Measures to Address Bullying: Motion

14th November 2012

I welcome the Minister to the House. I commend the Fine Gael Senators on bringing this motion before us and initiating this timely debate. We have been debating the seriousness of bullying in all its forms for some time now, including here in the Seanad as recently as September when we had statements on homophobic bullying and the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, was present.

I note with great sadness the tragic deaths by suicide, linked to cyberbullying, of teenagers, Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher, as the backdrop to this motion. Their tragic deaths by suicide must be the catalyst for real action to tackle the pernicious, pervasive and extremely dangerous phenomenon that is bullying. The motion, rightly, welcomes the improvements technology has brought to our lives, but we must also be cognisant of the new dangers such improvements inadvertently bring. Today, we are talking about cyberbullying but another issue of concern to me is the dissemination of child abuse material on the Internet.

It was demonstrated by the successful passage of the children’s rights referendum on Saturday that the protection and welfare of children is a key concern in Ireland and must remain a top priority for all Members of the Oireachtas. In this regard, I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government as well as the anti-bullying forum and the working group to produce an action plan on bullying established by the Minister for Education and Skills. I look forward to seeing the roadmap the working group will produce. I hope the working group speaks of the need for effective structural changes in curriculum, policy, support services and teaching practice, and is for all children. Otherwise it will be a lost opportunity. I look forward to the Seanad debating the action plan when it is produced.

It is important to note that it is not possible to combat cyberbullying through legislation. Legislation capable of catching the kind of circumstances which prevail in cyberbullying cases exists in the offence of harassment under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. This point is well made in a recent legal comment by Fergal Crehan, BL, who noted that “laws can only make things illegal, they cannot stop them from happening”.

The law can only help in prosecuting disclosed cases of bullying but does not help in preventing the behaviour. We need to concentrate on tackling the behaviour. We must examine the prosecution aspect and ensure that when people present evidence those concerned will be prosecuted for breaking the law. We need a fundamental cultural shift in attitudes and values around bullying through a national strategy with a whole school community approach. We must redouble our awareness efforts in order that parents, teachers and communities know the signs as most of us would find it difficult to recognise them, especially in teenagers who are going through a troubled period in their life at the best of times. To recognise the signs is very difficult for any parent on his or her own. That is why there is a need for a whole community-school approach.

Belligerency can take many forms. The recent publication, A Guide to Cyber Bullying, prepared by the Office for Internet Safety, O2, Barnardos and the National Centre for Technology in Education, identified five types of cyber bullying: personal intimidation, impersonation, exclusion, personal humiliation and false reporting. The guide stated that such behaviour should be tackled with education and the role of the school is particularly important. It was pointed out in the excellent briefing earlier that all too often, schools tend not to promote their bullying policies but will promote many other policies. By promoting the fact that they have a policy on bullying is almost a way of emitting some deficiency in the school. We need to reduce that stigma and grow up. Schools need to say what they are doing.

Senator Moran’s experience was telling. Many children will not tell about a bullying experience because of the shame and often they present in medical conditions. I had one girl involved in youth work who ended up hospitalised and on a drip. When we got down to the issues it was clear she was being bullied. Very often children will present with medical conditions because they believe it is their only way to get out of their situation.

The role of adults has been mentioned. There is saying to the effect that children do not pick it off the streets. I have just been through a referendum campaign where those on both sides of the debate shouted at one another and used strong language. On some programmes such as “Frontline” I sometimes feel there is a pack mentality.

We need to be careful. All too often we talk about the children and say they need to be nice to one another and kind to one another, yet it is considered acceptable for me to shout and use abusive language and tell another person that he or she is stupid because I know better. We need to challenge ourselves as adults about our behaviour.

It is important that the curriculum is not used in its standard form. Earlier the National Youth Council of Ireland gave a presentation on youth arts and Roscommon Youth Theatre performed an eight to ten minute play on bullying. It was powerful and the young people showed empathy. By preparing and writing the play they were able to get an understanding of the different sides of what happens in a bullying situation. Whether it is sport, as Senator Coghlan said, or arts we must use different ways to address the issue.

There is also the issue of child abuse material on the Internet which I will raise again with the Minister for Justice and Equality, having done so last year. The debate is welcome and I hope we can now proceed to take action to address this aspect.

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