THE Anti-Bullying Action Plan for schools launched by the Government is, overall, a good one, and very timely in view of the growing concern about cyber-bullying.
It correctly points out that, while primary and post-primary schools are mostly safe and happy places, too many children and young people encounter bullying. I commend the working group for not shying away from pointing out the serious impact bullying can have, including "loss of self-esteem, anxiety, stress, depression, difficulties with school work, reluctance to attend school and, in extreme cases, self-harm and suicide".
The action plan recognises the need to update or replace the existing definition of bullying, which was written in 1993. It recommends that any new definition should include specific references to relational bullying, cyber-bullying, sexual bullying and identity-based bullying.
The recommendation that all nine grounds of harassment under the Equal Status Acts should be listed in anti-bullying policies is a good idea, as long as it is pointed out that under these grounds one act is sufficient for the legislation to apply.
In dealing with bullying that does not come under the acts, the 1993 definition says that it has to be "repeated" behaviour. While the action plan has avoided saying that a single incident can be bullying, it wisely recommends, however, that in their code of behaviour, schools need to "be prepared to respond appropriately to once-off incidents, including the misuse of social media".
The plan's recommendation to take a school-wide approach to tackling the issue and to insist on recording incidents of bullying behaviour is most welcome.
However, a "whole school community approach" would have been preferable to a "school-wide" one. The former is one that extends to all members of the school community, and can be adapted to meet the school's individual needs. Had that term been chosen, it would not have compromised the working group's decision to not recommend a specific anti-bullying programme.
Thankfully, however, the critical elements recommended in the plan, together with recommended annual reviews, are essentially those of a "whole-school approach" to bullying; so when implemented in schools throughout Ireland we should see a significant reduction in the level of bullying.
However, the group may be a little overambitious in claiming that tackling homophobic and transphobic bullying in particular will significantly improve the school climate for all students, more so than if bullying as a whole was tackled.
The recommendations for further consideration hold much promise. I am particularly heartened that initial teacher education is included, as I believe it is long overdue.
In my opinion, all teachers should be given an understanding of how to prevent, identify and deal with bullying. As one who has promoted the need for legislation – or at least to discuss it – I believe the decision to first review the laws in other jurisdictions to be a wise one, as is also the review of Section 28 of the Education Act 1998 concerning procedures.
Another very apt suggestion is that which is mentioned under 'partnership with industry', which "encourages industry to continue to work with Irish state agencies and services, NGOs, parents and young people to raise awareness of cyber-bullying and how it can be dealt with".
However, there are no specific recommend- ations that those involved with social media and internet service providers tighten up procedures for reporting and dealing with abuse, including making such procedures clear and easily accessible for users.
Especially commendable also is the suggestion that a national framework for anti-bullying be formed.
Finally, the establishment of the promised anti-bullying implementation group will clearly be critical to the success of the action plan.
In the spirit of placing our children first, I hope that no time will be spared in delivering on it.
Prof Mona O'Mooore is co-ordinator of the Anti-bullying Centre in Trinity College, Dublin