Implementation of Anti Bullying Legislation in Schools Update 2021

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 14 May 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Antibullying Laws; Bullying in Schools

The issues around the new Anti- Bullying Laws for schools were examined in my article for Legal Island in October 2019. At that time objections by the teaching Unions had halted the roll out of the new proposals:

“On August 29th, 2019 the Department of Education wrote to all school principals to inform them that in the light of Trade Union concerns, the planned implementation of the ‘Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (Northern Ireland) 2016’ would be paused to allow dialogue on the matter. They pointed out that;

Given the overwhelming consensus identified during public consultation on the Act, that bullying remains a significant problem within our schools and that legislation is needed, the Department remains committed to bringing the Act into operation as soon as possible” 

My question however is whether these measures will make it easier or harder for school leaders to resolve the often-intractable conflicts described in this legislation in the best interest of pupils?

The BBC have now reported that,

“Schools in Northern Ireland will be legally required to record all incidents of bullying and alleged bullying from 1 September.  They will also have to keep records of the motivation behind the bullying, the method involved and how the incident was dealt with.  That is according to guidance to schools from the Department of Education on new anti-bullying laws.”

So having dutifully conducted the required consultations, The Department of Education are now intending to roll out the new procedures and requirements for schools in September. There are two separate sets of concerns around these plans for school leaders.

Firstly, there is the new imperative to record in detail any bullying or alleged bullying incidents on standardised formats and then in a radical departure from previous requirements, “... to keep records of the motivation behind the bullying, the method involved and how the incident was dealt with”.

The pastoral role of school staff therefore in addition to confronting and dealing with bullying behaviours often involves supporting and counselling children who find the normal interactions of classroom life difficult and intimidating.  Looking at these new approaches I can see that staff will sometimes find it difficult to decide whether reported problems actually constitute bullying. While careful investigation is certainly warranted if any problems are reported, even to record incidents as alleged bullying may to some extent “criminalise” pupils who may have been acting perfectly reasonably. 

The legislation sets out a definition of bullying,

“.. as the repeated use of "any verbal, or electronic communication, any other act or any combination of those by a pupil or group of pupils against another pupil or group of pupils".

There also has to be "the intention of causing physical or emotional harm to that pupil or group of pupils".

Collecting and recording this level of detail will demand thorough investigation but will also inevitably sometimes result in inconclusive outcomes. During my time as a former school counsellor, I often dealt with cases where a child experienced what they felt was aggressive behaviour from others.  On occasions there was definite evidence of “bullying behaviour” and this was dealt with. The difficulty was though, that sometimes the alleged aggressive actions of classmates were not overtly threatening or perceived as out of the ordinary at all by others in the class.  This is not in any way to understate the real unhappiness experienced by pupils because of the treatment they received from classmates where for example actions were so subliminal that no definitive evidence could be collected.

The new proposals therefore actually call for a radical change in the general norms of social interaction between school pupils. This may be a very good and necessary change and perhaps reflects a change in society in general with regard to the acceptability and tolerance of aggressive behaviour as evidenced by the many warning signs now displayed in workplaces.

This brings us to the second set of concerns which are the views of parents about their children’s behaviour and/or classroom experiences in school.  It has always been the accepted role of a school to set guidelines through agreed discipline policies. It can be more difficult in 2021 to find consensus between parents and teachers in pursuit of this goal.  School leaders will be familiar with the problems both in disciplining pupils accused of bullying behaviour and in meeting the concerns of parents in ensuring children are comfortable in classroom settings.

Changes in norms of society have meant that parents now often challenge the way a school is using discipline to address perceived bullying behaviour and school leaders often find themselves in situations where neither the parent of a victim of bullying behaviour or of an alleged perpetrator are happy with the way the school is dealing with the problem. While parental challenge can ensure school improvement and higher standards it can also greatly impede genuine pastoral care work to resolve bullying behaviours and support vulnerable pupils. 

Writing in a parents advice website A Principal (and Mom) on School Discipline | Parents

Brooklyn elementary school principal Launa Schweizer has very good advice on this difficult issue for school leaders and for parents. She recommends that, 

“You can support your child's relationship with his teachers by explaining that school rules are to be followed, even if your rules are different at home. Young children feel confused when parents undermine the teacher's decisions.”

She quotes a case from her own experience which illustrates the problem, when a pupil lost his temper and hit another child.  His parents came in for a meeting and his mother was confrontational stating that they teach him to stand up for himself and that she was glad that he can use his fists. The principal’s response was to point out that while that may be their rule at home, the rules at school are different and no child is ever allowed to hit here.

But the principal is not a prosecutor Laura Schweizer argues, and a child doesn't need a lawyer. Instead, they need a parent who can stay calm and who is willing to work with the school to help them respect, reflect, and repair.

While robust measures to address bullying behaviours in schools are essential, l these new approaches, while detailed and searching, may not address the wider priority to enhance children’s coping skills and resilience.



This article is correct at 14/05/2021

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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