School Bullying & The Law

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School student upset

School bullying is a hot topic in Australia right now.

The Prime Minister has angered LGBTI communities by announcing a review of the Safe Schools Coalition Australia program – potentially placing the anti-bullying initiative in jeopardy – and the ABC has recently announced it will produce a controversial new television program, The Bully Project, hosted by Ian Thorpe.

Although bullying occurs amongst school-aged children, the effects on victims can last a lifetime.

Many bullying behaviours constitute offences which can lead to criminal prosecution, and there have been several Australian cases where school bullying has resulted in civil litigation.

Headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, says those who have been bullied can find it extremely difficult coping.

“Often they will feel that there is no escape and may take measures to ‘fit in’ by changing their appearance, acting differently, and may even go so far as to hurt themselves or others.”

The Bully Project

The ABC has partnered with ReachOut Australia to “examine the causes, context and consequences of bullying in Australia today”.

Australia’s national broadcaster hopes to leverage ReachOut’s position as the leading provider of online mental health services to young people to inform Australians about what it describes as a “complex issue”.

Legendary Olympic swimming champion Ian Thorpe is encouraging Queensland youth aged between 14 and 18 years who have experienced bullying to take part in the new ABC show, titled The Bully Project.

“I have some personal experience around the issue of bullying so I want to share my insights to help Australian kids,” Mr Thorpe said.

“More than a quarter of school children in Australia claim to have been bullied on a regular basis, which is unacceptable. I’m passionate about shining a light on this issue.”

However, the show has sparked controversy in the Netherlands. In 2014, the Einstein College in Rotterdam filed and won a lawsuit against the broadcaster, RTL, claiming the show’s undercover footage inappropriately exposed the identities of the school’s young bullies. That show was eventually aired without the undercover footage.

Jamie Oliver’s production company bought the rights to the British version of the program, which does not identify the bullies.

School Bullying in Australia

The issue of school bullying is difficult and delicate, wherever it may occur.

Australian schools have a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to address bullying amongst students, and are also required to provide support for both victims and the bullies themselves.

The NSW Government has described bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.”

Approximately 30 per cent of Australian children in grades 4 to 9 students report being bullied at least every few weeks.

Acts of bullying span a wide spectrum of conduct, including:

  • Intentionally harming or physical assaulting another child by kicking, hitting, pushing, punching, and damaging property;
  • psychologically inflicting harm by teasing, name-calling, taunting, spreading rumours, and leaving other children out;
  • continually harassing another child through email, text messages or chat applications with the aim of insulting and ridiculing them; and
  • harassing others on the basis of race, ethnicity, ability, gender or sexual identity.

Bullying was traditionally confined to school hours. However, with the spread of mobile phones and social media, bullying often occurs via text message and on social media pages. One study revealed that 84 per cent of Australian students who were bullied offline are also bullied online, which means children can feel like there is no escape from bullying.

Bullying Laws in NSW

In NSW, section 60E of the Crimes Act 1900, titled ‘Assaults etc at schools’, makes it a criminal offence to assault, stalk, harass or intimidate any staff member or student while they are at school.

The maximum penalties for the offence range from 5 years imprisonment where no actual bodily harm is caused, right up to 12 years where wounding or grievous bodily harm is occasioned.

At home, there are several criminal laws which can apply to cyberbullies and online behaviour, which may involve:

  • Using the Internet or a phone in a harassing, threatening, or offensive manner;
  • Threats or intimidation;
  • Stalking;
  • Unauthorised access to Internet accounts;
  • Defamation; or
  • Encouraging suicide.

US data shows strong links between bullying and other anti-social conduct including gang-affiliation, drugs and alcohol abuse, graffiti, fighting and carrying weapons.

LGBTI victims

The Australian Government admits “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) youth and those perceived as LGBT are at an increased risk of being bullied.”

The Safe Schools Coalition Australia was the first national program funded by the Australian Government to create “safe and supportive school environments for same sex attracted, intersex and gender diverse people”. However, it has recently been criticised for raising ‘inappropriate’ issues with children.

Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull recently announced a review of the Safe Schools program, which is expected to be completed in March.

LGBT advocates have been sharing shocking stories of school bullying to draw attention to the need for program like Safe Schools, which specifically support children struggling with issues relating to gender and sexuality.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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