Reports of online fight clubs and revenge porn are just some of the contemporary issues facing schools today.
Northland schools aren’t exempt, with Okaihau College’s most recent edition of its newsletter The Breeze describing how a “fight club” had developed at the school.
Principal Thomas Davison said a number of the school’s young men “had organised, carried out and recorded a number of fights at different places on school grounds”.
In some cases, they had allegedly shared the recordings with others or uploaded them to social media.
Some of the boys had also allegedly talked about “play fighting” as an explanation for what was happening.
“I want to make it clear that such behaviour has no place at Okaihau College,” Davison said.
“As far as we are concerned, this is not acceptable behaviour either, as the risk of something happening is still too great.”
The Herald recently reported on a similar issue at Auckland’s Howick College.
The story told of how a video had emerged of a student throwing a classmate to the ground, repeatedly punching and kicking him in the head – all while students and a teacher looked on.
This was allegedly a daily occurrence, according to some parents, who claimed students were regularly being beaten up in bathrooms, having fist fights in class and being slammed into hallway walls.
Building Safer Communities is a community organisation based in Kaitaia, which aims to tackle entrenched and complex social problems in the Far North.
Manager Angela Phillipps said she wasn’t surprised to hear this was going on and confirmed online bullying and other unhealthy behaviours were rampant in the region.
“What young people do online nowadays, and how they use social media tools to bully or harass, is growing faster than we can keep up with,” she said.
“For example, there are online group pages dedicated to fighting, and as soon as someone shuts it down, another opens.
“This is happening across the whole nation, but we feel it more being in a small community.”
Phillipps described how Building Safer Communities had previously delivered an ACC programme, Mates and Dates, which helped educate young people about healthy relationships.
It also provided a safe space for rangatahi (young people) in Years 9-13 to talk about issues they may not feel comfortable sharing with other adults.
“Each group had different themes relevant to their age, so for Year 9, for example, we talked a lot about online bullying and how all online content, even if deleted off their phone, remained online and traceable,” Phillipps said.
“We also talked about the effects on both the perpetrator and victim and the social anxiety that was increasing as a result of all of this.
“In life, for every action, there’s an outcome, positive or negative, but there’s a process that needs to be followed, which the school is ultimately bound by.”
Revenge porn and sexual harassment were other online issues plaguing schools, said The Light Project NZ director Nikki Denholm.
The Light Project NZ was set up in 2017 in response to “the changing online porn landscape and absence of any information, support or resources for young people in Aotearoa”.
Denholm said most young people these days would come across porn online, either by entering the wrong search term, seeing a pop-up during a game, or becoming curious about bodies or sex.
Building trust and rapport early, she said, was a great start to establishing lifelong conversations about healthy sexuality.
“What we know now is that it’s tricky to avoid online sexual content, so most young people are engaging with it either accidentally or on purpose,” Denholm said.
“Some of the latest research coming out of the States and UK is how young people are now accessing porn and online sexual content through multiple social media platforms including TikTok, Twitter and Instagram.
“As a result, we’re definitely now seeing some of the harms related to that exposure in the school playground in the form of superimposing images and a rise in porn-related concerns in schools.”
Denholm described the online world as the “Wild West”, with shame and body image issues, addictive problematic porn usage and content made coercively against young people causing anxiety, depression and stress.
Another trend Denholm had witnessed in the past 12 months was the issue of virtual sexual assault.
“We’re seeing a rise in young people’s avatars in virtual reality being groped and sexually assaulted,” she said.
“This virtual experience can be seen in virtual revenge porn or young people fooling around in the world they are immersed in.”
Denholm was adamant the issue wasn’t about “naughty or bad” kids, it was a matter of not getting the adult conversation or awhi (support) needed to deal with these issues.
“Our adage or saying is that you can’t protect children from the online sexual world, but we can prepare and help them navigate it,” Denholm said.
“In our work with young people they’re telling us they don’t have an online and offline world, it’s all woven together.
“Schools, in the same way as parents, communities and society all need to understand the new online landscape for our young people, understand the issues and consider our own response to help them.”
In response to the now-defunct Mates and Dates programme, Building Safer Communities is setting up a new Youth Space to build on the work already done in schools.
Phillips said this was still in the process of being developed, but would be a space for youth, designed and inspired by youth, based on resilience, well-being, community connectedness and self-identity.
“We’re really excited to bring this to the community, which will have activities tailor-made specifically for 12 to 24-year-olds,” Phillips said.
“We’re currently putting together a youth committee who will co-design the space where young people can come and belong.”
The Ministry of Education Operations and Integration hautū (leader) Sean Teddy said state and state-integrated schools and kura were self-governing and could make school rules on a wide range of matters, including cellphones in school.
While schools weren’t required to collect or share data related to bullying or safety incidents, they were expected to communicate with parents about their policies on the issue.
“Bullying and violence is never acceptable. All students and staff deserve to feel safe at school,” he said.
“It is essential schools ensure incidents of bullying are thoroughly and safely investigated and resolved in accordance with their policies and procedures.”
Teddy said the sharing of images, including altered images, could be an offence under the Harmful Digital Communications Act and a potential offence under other acts.
“Under these serious circumstances, we recommend parents and caregivers contact the police and Netsafe.”
For more information about The Bullying-Free NZ website for schools, visit: bullyingfree.nz/
Parents can also find resources about bullying by visiting: https://parents.education.govt.nz/primary-school/wellbeing/bullying/
The Age attempted to contact Okaihau College for comment but was unsuccessful.