a term. Professor Donna Cross said bullying could result in poor academic achievement, higher rates of absenteeism and a strong desire to avoid school. She added:

“Our research found that boys who were bullied at school were 33 times less likely to feel safe at school compared to those who were not bullied, while girls reported feeling 14 times less safe, if bullied, than girls who were not bullied.”

Students who were bullied were also much more likely to feel lonely and lack peer support than students who were not bullied, she said. Higher levels of depression and anxiety were also associated with being bullied.

Schools which fail to take reasonable steps to minimise the level of bullying generally or which fail to deal with particular situations when these are drawn to their attention risk significant claims for damages in negligence.

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Bullied girl loses again

Leah lost her damages claim against her school because the Judge found that she had not been bullied at school. Any bullying that took place was beyond the school gate and therefore beyond the school's duty of care. The English Court of Appeal has now dismissed Leah's appeal. The Court of Appeal had this to say about bullying:

"There is no magic in the term bullying. Any school has to have sensible disciplinary policies and procedures if it is to function properly as a school at all. It will no doubt take reasonable steps to prevent or deal with one-off acts of aggression between pupils and also recognise that persistent targeting of one pupil by others can cause lasting damage to the victim. In seeking to combat this it is always helpful to have working definitions such as those contained in the documentation we have seen. The problem is now well enough recognised for it to be reasonable to expect all schools to have policies and practices in place to meet it; indeed, this school developed just such a policy in 'Working Together'. We agree that such policies are of little value unless they are also put into practice. But in order to hold the school liable towards a particular pupil, the question is always whether the school was in breach of its duty of care towards that pupil and whether that breach caused the particular harm which was suffered."

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Damages for a Bullied Student

A former student has been awarded $60,000 after a finding that the school failed to take adequate steps to deal with bullying. The jury found that the school breached its duty of care to Aaron Emonson during the period between 1996 and 1999, and as a result he suffered physical and psychological injuries. The court heard that one student tried to strangle him with a cord, while he had been drenched by another student and had spent the rest of the day at school in his soaking school suit.

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There are two cases from the ACT arising from the same incidents of alleged bullying and cyber bullying. There are two cases because it is the child suing the school in one and the mother suing the school in the other.

Essentially, the mother’s claim is this: the school staff knew that there were a group of students who were engaging regularly in behaviour which included harassment and aggression towards school staff and which included sexual harassment and bullying involving verbal abuse, obscene language, physical and sexual assaults, threats and intimidation against younger students at the school. The staff had similar knowledge, or should have known, that the offending students had mobile telephones which could be used to photograph or film incidents. Her daughter was subjected to conduct which included sexual assault, physical assault and psychological abuse by the offending students on the school grounds. The girl was subjected to continued bullying by the offending students and by others. This included pictures of her being sexually assaulted and abused (which had been taken on mobile telephones) being disseminated. As a result the girl suffered personal injury including mental harm, and the mother suffered mental harm. The school should have foreseen the risk that the mother would suffer harm and should have taken precautions against the risk that she would suffer harm. The school failed to take adequate precautions and hence was negligent.

While the case has yet to be heard, it is of interest both because:

  • there are allegations of cyber bullying: not only was the child verbally abused but that abuse was also disseminated by text message, email, and postings on the internet; further, there was wide dissemination of images of the child being subjected to sexual abuse at the school by students; and
  • the school may have a liability to both mother and child. 

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Workplace Bullying

It is relatively easy for disgruntled employees to complain of bullying by their supervisor. However, as an employee of the Victoria Racing Club at the Flemington Racecourse found out in 2011, it is not as easy to satisfy a judge that behaviour at work constitutes bullying.

The worker claimed that the insistence by his supervisor, Mr Goodie, that he wear his correct uniform, and the actions of Mr Goodie, in taking him to see Mr Watson, the racecourse manager, and having him sent home that day was part of conduct by Mr Goodie by which he bullied the worker. The worker claimed that Mr Goodie acted in a high handed and oppressive manner. Further, he submitted that Mr Goodie acted in a discriminatory and selective way, by only insisting that he, and not the other workers, wear the correct uniform.

The judge in the Victorian Supreme Court did not accept that submission. The judge noted that:

  1. the worker was refusing to wear the correct uniform; and
  2. it had been made clear to all employees that, if they were not wearing the correct uniform, they would be sent home.

While other employers might have responded differently to the manner in which Mr Watson and Mr Goodie reacted to the worker’s refusal to wear the correct uniform, that was not the issue. The judge was not satisfied that, in acting in the manner in which he did, Mr Goodie was attempting to victimise, bully or isolate the worker. Nor did he consider that the conduct of Mr Goodie demonstrated any pre-existing animosity or antagonism felt by Mr Goodie to the worker.

It is not uncommon for there to be mutterings about bullying in school staff rooms. It can therefore be helpful to educate staff about bullying in the workplace not only to prevent it happening but also to prevent claims like the above being made. 

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Cyberbullying - Reaching Beyond the Boundary?

Can schools discipline their students for internet activities done beyond the school boundary? This oft asked question continues to receive different answers. The NSW Department of Education, for example, looks for “a clear and close relationship between the school and the conduct of the student.”

A US court case in 2011 upheld a school’s decision to discipline a student for a defamatory MySpace page made on the student’s home computer. Traditionally, cases dealing with this issue have grappled with whether a school can reach beyond their campus to regulate the activities of their students at home.

