New Zealand has one of the worst problems of bullying in schools in the world, creating a nightmare of helplessness for parents. Today, one mother tells her story of the fight to protect her son.

Recently, I watched a programme called Bullies, in which Dr Vanessa Green from Victoria University's Faculty of Education described bullying as "an aggressive act towards another individual; it's repeated ... and there's a power differential between the individuals". A succinct analysis.

If we can easily define what bullying is, why do we still struggle to prevent it?

This year, for instance, the Pisa Report showed New Zealand has the second highest rate of youth bullying in the OECD, with over a quarter of students reporting harassment every month.

Then there are the personal stories, fragments of a wider, ongoing narrative about bullying in our schools.


Take the 11-year-old disabled Miramar boy locked in a darkened cupboard-like room by teachers, and the 9-year-old Christchurch student, repeatedly bullied, whose father placed billboards outside her school to protest her plight.

Our story of bullying began in February 2016 when our 11-year-old disabled, autistic son began at a boys' school.

As parent help on an Outdoor Education trip, I was horrified to witness students openly label him "freak" and "weirdo" in front of teachers, without reprimand. At lunchtime, he sat alone to escape his tormentors. They ran up behind him and shouted in his ear.

At this, a teacher myself, I lost my temper and called out the abuse.

Finally, the teachers intervened.

The intimidators claimed it was just a game, my son at fault for isolating himself.

Even after the bullies were chastised, others called him a "rat".

This set the pattern for the following nine months. Soon "freak" and "weirdo" became conjoined with hate-labels like "gaytard", "f***wit", "f***tard" "f***ing fag".

Our son was kicked and punched. He was tripped regularly. His head was smashed against a cupboard. His school computer broke after bullies slammed down the screen.

In a meeting in May, his homeroom teacher admitted all this. Shockingly, he added he felt the harassment had reached a point where nothing could be done to stop it.

As if to reinforce this, a week later our son approached him after a boy told him to die so he could piss on his grave.

The teacher informed our son he was too busy to intervene and sent him back into an unsupervised room.

We started a daily log of incidents. We complained to the dean and sent him the Ministry of Education's Bullying Prevention Guide. This was ignored.

Instead the dean's solution made our already stigmatised, autistic son "own" his complaints by voicing them himself.

The results were catastrophic.

Quickly our son became "the snitch", a slur uttered so widely that abuse of him spread beyond his homeroom to the whole school.

Within weeks, the dean complained our son was reporting too much and was "too sensitive".

To the instances of non-verbal abuse, which continued - being attacked by one of his bullies in the playground, for instance - the dean followed school protocol: administer each complaint separately, interview both sides, reach a decision and apportion blame accordingly.

Too often, two stories ensued: our son's versus his bullies'.

Too often, stalemate and inaction resulted.

Stress and anxiety became our son's new norm.

In July 2016, the school's Learning Support Officer reviewed medical reports, our logs and our son's accounts, then released our son for weekly counselling to deal with the effects of bullying.

In class, though, nothing changed. A promised buddy system never materialised.

In September, our concerns reached the principal.

Oddly, the school process demanded the principal administer these as complaints against staff so the resulting meeting didn't focus upon the bullies or bullying.

Instead the dean defended his actions, and a colleague presented her investigations of our journey through previous schools, labelling us problem parents of a problem child.

The principal ordered us to stop complaining and "get back in line with other parents".

He added that our constant complaints created too much work for his staff, so all future correspondence would be ignored.

That morning a student punched our son in the face in front of his teacher, who said he couldn't intervene, then walked away.

We tabled our complaints to the board of trustees.

Why didn't we simply move our son elsewhere?

This was our local school; we weren't zoned for another, and couldn't afford the hefty fees of private schooling. Also, all our son wanted was to go to school, enjoy his education and friends and not be bullied.

Not much to ask.

Sadly, he wasn't even allowed this.

The taunts and physical abuse continued. By early November, we had logged 90 witnessed incidents by the same group of boys.

Then, one morning as our son walked to his classroom, 20 bullies surrounded him. When he sought to escape, the ringleader shoved him to the ground while the rest heckled.

When our son told his teacher, he told the instigator not to do it again.

This was the last straw.

Our doctor gave us a medical certificate allowing our son to leave for the remainder of the year.

