Tuesday 28 January 2020

Paul Stevens: Death of Phoebe Prince is a wake-up call for us

TORMENTED: Phoebe Prince took her own life after relentless bullying by classmates
TORMENTED: Phoebe Prince took her own life after relentless bullying by classmates

Dr Paul Stevens

THE death of Phoebe Prince in the US is a wake-up call to everyone here that action needs to be taken to combat bullying in schools.

Many other Irish school-goers have fallen victim to a similar fate -- but have dipped under the radar because of the culture of silence that pervades both the issues of bullying and teenage suicide.

What has already been proved beyond doubt is that bullying has serious emotional consequences for victims.

Suicide is the third most common cause of death among young people.

In examining the link between bullying and suicide, research is hampered by the many variables which are so difficult to measure.

However, in 2008, a review of 37 studies in 13 countries by Yale Medical School concluded that there was undoubtedly a link between bullying and adolescent suicide. In Ireland, we appear to be ambivalent on the issue.

There are some who recognise that it is serious negative behaviour with the capacity to seriously impair or destroy lives. Others recognise it as a feature of life but really don't give it any consideration until, perhaps, someone close to them experiences it.

Finally, there are those who feel "it toughens us up" and that "it is a part of the rough and tumble of life".

Not surprisingly, therefore, our collective response to bullying has been lukewarm.

Despite overwhelming evidence of it in many sectors of Irish society, there still exists no specific legislation for bullying. The Department of Education and Skills last issued national guidelines to all schools in 1993.

Like so many critical issues in education, it is left to boards of management to devise and implement policy at local level. The result is that while the majority take the matter seriously there is great variance on how bullying is addressed. A cohesive national strategy addressing bullying is the only way forward.

Firstly, a cultural shift is required where the primary objective on a national basis is to reduce risk. Effective parenting, successful pre-school and primary education intervention are vital where the establishment of bully and victim behaviour patterns can be prevented or reduced.

Secondly, despite a preventative approach at all levels, bullying will occur and therefore a clear strategy for responding to incidents must be in place.

Thirdly, and critically, there needs to be adequate support services for victims and bullies. There is no sign of a taskforce to establish a national strategy to address bullying.

What price can the State put on the life of its young citizens who take their own lives because they have nowhere to turn?

Dr Paul Stevens is a school principal who has recently undertaken research into bullying

Irish Independent

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