In this case the student had created a defamatory page on MySpace claiming a fellow student had contracted ‘herpes’ and invited other students to participate in the ridicule. Whilst the argument in this case focussed on the student’s right to free speech under the First Amendment, the reasoning remains an important source of guidance for Australian schools. Currently, it is clear that schools have the authority to discipline students for misconduct done on campus using school computers. However, the line remains blurred where students post abusive or threatening material on social media in their own time and with their own computer.

The US court said there was a sufficient connection between the posting of defamatory material on MySpace and the school’s responsibility to administer appropriate discipline in the school environment. It held that the MySpace page was created for fellow students to participate in and that therefore the subsequent disruption and disorder could reasonably be expected to reach the classroom. Schools have an interest in protecting the order, safety and well-being of their students where the conduct originates off campus. The Court suggested this test for characterising activities that originate beyond the school boundaries as ‘in-school’: where the speech is directed at school students, conceived by school students and acted upon by school students, it is ‘in-school’ speech. Based on the connection between the defamatory MySpace page and the disruptive impact it had on the classroom environment, the Court held that the school was authorised to discipline the student for her out-of-school activity.

In light of emerging social media like Facebook, MySpace and GooglePlus, all schools have an interest in monitoring the out-of-school activities of their students. Where such activity disrupts the order, safety and well-being of fellow students, the school should act accordingly with their disciplinary policy to ensure student safety and learning is not compromised. 

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Learning from tragedy

A coronial enquiry in 2010 into the suicide of a 14 year old boy has released its recommendations for change to the Minister for Education and Training, the NSW Parliament and the Minister for Police, highlighting the fact that the responsibility for preventing such tragedies is not just that of the teachers but also the wider community.

Alex Wildman was the victim of physical and verbal bullying at two different schools and, shortly before his death, the victim of cyber bullying as well. He was physically assaulted and called names to his face. He was the subject of hurtful and spiteful comments on various MySpace pages.

The Coroner made many detailed recommendations as a result of the enquiry. Those made to the Department of Education and Training included:

  • schools of 500+ students should have a full time school counsellor;
  • schools should have a dedicated email address, text message and/or chat room account or number where students and parents can report incidents of bullying or harassment (and the existence of the facility should be well advertised);
  • where students transfer from one high school to another and have previously seen a school counsellor, a compulsory meeting should be held by senior staff to discuss whether anything in the counselling file and/or general file suggests the need for the new student to be counselled;
  • where students transfer from one high school to another and have not previously seen a school counsellor, a meeting should happen as above to discuss whether anything in the general student file suggests that the student may benefit from counselling;
  • when anything suggests the need for the student to be counselled, the student must see the school counsellor;
  • policies should be revised to provide practical and clear guidance to senior school staff as to the circumstances in which police should be called to deal with:
    (i) incidents of physical assaults involving students which either occur on school grounds or which come to the notice of the senior staff and;
    (ii) threats, intimidation or harassment by students over telephones or via the internet (‘cyber bullying’).

Those policies should provide clear guidelines as to when contacting the police is mandatory (such as serious physical harm or serious cases of cyber bullying).

Those policies should clearly inform senior staff that police officers are best placed to investigate the origin of online and telephone threats and that police officers will not automatically charge the student but will consider formal warnings, cautions or merely making a record of the incident.

All schools should consider these recommendations carefully so that tragedies such as the death of Alex Wildman are avoided.

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The cost of bullying ...

Obsessive washing with hospital grade disinfectant, the cutting of forearms and legs with razor blades, panic attacks, agoraphobia, nightmares ... yes ... bullying can cost the victim dearly in terms of mental health. But what can it cost a school?

On 19 June 2009, in the case of David Gregory v State of New South Wales, the Court ordered the School to pay David Gregory $468,736.00 (not inclusive of his past out-of-pocket expenses and future therapeutic/medical costs) for the bullying he experienced at the school. 

During David’s years at the school a document entitled “The Fair Discipline Code”, in which bullying was described as unacceptable behaviour, was distributed to the students at assembly. David dismissed the document as “just words on paper” since his personal experience was that the staff had done nothing over many years to address the fact that he was being systematically bullied despite his repeated complaints. It is ironic that the school should endorse a publication acknowledging the inappropriateness of bullying and then admit a breach of its duty of care in:

  1. failing to exercise due and proper care in relation to David’s welfare;
  2. failing to have in place a system of supervision whereby its teachers could have prevented students at the school from mistreating David;
  3. failing to exercise adequate control over its students to prevent mistreatment of David;
  4. allowing a system known as the SACK system to operate whereby older boys exert power over younger boys and engage in bullying as a means of control;
  5. allowing students at the school the opportunity to mistreat David;
  6. failing to have installed procedures which would adequately deal with the mistreatment of David by other students.

The school administration also appear to have fostered a bullying culture at the school by allowing inappropriate comments about David to be published in the school magazine and also by the Principal reading aloud a poem at a school function, part of which referred to David in a way which humiliated and embarrassed him. It appears that “The Fair Discipline Code” at the School was a document that both teachers and students largely ignored.

Does your school have appropriate anti-bullying policies in place? Is your school’s policy just “words on paper” or does your school take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying? The fact is that the cost of bullying can be very high on the school as well as the victim.

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