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Identified barriers and enablers to school safety

(from Janis Caroll-Lind (2009). School Safety. Wellington: Office of the Children's Commissioner. pp 131-135)

While it is now accepted that bullying occurs in every school, this inquiry determined that a minority number of schools either had no systems in place or those systems were not robust enough to cope when things go wrong. There is evidence to suggest that in schools where things went wrong, it went horribly wrong. What are the factors that contribute to effective or ineffective practices around school safety? Informed by a comprehensive review of the literature (eg. see Blazer, 2005), the following factors have been found to either enable or act as barriers to school safety. The identified barriers and enablers are further supported by the findings of this report.

Enablers to school safety

  • Acknowledgment that bullying behaviour is a risk to be managed (ERO, 2007).
  • Good policies define bullying and the school’s position against it, and outline procedures to discourage bullying and help victims (Rigby, Smith, & Pepler, 2004, as cited in Raskauskas, 2007).
  • Involvement and education of parents increases the effectiveness of their schools’ anti-bullying measures.
  • Establishing a school-wide Code of Conduct that clearly specifies appropriate and inappropriate behaviour as well as providing clear guidelines for teachers will facilitate a shared understanding and consistency.
  • Providing training for staff in recognising and responding to bullying.
  • Keeping a log of all bullying incidents that detail who was involved, where it occurred, how often it happened, and the strategies employed to address the problem, can over time identify behaviour patterns and the most successful interventions.
  • Establishing a confidential reporting system will encourage students to disclose. ‘Bully boxes’ where students can place anonymous reports have proven to be successful in some schools.
  • Conducting anonymous student surveys about student safety at school.
  • Adopting a culture of ‘safe telling’, with students understanding it is part of the school’s ethos will ensure that student interactions do not insinuate messages about the acceptance or rejection of particular students.
  • Implementing strategies, programmes and interventions to prevent and manage bullying. Anti-bullying programmes most likely to be successful are the ones that shift the balance of power from the bullies to the silent majority of students who are upskilled and empowered to confront the bullies.
  • Ascertaining the success of these strategies, programmes, and interventions through self-review (ERO, 2007).
  • Increased adult supervision in common “hot spot” locations around the school (eg. play grounds, toilets, bus stops, and corridors), especially at commonly “less supervised” times (eg. class changes, intervals and lunch times) helps to prevent the occurrence of bullying and violence. Reducing the amount of time spent with minimal supervision is also effective in some schools (eg. shorter lunch breaks and class changes). Staggering class release times has enabled schools to reduce the numbers of bully-victim problems at any one time and makes identification of bullying incidents easier.

Barriers to school safety

  • Anti-bullying programmes are less likely to succeed when staff perceive teaching the anti-bullying programmes to be an added burden because of insufficient support, lack of time, and inadequate training etc.
  • Implementing reactive measures such as metal detectors or surveillance cameras to increase security at school has not been proven in the research literature (interestingly children and young people consulted in this inquiry consistently identified this as a potential strategy for reducing the incidence of bullying).
  • ncouraging students to “stand up” to bullies without adequate support from peers or adults may be harmful and physically dangerous for victims.
  • Providing self-esteem training for bullies and training students in conflict resolution and peer mediation may both be misguided approaches and could actually act as a barrier to bullying prevention. Research suggests that most bullies do not lack self-esteem and while peer mediation programmes may resolve conflict between peers of equal status, the power imbalance between bullies and victims might further victimise students who have been bullied through the continued abuse of power.
  • Adopting ‘zero tolerance’ policies rely on exclusionary measures such as suspension and expulsion. They do not change the bully’s behaviour and, indeed, may exacerbate it because after being excluded the bully has even more unsupervised time than if he or she had still been at school. Issues around zero tolerance will now be further explored.

There has been some controversy around the term ‘zero tolerance’. This inquiry has determined that schools should maintain a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude to violent and bullying behaviours. In other words, they should clearly state that “violence is not okay” and will not be tolerated in their schools. Schools that endorse a zero tolerance attitude to violence are signalling that any form of violence (eg. physical assaults such as fighting or shoving; or verbal abuse such as swearing, sexist or racist language, and persistent exclusion from groups) will not be condoned or viewed as acceptable behaviour. Zero tolerance towards violence means taking a stand to encourage pro-social behaviours that contribute to improved school climates. However, zero tolerance does not mean that schools should always take a harsh and punitive stance by responding to all infringements in the same way. The findings of this school safety inquiry confirm that students experience a range of behaviours that could be described as violence and bullying. First, all students have the right to natural justice which puts the obligations on principals to act fairly and reasonably in the circumstances. Second, each case is different and must be treated accordingly because what response is required will vary according to the situation. Third, zero tolerance ‘action plans’ may stop the behaviour but do not teach new behaviours and often spell the end of a student’s education. The New Zealand School Trustees Association (2008) states quite clearly that:

A school’s “zero tolerance” of any behaviour is untenable... From the time the

principal begins considering if a student should be stood down or suspended, the principles of natural justice applyÉThe principal has to consider the circumstances of each situation and be satisfied that it warrants standing down or suspending a studentÉby carefully considering the evidence and all the circumstances at the time (p. 4).

In the same way that this report recommends different reporting and notification approaches, so too should the various forms of bullying be treated differently. Serious assaults will go down a different track to incidents of relational aggression among friends. While the emotional impact may be similar, serious physical assaults are likely to involve the police, whereas relational aggression would be best dealt with through a restorative justice approach. Restoration implies bringing back to what was happening before. Hagemann (2009) suggests this term may be misleading, but in a school setting, where victims simply want the bullying to stop, restorative practices are particularly successful in bringing about restoration and healing.


Last Updated (Thursday, 08 September 2011 16:09)