Partly, I see this ineffectual action in the face of our witnessed evidence as a failure of individuals.

But it's also a failure of collective process, exemplified by the subsequent apathy of the board of trustees and agencies we turned to for help.

Presently, the board has had our complaint for 13 months.

When our son got a place at another school in February 2017, the board closed our complaint down. Because it had been lodged while our son was still at the school, we demanded it be reopened.

We received no reply until, advised by the Ministry of Education, we contacted the Parliamentary Ombudsman. In May, their Early Resolution Team forced the board to reopen the case.

In the meantime, we approached the Children's Commission. They said the verbal, emotional and physical bullying against our 11-year-old wasn't their responsibility and referred us back to the Ministry of Education.

As school staff admitted seeking negative information about our family from other schools, we contacted the Privacy Commission.

After a protracted process, they agreed the school shouldn't have sought such information, but ruled there was no privacy breach because our son's previous school hadn't answered the school's questions about us.

So the commission sent us back to the Ministry of Education.

We tried the Teacher's Council. Like the Ombudsman and Ministry of Education, it said it was powerless until the board of trustees responded to our complaint.

The bullying hasn't stopped. Even though our son is at a different school, the bullies targeted him online.

First in March on YouTube. Then in May, on school grounds and in school time, the bullies hacked into a friend's Instagram account and posted numerous taunts and an intimidating picture of themselves to our son's science fair project video.

I attached screenshots to a complaint to the school. A week passed without response, so I went to the police.

The police were the one agency I believed would help us. I was wrong.

In front of others at our local station, a youth officer harangued me for letting the online bullying occur.

A responsible parent, he said, would terminate all connection to the bullies. A responsible parent kept their child safe.

When I explained the bullies had used someone else's phone to continue to bully, the officer was unmoved. He told me, if I wanted to take the matter further, I needed a log of previous bullying and screenshots of the Instagram posts.

I returned with these proofs. A desk officer reviewed them, spoke to colleagues, then said they couldn't prosecute because the bullies were 12 years old. But, he said, if I made an official complaint, they would visit and speak to the boys' families.

You won't hand this back to the school, will you? I asked. No, he assured me, so I made an official complaint.

The next day, another youth officer called to say he had delegated his authority in the case back to the school.

Devastated, I protested, citing the promises made, the screenshot images and our log.

I also underscored the seriousness of the most recent incidents, given they had occurred on school grounds in school time. The youth officer declared our complaint was mainly "historic" and school staff had promised to chastise the boys and counsel them to stop their behaviour.

Recently, because we still haven't heard from the board of trustees, we begged the Ombudsman to declare our wait too long. They replied it wasn't for them to determine such matters. If we felt our wait was excessive, we should complain- this would generate another investigation.

So, tied in red tape, we remain in limbo. Despite all the protocols, policies, guidelines and agencies tasked with preventing youth bullying, silence and inaction have greeted our 90 witnessed incidents of bullying against our son.

Is it any wonder New Zealand remains implacably atop the OECD youth bullying statistics?

The Herald on Sunday has chosen to publish this anonymously to protect those involved.

Getting help

•What to do if I think my child is involved in bullying

Contact your school or kura and speak to your child's class teacher or the principal.

Questions to ask:

-Do they have a bullying prevention policy?

-What are the procedures for dealing with bullying?

-What support is available for students involved in bullying?

-To whom should my child report bullying?

•What can I expect from the school/ kura?
Schools and kura must provide a "safe physical and emotional environment for students".
They should have a self-review process to identify and address risks. Parents and/or carers and students should expect:
-To be heard, responded to sensitively and not to be dismissed
-To be told the report will be investigated and there will be a response
-To receive feedback on the situation and have the incident responded to in an appropriate way
-To be protected from negative consequences of their reporting
-The school or kura will intervene and support initiators, targets and bystanders involved in bullying

How can I support my child?
The Ministry of Education recommends you:
-Talk with your child, reassure them they have done the right thing in talking to you
-Agree on a plan of behaviour for your child
-Support your child's activities and friendships
-Regularly check in with your child to see how they are doing

More information and guidance

What's Up? is a free counselling service for kids. Phone 0800 942 8787 1pm-11pm daily,
or go to