Wednesday, 17 July 2013
Child Protection Issues
I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this issue for debate. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon.
Last year the people adopted a new Article 42A in the Constitution recognising that children have rights of their own and inserting these rights into the Constitution. Last week Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the Government's special rapporteur on child protection, published and presented his sixth report to the Oireachtas. I hope we will have an opportunity to discuss it in its entirety.
There is one recommendation relating to cyberbullying and homophobic bulling on which I wish to concentrate, as it was highlighted as being particularly important by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. Cyberbullying has been linked to a number of high-profile deaths and difficult situations. The growth of the Internet, online chat rooms and blogging has caught us all by surprise. It has become a forum for bullying where children are targeted and the area has little or no regulation. I am speaking about schools, and although I recognise that not all responsibility can be laid at the door of schools, they none the less play a role. However, that role is not clear. Where is the demarcation line between the school gate and other environments such as the home? We are aware of high-profile cases from the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools in which principals have had to deal with, for example, pictures taken in the school and posted online with the school name and school uniform, not necessarily on school grounds but outside the school. There is also bullying of students by other students and there can be interaction between staff and students.
Schools boards of management have a responsibility in the area of bullying and they must set up a code of conduct following guidelines on counteracting bullying behaviour in schools. They have been provided with a template by the Department on how to do so with particular reference to cyberbullying and homophobic bullying. The purpose of these is to protect the student. The school itself can have a liability, as a victim of cyberbullying may seek reparation for damage, as pointed out in Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's report. School management bodies are engaged in updating existing policies and launching new initiatives.
In his report, Dr. Shannon reviewed what is happening in other jurisdictions, particularly in New South Wales in Australia and in the State of Massachusetts, where legislation was introduced recently to ensure effective implementation of guidelines across the board and no deviation from them. The report states that the most effective means of preventing bullying may be to adopt a whole-school approach. This would encompass school policies on, for example, anti-bullying initiatives, codes of behaviour and the use of social media as an educational tool as well as the involvement of parents. Legislation should be introduced compelling schools to have a strong disciplinary code. Moreover, learning from the observations made regarding the laws in Massachusetts, disciplinary measures should be uniform nationwide, as schools currently have too much latitude in determining how to discipline students who are engaging in bullying.
Those are strong recommendations. Recently the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs sought to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis for the reason that there was no uniformity of implementation across different jurisdictions. As we are reviewing the whole area of bullying and homophobic bullying in schools, it is an opportunity to address the suggestion that legislation should be introduced in this area.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue and welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter.
I welcome the sixth report of the special rapporteur on child protection and particularly the focus on bullying. It is important that this issue be kept high on everyone's agenda. As the Senator is aware, the report focuses on cyberbullying and homophobic bullying in particular. The rapporteur also has comments on Internet safety in general. A number of the recommendations relate to existing legislation and these are a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. A number of the recommendations made by the rapporteur relate to school-based bullying, and I would like to highlight relevant developments on which the Government has made progress since 2012. The Senator will be aware of a specific commitment in the programme for Government to help schools tackle bullying, and particularly homophobic bullying. With this in mind, the Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, convened an anti-bullying forum last year. As part of that forum the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, decided to issue a call for submissions and establish a working group to further explore what could be done through the school system to address this very complex issue.
The Minister, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, was also very concerned that the Department of Education and Skills guidelines on bullying had not been updated since they were first issued in 1993 and wanted to ensure this was addressed. A wide range of expertise and experiences were shared through the forum and the submissions to the working group. He launched the report of the group - an Action Plan on Bullying - in January 2013. The action plan consists of 12 actions and recommendations in 13 areas and addresses much of what has been raised by the rapporteur in his report. In regard to the rapporteur's recommendation that "bullying should be addressed as a public health issue rather than one confined to the sphere of education", the action plan recognises that bullying needs to be considered in the wider societal context. This is particularly relevant to cyberbullying, which, as we all unfortunately know, can take place anywhere and at any time.
The action plan recommends the development of a national anti-bullying framework to communicate and promote a common vision and policy aims regarding bullying, including respect for diversity and inclusiveness. It recommends that this matter be considered in the development of the new children and young people's policy framework, which is intended to be the overarching national framework for the development of policies and services to improve outcomes for children and young people and promote all aspects of their development. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has already indicated her willingness to do this. In regard to the rapporteur's recommendation that legislation should be introduced compelling schools to have a strong disciplinary code, to which the Senator specifically referred, there is already a legal obligation on all schools to have that disciplinary code.
Under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000, all schools are required to have in place a code of behaviour. This code must be drawn up in accordance with the guidelines of the National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, issued to schools in 2008. These guidelines make it clear that each school must have policies to prevent or address bullying and harassment and schools must make clear in their code of behaviour that bullying is unacceptable.
I am pleased to say that the Department is developing new procedures on bullying for primary and post-primary schools to replace the guidelines issued in 1993. The new procedures will issue to schools at the start of the new school year and will include specific references to homophobic bullying and cyberbullying. They will focus on a whole-school approach to addressing all types of bullying behaviour and provide the basis for a consistent approach to tackling bullying across all schools, as mentioned by the Senator. The working group that produced the anti-bullying action plan concluded that, at this time, the focus should be on implementing existing legislative requirements across the system rather than seeking to introduce new legislation.
In relation to the rapporteur's recommendation that homophobic and trans-phobic bullying should be considered a child protection issue, it should be noted that the Children First National Guidelines provide that serious incidents of all types of bullying behaviour should be referred to the HSE Children and Family Services. The action plan recommends that further consideration be given by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to providing more detailed guidance for schools and others on what constitutes "serious bullying" under Children First and when referrals to the HSE should be made.
As part of the action plan the Department of Education and Skills is providing for the first time support for the Stand Up! awareness week against homophobic bullying, organised by BeLonGTo Youth Services. Other actions are also being progressed that are relevant to the rapporteur's report. These include the establishment of a new national anti-bullying website; a media campaign targeted at young people that specifically deals with the issue of cyberbullying, which was run earlier in the year; awareness raising and training for school boards of management and parents; a review of teacher education support services provision to identify teacher training needs; a research project, led by the National Disability Authority, focused on appropriate intervention and prevention strategies for children with special educational needs and disabilities, as these children can be more at risk of being bullied. In addition, the National Office for Suicide Prevention is working with my Department to carry out research on the prevalence and impact of bullying linked to social media on mental health and suicidal behaviour among young people.
In addition to these actions, my officials met representatives of Facebook recently and agreement was reached on a way forward that will involve Facebook, the Department, second-level school management and leadership bodies, including the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, working together to tackle bullying in Irish schools. This includes provision for an effective channel for school leaders to escalate concerns when required. A briefing was held for second-level management and leadership bodies at Facebook headquarters on 21 June. In her contribution, the Senator quoted directly from the rapporteur's report outlining the positive influences that social media can have on communication among schools, pupils and their families. We should not lose sight of that. The issue of tackling bullying covers much more than social media; it is about addressing serious underlying societal issues whereby bullying can be an accepted part of school and societal culture.
The challenge for us all is to eliminate that culture and prove to children that it simply is not, and can never be, acceptable.
I again thank the Senator for raising this issue and providing me with the opportunity to update the House on the important work being done in this area.