Schools ordered to get tough on bullying epidemic
SCHOOLS will have to keep a formal record of bullying incidents for the first time under a groundbreaking initiative to combat the scourge.
Patterns of bullying will be tracked and schools will be obliged to react under the first shake-up of bullying guidelines in 20 years.
The Department of Education will provide the country's 4,000 primary and post-primary schools with a report template in which they will be required to document any episodes of bullying and inform the board of management.
Such a system has already proved an effective deterrent in Sweden, where bullying – especially among boys – was reduced by 30pc in schools where it was used.
While some Irish schools may have a policy of recording bullying incidents, any arrangements are ad hoc. Until now, there has been no formal requirement for such a policy.
Pressure for clearer guidelines on how to tackle the problem has been mounting amid the rapidly changing nature of bullying.
Schoolyard and classroom taunts have been exacerbated by online harassment, homophobia and racism.
The deaths of several young people linked to cyber-bullying sparked a major Irish Independent campaign in recent months.
Now Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has responded to the growing concerns, with an Action Plan for Bullying to be unveiled this week.
The bullying report template is one of the key recommendations in the Action Plan, which has a €500,000 budget this year.
It is the first time in two decades that the department has updated its guidelines on tackling bullying in schools.
Schools will be asked to analyse data to identify trends or patterns in the types of bullying that takes place. This will allow them to adjust their policies and practices.
A national anti-bullying website will provide information for parents, siblings and school staff on types of bullying and how to deal with it.
It is hoped that putting the new guidelines in place will offer a framework for teachers so they know exactly how to record and react to complaints.
It will also help to persuade victims that there are mechanisms in place to combat the problem if they report it.
Victims of cyber-bullying find it difficult to deal with because it allows the perpetrators to act anonymously.
The Action Plan recommendations come from a working group comprising representatives from the Department of Education and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
The group drew on the expertise of a range of organisations and was informed by the deliberations of an anti-bullying forum last year.
The new website will provide links to anti-bullying resources and is designed particularly to help parents get involved in tackling bullying, especially cyber-bullying.
Parents will also be urged to take a pro-active role in keeping their children safe online by setting rules on internet usage which they should negotiate with their children.
Research suggests parental guidance on internet use increases the probability that adolescents will react to support victims of cyber-bullying.
The growing incidence of cyber-bullying has prompted school authorities to examine their policies and practices to help counter the problem.
The Joint Managerial Body (JMB), representing the management in 400 secondary schools, recently issued updated guidelines with recommendations including a ban on students taking photos of other pupils or staff members unless for a school-related project.
The Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools (ACCS) has advised its 93 schools to strengthen their codes to cover breaches of discipline arising from misuse of online data or social media and to include the possibility of student suspension or expulsion.
The Irish Vocational Education Association (IVEA), representing 258 second-level schools, is also finalising guidelines to prevent and tackle cyber-bullying.