It takes a whole village

Issue: Volume 94, Number 11

Posted: 29 June 2015
Reference #: 1H9crQ

Defining bullying

 Bullying Prevention Advisory Group“Bullying is one form of aggressive behaviour”, begins the Bullying prevention and response guidelines. “Most widely accepted definitions of bullying are based on four characteristics: bullying is deliberate, harmful, involves a power imbalance, and involves an element of repetition.”

By any definition, ‘bullying’ describes a continuum of behaviours: from ‘teasing with intent’, through to the point where the word starts to become euphemistic – as Lawrie Stewart, schools coordinator for the New Zealand Police’s National Prevention Centre says, assault is assault, not bullying.

“We go from name calling, to kids getting assaulted by groups of antagonists. That isn’t bullying. That’s assault, and they’re miles apart in terms of immediacy of harm, and in terms of legality.”

Yet below the threshold at which the Police need to be involved – in their formal capacity at least; as we’ll see, the Police are very keen, as an integral part of our community, to be involved with schools and their approach to bullying well before there’s a need for enforcement – bullying has a number of characteristics that transcend both the medium – face-to-face or online; overt or covert – and the type of incident: most bullying has an audience; most happens out of sight of adults; and because the initiator may have been previously bullied, it’s often cyclical.

A whole-school approach

The guide is the work of the Bullying Prevention Advisory Group (BPAG), an interagency panel working to a strategic plan to lessen the impact of bullying in New Zealand schools. The BPAG comprises 15 different organisations, including the Human Rights Office, NetSafe, the Ministry of Education, and the New Zealand Police. The word ‘interagency’ captures the spirit of the guide, says Lawrie, in the sense that bullying is a community problem, not just a school problem.

“Really, it’s about how the school as an entity deals with behaviour management issues. I would say that the strong emphasis on the ‘whole school approach’ comes through [in the guide]; the message is that it’s not teachers on their own dealing with these issues.”

As prevention is always better than cure, the guide emphasises the creation of a positive environment in which bullying cannot thrive; as opposed to the ‘zero tolerance’ approach of yesteryear. Research evidence points to this as the most effective approach: bullying rates differ widely between schools of similar demographic, suggesting that school culture significantly affects the prevalence of bullying. Lawrie expands on the concept.

“‘Whole school approach’ means several things, which is made explicit in the guide: one is that you – as a school – have a policy and a procedural framework which provides consistency in terms of how bullying is addressed. Schools need to be focusing on the ethos and the environment of the school, so that it’s really clear to all the students as to what behaviours are expected of them.

“‘How we do things around here’ needs to be explained explicitly to the students, and that needs to be reinforced by teachers and peers. The emphasis should be on rewarding students displaying behaviours that promote a safe and harmonious environment, rather than focusing on a punitive approach.

“Parents need to be involved in the consultation as to how procedures are implemented. Parents need to be informed as to expectations, and they need to be part of the development of the definition of these positive behaviours. ‘Parents as part of the school community’ is an important message, I think.”

The bystander effect

Group of children and police in classroom

It’s well-known that people behave differently in groups. The ‘bystander effect’, also known as ‘bystander apathy’, suggests that the more observers to an act of aggression, the less likely someone will step in to stop said act.

Yet this group apathy can be turned on its head by group expectation. Experts have suggested that we need to reconceptualise the part of the bystander in bullying, because the evidence tells us that it’s not as passive a role as we had thought. Doing nothing emboldens the initiator, and is therefore a deliberate decision to support the behaviour. ‘Doing nothing is not ok’ needs to be the message, says Lawrie.

“The guide to me does two things: it moves the discussion toward a focus on environment; and it really emphasises the role of the bystander.

“Can we still make do with seeing the bystander as a passive non-participant, when in fact most bullying has an audience? In my view, if a bystander does nothing, that’s an action. They’re also responsible in contributing to the harm caused by the bullying behaviour.”

That may sound like overstatement, but bear in mind that this comes from someone who routinely sees the wreckage left behind by bullying. Of course the targeted student is left emotionally scarred, possibly long term. That’s the immediate damage; but the educational cost to the young person too petrified to come to school could limit the potential of their entire lives.

Principal of Silverstream School, Mary Ely, was among those experienced educators asked by the BPAG to provide feedback as the guide came together. She adds her voice in no uncertain terms.

“If children are frightened or worried in any way, learning is the last thing on their minds; they’re more concerned with just getting through the day.

“It’s no longer just the bully and the victim [that we need to consider as participants in bullying], it’s the people that support the bully, and it’s the people who just do nothing but provide an audience. I think the role of the bystander is absolutely crucial. In doing nothing, they are supporting bullying. That’s really important for everybody to understand.”

