Speech – Private Members’ Bill Education (Welfare) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012

PaulConnaughton-2-150x150

Dáil Éireann 22nd & 23rd January 2013

 

Thank you for the opportunity of speaking on this Bill. As someone that has worked with young people during what is a period of great transition in their lives, I am only too aware of the devastating impact that bullying can have on a person’s life.

 

Everyone in this chamber is aware of the devastation that bullying can wreak in the lives of people of all ages, but young people are particularly vulnerable and I welcome this Government’s determination to take action on bullying, but believe that the Bill currently before the house is not the way forward as it is flawed in a number of respects.

 

Students in schools are particularly vulnerable to bullying and often feel cornered in a situation where they are made to feel increasingly powerless. This Government, through a wide range of initiatives, aims to send a strong signal to anyone contemplating bullying in a school setting that it is a most serious offence and one which will be properly documented and dealt with at the highest level.

 

Schooldays should be among the happiest times of a person’s life and given that the Government requires people to attend school, it behoves us to ensure that the school environment is as welcoming as possible for all pupils.

 

While homophobic bullying is a particular worry, the avenues for bullying have multiplied with the increasing presence of the internet in all our lives, be it via smart phones, camera phones and a variety of websites that can be used for negative purposes by bullies. Research demonstrates that young gay people are at a higher risk of bullying and the sad fact remains that homophobic bullying remains under reported and is one of the least challenged types of bullying in schools. Cyber bullying has laid waste to the lives of many teenagers, sometimes with particularly tragic consequences. Education is needed in a variety of settings to ensure that young people are fully aware of when they are overstepping the line in terms of bullying.

 

Education on bullying is not just needed in the classroom, all adults need to be educated on bullying, and such programmes could benefit many schools, homes and workplaces throughout the land.

 

We must remember that many children are coming to schools from homes where derogatory comments about gay people and people of a different nationality are commonplace and so the education must begin in people’s homes and in particular in the homes of school-going children. Parents must recognise that children will mimic their actions and if their actions are racist or if they indulge in bullying in the home or cyber-bullying, then their children are at risk of being taken to task for the very actions they have learned from their parents.

 

I understand that the action plan compiled by the Working Group on bullying will be launched on Thursday and given the wide range of submissions received, I believe that this report will be the blueprint for how this Government will tackle the issue. Of course, good intentions are not enough in this respect and I also welcome the fact that €500,000 has been allocated to support the implementation of this action plan.

 

It is very important that the voices of children themselves are heard in this debate and the recently published report on bullying by the Ombudsman for Children consulted widely with children aged 10 to 17, including children from diverse geographical and social backgrounds, children with disabilities, children in care and LGBT children. That report recommended that the views of young people should be incorporated when schools are drawing up anti-bullying policies and also rightly points out that bullying must not alone be tackled in schools but needs to be tackled at a wider societal level.

 

As with any safety issue, the first necessary element in tackling this issue is awareness. In order for bullying to be dealt with effectively in any school setting, the entire school community, including staff, management, parents and students, must all adhere to any policies introduced. I know that the Minister plans to update the 1993 Bullying Guidelines for schools and recommendations include a reporting template for schools so they can track bullying incidents and institute effective responses.

 

This Sinn Fein Bill seeks to make one person on each Board of Management responsible for implementing measures to counter bullying, and this is one of the key reasons why this Bill must be rejected, because this proposal is simply not workable and more practical measures are needed in this regard. Simply put, instead of narrowing the focus of responsibility in terms of anti-bullying measures, it must be widened, to include the whole school community. I believe that this is borne out by the recommendations of the Ombudsman’s report and young people need to be more involved in devising appropriate responses to bullying.

 

Mandatory reporting is not always the answer to a difficult problem. The proposals for mandatory reporting to parents contained in this bill are not, I believe, in the best interests of the child. For example, if a child comes from a home where derisory comments are constantly being made in relation to gay people, is that child likely to report homophobic bullying if they are aware that reporting of any complaint to parents is mandatory?

 

Many schools already have excellent measures in place to tackle bullying and we must acknowledge the huge efforts being made by staff members and members of Boards of Management across the country to tackle this issue. Best practice must be reflected in school policy and must in turn be put into practice on the ground in schools, whether that be on the playground, in the cloakrooms, dining halls or on the school bus on the way home.

 

As with charity, tackling bullying begins at home and not in someone else’s home, but in our homes. Respect for others is at the centre of tackling the scourge of bullying and we as Government members must lead by example in this respect, especially when it comes to dealing with people whose viewpoints we strongly disagree with.

 

The adults of tomorrow are learning from the adults of today and if respectful behaviour is what is required in a school setting, that is only made possible if it is demonstrated in a home setting. This Bill, while reflecting the fact that every member in this chamber is committed to tackling bullying, is not, I believe, the way forward and the correct course to take is one which reflects best practice internationally, which requires that the onus on tackling bullying is spread as widely as possible through every community.