Schoolyard bullying: your legal options.

“A Canberra boy, mentally crushed by regular bullying, came home to his worried parents and held a butter knife to his throat.”

This is one report to come out of the most recent ACT parliamentary inquiry into bullying and violence in schools. The problem is, of course, a widespread and long-running one with research confirming three in five students in Australia experience bullying at some time, one in five experience it weekly, and 80% of students believe it’s a problem at their school.

Our founder Romeo El Daghl has acted in numerous school bullying cases including for the victim in the high profile case Gregory v New South Wales [2009] NSWSC 559. The victim was significantly bullied during his time at Farrer Memorial Agricultural High School in the 90s. He was awarded nearly half a million dollars as a result of his school’s failure to protect him from bullying.

Romeo continues to act in complicated and high-profile school bullying cases. Here, he shares what you can do as a parent of a child who is being bullied or a person who has been bullied in the past.

Is it bullying?

Bullying comes in many forms. It might be name calling, teasing, threats or physical acts such as hitting, spitting or breaking someone’s possessions. Spreading rumours about someone or ridiculing them in public can also be a form of bullying as well as deliberately and regularly excluding someone from activities. Of course these days there is also cyberbullying, where someone can use technology to engage in bullying to a much wider and more public audience.

Often though, it’s difficult to distinguish bullying from other behaviour. Bullying generally has these three key features:

  1. There’s a power imbalance between the bully and the victim.
  2. The behaviour is intentional and repeated.
  3. The behaviour causes harm.

My child is being bullied at school – what do I do?

If you know or suspect your child is being bullied, the NSW Department of Education recommends following these steps:

  1. Listen and get the whole story. Encourage your child to open up about the bullying and tell them that reporting it is okay. Get all the details: who, what, where and when.
  2. Reassure them that it’s not their fault. Tell them you understand and are glad they’ve told you. Ask them what they want to do and what they want you to do about it. If they’re reluctant to involve the school, reassure them that the school would want to know and will be able to help.
  3. Make an appointment with the teacher or principal. Contact the school immediately if you have a concern for your child’s safety.
  4. Use services such as Kids Helpline if you think the additional support will help.
  5. Ask the school for a copy of their anti-bullying policy and any other relevant information about how they address bullying.
  6. Work with the school to resolve the issue and establish a plan for addressing the bullying.
  7. Keep a record of meetings and the outcomes.
  8. If the bullying continues or increases, contact the school again.
  9. Help your child by practising strategies to respond to bullying. Useful strategies include:
  • keeping their distance from the bully
  • not bullying back
  • tell the bully what they are doing is not ok
  • talk to an adult they trust
  • start an activity to help build resilience.

What if the school doesn’t respond adequately?

When you receive your school’s anti-bullying policy, make sure they are following it in response to your complaints. If they don’t, complain again and keep a record of each of your complaints and the responses received.

If the bullying continues you may wish to escalate the matter by making a complaint to the Department of Education or to the controlling body of your school if it is a non-government school. Any serious assaults should be reported to police.

If all else fails, the law may be used as an effective tool to intervene to either make the school take effective action or to compensate your child for the harm caused by bullying. The evidence you’ve collected as you’ve gone through the process of attempting to end the bullying is going to be critical.

I was bullied– but it was a while ago.

It doesn’t matter. You may not think you have evidence to prove that you were bullied but you may still have a case and may be in a position to achieve justice and be compensated for any harm caused to you at school in the past.

Courts have increasingly recognised that schools must act to ensure that children are protected from the harm that is caused by bullying. In fact, courts can be a powerful tool to compensate victims where a school has negligently failed to prevent the harm caused by bullying.

The matter of evidence can be addressed by your lawyer. There are a number of effective tools that a good school bullying lawyer can use to obtain evidence in support of your case.

In the Gregory case, the victim was in his 30’s when he made the claim. He continued to suffer the psychological effects of the bullying he suffered at high school many years after he had left. Although his case was brought outside the time limit allowed, he was granted permission by the court to continue with his case and after a hard fought battle and just prior to the hearing, the defendant admitted that it had in fact breached its duty of care to him by failing to protect him from very serious bullying over many years and by failing to adhere to its own anti-bullying policies. The school also failed to adequately act on the complaints of bullying made by the plaintiff.

Even though bullying may have occurred years ago, if you suffered harm or continue to suffer harm, you do have options and may find you have recourse to finally get justice.

Bullying has the potential to create devastating long-term psychological problems for victims. It is therefore critical that if your child is the victim of bullying you act to ensure that his or her school takes quick action to protect him or her from it.

We can help you understand and enforce your rights if you or your child has been a victim of bullying. Contact Lawpoint today to discuss your matter.

Kids Help Line in Australia provides telephone counselling for the victims of bullying and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week (ph: 1800 551 800).

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