The ambulance at the bottom of the cliff analogy is an often-overused cliche. It is used when criticising government for ignoring and underinvesting in prevention measures.
But in the case of school bullying, the shoe fits. If government and schools took bullying prevention seriously, it would be impossible to estimate the positive flow-on effects. Children would be spared from physical harm and emotional trauma and we would futureproof our country from countless, related social issues.
Framed positively, schools would become safe places where young people are supported to become decent and fair adults. As the Race Relations Commissioner, I am adding my voice to the Children's Commissioner — I am calling for the Government to mandate bullying prevention. I also want it to be compulsory for schools to collect bullying data.
New Zealand has built up an unnatural tolerance for bullying. We rank very poorly in international bullying statistics. Initiatives over the past five years have not improved these figures. Ninety-four per cent of teachers indicate that bullying occurs in their school. Uptake by individual schools to implement anti-bullying initiatives is voluntary and no standardised measures exist.
The Government, school leaders and by virtue, New Zealanders, have accepted bullying as a reality. Bullying is not a rite of passage or a marker of youth resilience.
Tolerating school bullying is tantamount to accommodating it. If we don't put a spike in the pathway of bullying behaviour now, it will be the norm in our adult life.
For example, workplace harassment and bullying is now firmly cemented in the New Zealand employment lexicon. No workplace, including the one I now represent, is immune from bullying and harassment complaints. Media, advocates and government inquiries can give complainants a hearing. But, why should we have to accommodate the prolonged negative effects of bullying behaviour? So how do we stop bullying? This is a topic where ideas are abundant. However, not all ideas are evidence-based. Even seemingly straightforward solutions can sometimes have unintended consequences. One solution that has been suggested is having cameras in schools or personal security devices to record, and to deter physical bullying. On the plus side this approach has kept lots of people safer such as public transport commuters and people dealing with authorities. This is predicated on the idea that we behave better when people are watching. From a human rights lens, balancing the right to safety with the right to privacy is required. For instance, if video footage of bullying went viral, it would haunt victims for years, or inspire copycat or revenge videos. In the end, attempts to curb physical bullying could ironically lead to more online bullying. Moreover, what message does it send our children? If schools are only safe with surveillance, then we're ignoring the bigger issues.
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So, enough hypothesising. The Human Rights Commission suggests that our best chance to eliminate bullying will require government and all schools to commit to two key actions.
The first action is mandatory, evidence-based bullying prevention programmes in schools. For years, the commission along with the Ombudsman, various United Nations committees, the Law Commission and the Office of the Children's Commissioner have all called for these prevention programmes in schools. To date, the Government has not acted on this advice.
An example of programme that should be mandated and funded is Kiva. A primary evaluation showed excellent results in 30 New Zealand schools. Bullying decreased between students and even between teachers.
Secondly, Government must make it mandatory for schools to collect bullying statistics and monitor students' experiences of bullying. This not a question of whether bullying occurs, this is the data on frequency and causes. The gathering of family violence data was a game changer in recognising the prevalence of the issue and designing suitable prevention. Without bullying data, we will not have an accurate picture of its extent, and it will be impossible to assess whether initiatives are effective.
But continuing to deprioritise prevention is another sign that we have normalised bullying in the same way we have learnt to tolerate high rates of abuse, family violence and suicide. Addressing bullying could help restrain these violent forces. Let's futureproof our children from the corrosive effects of bullying now.
• Meng Foon is the Race Relations Commissioner.