One of Auckland's top schools has been slammed by the Chief Ombudsman over three bullying complaints which have "taken a toll on the health of a student".

Three separate complaints about Sacred Heart College have been reported to the Office of the Ombudsman "in recent times".

In one case, the physical and emotional bullying of an 11-year-old boy was so prolonged and regular he left the school diagnosed with severe anxiety.

This week, the boy's mother, Siobhan Harvey, received a report from Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier ending a three-year battle for acknowledgment.

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Harvey said that throughout 2016 a group of boys at Sacred Heart College punched, kicked and called her son a "freak " and "weirdo". On one occasion he was told to kill himself so a boy "could piss on his grave".

In his damning report, Boshier said the school had "failed to ensure the student was safe" and called the Board of Trustees' response to Harvey's complaint "unreasonable".

Boshier also recommended the Board of Trustees at the school "apologise to [Harvey] for the manner in which the complaint was handled" and "review the school's harassment and bullying policies".

Sacred Heart College in Glendowie was found to have
Sacred Heart College in Glendowie was found to have "failed to provide a safe environment" for a bullied student. Photo / Jason Oxenham

He was highly critical of an "independent review" into Harvey's complaint against the school.

The review had an anonymous author, was not signed or dated and did not inform parents or seek their input.

The Board of Trustees accepted the findings of the "independent review" and reported to Harvey they were "comfortable" with the way the college acted.

Boshier writes: "Given the damage done to this child, I fail to understand how the Board can reasonably inform these parents that the Board is 'comfortable'."

The report also revealed two other complaints of bullying at Sacred Heart College had been received.

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"It is regrettable that this is the third complaint that the office has dealt with in recent times," Boshier said.

"... there appears to have been a failure by the college to deal effectively with this behaviour, with the result that it has taken a toll on the health of a student."

Details of the other two complaints were not available to the Weekend Herald.

Siobhan Harvey with her son, who experienced repeated bullying at Sacred Heart College. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Siobhan Harvey with her son, who experienced repeated bullying at Sacred Heart College. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said bullying was "one of the single most important issues that schools are grappling with".

"I have been sufficiently concerned about this issue to raise it during a speech to the recent New Zealand School Trustees Association annual conference."

Harvey read the Chief Ombudsman's findings to her son, who is now 15.

"We were overjoyed with it. He looked like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders," she said.

The boy, who the Weekend Herald has chosen not to name, is now excelling at another school with a strong group of friends and support from teachers.

Harvey said her son was an easy target at Sacred Heart College because he is autistic and extremely gifted, passing NCEA level 1 in Year 7.

At the time of the abuse, Harvey started a detailed log which shows regular and prolonged bullying from March 1 to November 17, 2016.

The log includes regular taunts of "weirdo", "freak", "gay", "f**ktard", and - because he would report the abuse to teachers - "snitch".

It includes physical abuse of punching, slapping, pushing into furniture and shoving. Some of this, Harvey said, was witnessed by teachers.

In one meeting, the teacher admitted the harassment in the class had reached a point where he could do nothing to stop it.

She was in constant contact with the school about the ongoing bullying but said little was done.

Instead, the boy was told to "take ownership" of the bullying by reporting each incident to teachers but when he did no action was ever taken.

Sacred Heart College had three bullying complaints filed with the Office of the Ombudsman. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Sacred Heart College had three bullying complaints filed with the Office of the Ombudsman. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"It was absolutely heartbreaking and caused us so much anxiety to send him to school but we had to legally or he would be truant.

"I was worried every moment of the day as to what was happening to him."

On November 17 - after 90 witnessed bullying incidents - Harvey took her son to a doctor who diagnosed him with extreme anxiety.

He was given an eight-week medical certificate which meant he did not return to school for the remainder of that year.

Even when her son left the school, he was targeted by the same bullies.

In July 2017, the bullies accessed the boy's science experiment on Instagram and posted photos of themselves pulling offensive hand gestures alongside homophobic slurs.

Harvey said despite the policies and guidelines and thousands spent on anti-bullying campaigns, it was "still rife" at some schools.

She said more needed to be done - and by more agencies.

Last night, the new principal of Sacred Heart College, Stephen Dooley, admitted "the situation in 2016 was not well-handled".

"We can reassure our school community that new initiatives will continue to be implemented to develop a much stronger and caring college."

He said a raft of changes had been introduced since 2016 including updated and clearly defined procedures for reporting, documenting and managing student and parent concerns.

He said there was now a network of support structures in place to ensure students felt they were learning in a safe environment.

"A more prominent emphasis is placed on anti-bullying messages, creating more
channels for students to report incidents of concern," he said.

Harvey wanted all schools and agencies to do more to stop bullying.

She said her family's experience was indicative of what was happening throughout New Zealand.

In May this year, an Education Review Office evaluation supported this.

The May report found 39 per cent of all NZ school students had been bullied at their current schools - 46 per cent of primary pupils and 31 per cent of secondary students.

Boys were more likely to have been bullied (41 per cent) than girls (33 per cent).

Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft said the report showed that bullying was still "a blight on our society and a blight on our schools".

"Sadly, this report just shows that whatever our concerns about it, we haven't cracked it yet ... because even in the schools that apparently have the best programmes we are still falling woefully short."

In a report summary for schools, the ERO said the cross-agency Bullying-Free NZ Framework had not eliminated bullying.

"It may also be that a focus on generic bullying prevention can only go so far, and further improvements can only come from more targeted actions focused on specific issues like racism and homophobia," the ERO report stated.

Bullied students are at higher risk of suicidal thoughts and New Zealand has a high youth suicide rate.

Eighty-four young New Zealanders between the ages of 10 and 19 died by suicide in the 2018-2019 period. Eleven were under the age of 15.

A recent study of 6000 children by Children's Commissioner and Oranga Tamariki, found one in 10 faced racism, discrimination, bullying, poverty, violence and drugs.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.

OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:

• 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• https://www.lifeline.org.nz/services/suicide-crisis-helpline
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 or TEXT 4202