Is Mary telling her students that they are expected to do more than nothing?

“Absolutely. The message is that strong.”

Among many other useful visualisations, page 21 of the guide includes a scatter graph which shows that nearly 70 per cent of those involved in bullying are bystanders. The guide breaks this demographic down into three sub-roles:

  • followers (assistants) – do not initiate, but take an active role in the bullying behaviour
  • supporters (reinforcers) – support the bullying behaviour (overtly or covertly, eg by turning a blind eye) but do not take an active role in the bullying behaviour
  • defenders – dislike the bullying and try to help the target by intervening, getting teacher support (using safe telling) or providing direct support to the target.

'Narking' isn't just ok: it's expected

People do nothing because they’re afraid of consequences. The most immediate of those is obviously the potential for physical harm. Nobody expects the observer to throw themselves into the fracas, with no concern for their own safety; and anyway, that’s often not the consequence that young people may be most acutely shy of: back in the bad old days, ‘narking’ was among the most grave of offences that a student could perpetrate against a peer. Certainly during this reporter’s school years, it simply wasn’t done, and if it was, the culprit was ridiculed, ostracised, or worse.

Maybe in this sense, teachers need to play their part in explicitly modelling a rejection of bystander apathy; if teachers aren’t actively promoting an environment where standing idly by is considered a far worse ‘crime’ than telling someone, is the school itself a complicit bystander?

Mary thinks that an effective ‘safe telling’ environment comes back to the strength of relationships within the school community.

“I think it comes down to the relationships that the students have with their teachers, and also of course relationships between home and school. If a child doesn’t want to tell the teacher, it can say quite a lot about whether they feel comfortable talking to their teachers. It all comes down to teachers knowing what’s going on ‘out there’.”

“[At Silverstream] we have children who are very good at talking to duty teachers. They might see something that doesn’t involve them directly, but they will tell us that someone is ‘sad’. In my experience students get really worried when one of their friends doesn’t seem to be happy, and they’ll be concerned about them, and they’ll let an adult know.”

It takes a whole village

Lawrie Stewart says that schools shouldn’t see themselves as isolated from the community, and the other organisations that cooperate to provide our young people with a baseline of safety and freedom from any form of abuse – across the entire continuum, from name calling to assault.

“From the perspective of the Police, what we want to avoid would be young people coming to our attention for the wrong reasons, or when it’s too late for anything but enforcement. There’s been much work done within our organisation to move our emphasis – where youth are concerned – away from punishment by default, and toward a more restorative approach. We don’t want to label children by their behaviour. We need to address behaviour, not personalities.

“We can – and try to – be part of the solution, in preventing young people from entering the youth justice system. For example by the use of warnings, alternative actions and ‘intent-to-charge’ family group conferences. So we’re aware of young people who are maybe falling through the cracks, before they’re charged with anything. Then we’re able to be part of the solution, and provide some wrap-around support in concert with other agencies to prevent re-offending; and of course re-victimisation.”

Bullying prevention and response 2015 update: factbox

Who is the guide for?

The guide is an update to the first edition, which was published in 2014. Primarily designed for school principals, staff and boards of trustees, the guide includes links to resources that may also be useful for students and their families and whānau.

What does the guide set out to do?

The guide focuses on:

  • bullying behaviour, rather than other forms of aggression such as violence and sexual abuse
  • bullying behaviour between students, while acknowledging that bullying can also involve staff members, parents and ex-students.

What’s new in the 2015 update?

Updated Guide(external link)

The 2014 guide has been updated in response to feedback from school principals, staff and boards of trustees. This new edition includes:

  • Tools for Schools: practical tools to support schools in developing and/or revising their bullying prevention and response policies.
  • The tools feature:
    • a step-by-step guide to developing a policy 
    • a sample policy
    • a framework to guide policy development
    • a sample bullying prevention and response action plan.
  • a new section on bullying in relation to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and questioning (LGBTIQ) students
  • additional information on cyberbullying and digital technology, contributed by NetSafe
  • information on students’ responsibilities in preventing and responding to bullying
  • information that schools can adapt and use to inform parents and caregivers about bullying, and what they can do if they think their children are involved in bullying behaviour
  • examples of comments and feedback received on both the guide and bullying prevention and response strategies in general.

“We have added suggestions that schools can give parents and caregivers, because schools asked us for more support in this area. A school’s response to bullying is more effective if parents, families, whānau and the wider community are involved.”
David Rutherford, Chief Human Rights Commissioner

“Happy, confident students are likely to stay in education longer and do better at school and later in life. I strongly encourage schools to make use of the 2015 guide, as part of their whole-school approach to student wellbeing.”
Education Minister Hekia Parata.

BY Jaylan Boyle
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 5:08 pm, 29 June 2015

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