HON SAMANTHA ROWE (East Metropolitan — Parliamentary Secretary) [1.10 pm]: I move —
That this house notes the importance of developing strategies to prevent and manage bullying in schools.
Today is a timely opportunity to have this debate and discussion in this house, primarily because this Friday, 15 March, is National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence in Schools. The theme for 2019 is “Bullying. No Way! Take action every day”. The national day of action gives schools the chance to not only take action in this space, but also, more importantly, empower students and young people to be part of the solution when addressing bullying in their schools and school community. As this debate progresses over the next two hours, I look forward to hearing from members across the chamber about their experiences in their school communities, and perhaps some examples of what is and what is not working well in their schools. We all have a responsibility to ensure that every student is given the best opportunity to learn in a safe environment.
[Speeches and comments from various members]
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [1.55 pm]: I want to thank the member for raising this issue. It is a very important one, and I think it is unsurprising that there are so many people indicating that they want to speak, because it is an issue that absolutely deserves the full attention of this house. I note that the motion is also a very timely one. As has already been said, this Friday is the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, which is held on the third Friday of March every year, and I note that the theme for this year is “Bullying. No way! Take action every day”.
As has already been discussed, the consequences of bullying and the harm associated with it have been well documented. Bullying does have a lasting effect on children and their families and can have an ongoing impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing, as well as their physical health. Bullying also impacts school attendance and can therefore be detrimental to school achievement. There is clear evidence that being a victim of bullying is associated with poor mental health and a high risk of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal ideation. As has already been said by the minister, prolonged bullying can also be fatal, and we are aware of tragic cases when sustained bullying has led a young person to take their own life. Unfortunately, bullying is also very common. According to Headspace, up to 46.8 per cent of Australian secondary school students report that they have been bullied in some form or another over the past 12 months.
I want to concentrate on a few elements of this, because although anyone can be a victim of bullying, some children can be particularly vulnerable. I am talking about students with disability, Aboriginal students, those from non–English speaking backgrounds, and also LGBTIQ students, all of whom have been identified as being at increased risk. The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission reports that bullying is a significant and widespread problem for students with disability, with six out of 10 of those students reporting that they have been bullied because of their disability. Young people with disability have been known to have poorer mental health than other young people, and recent research has found that almost half of their poorer mental health outcomes can be directly attributed to the bullying that they are experiencing. There is a real imperative to address bullying in this cohort of students. Studies have also found that LGBTIQ young people may face up to twice as much abuse or violence as other students, and 80 per cent of homophobic bullying occurs at school. These statistics are very confronting. I know from my own experiences as a student at John Curtin Senior High School that the boys who were dance students were subject to very serious ongoing physical bullying, whether they were gay or not. People said that they were gay because they danced. It was endemic and horrendous and I sincerely hope that is not the case now. In fact, I imagine it has changed significantly, but I remember how awful it was.
I am pleased to note that there are now some quite significant things happening in the space for LGBTIQ students. The Commissioner for Children and Young People has established advisory committees that focus specifically on the needs of LGBTIQ children and young people in Western Australia. Many of the key priority areas identified by this group relate to making schools safer, including improving experiences in school through inclusive policies, practices and professional development for staff; reducing harassment and discrimination for LGBTIQ children and young people; and improving access to safe spaces and support, and events and activities. I think these are really commendable initiatives.
Other positive steps forward have been taken, such as the drive for gender-neutral toilet options in schools—almost like what we have in our own homes—and efforts to ensure school ball dress policies are more inclusive. These initiatives stand in stark contrast to the often appalling media response to the issue. I particularly note the disgraceful front page from a couple of weeks ago about the school gender swap. I certainly hope that that young child has been receiving the support that she needs because, as we know, 50 per cent of transgender young children reported that they have attempted suicide. It is a really serious issue. It also highlights the importance of programs such as Safe Schools and why we need to ensure that these programs are in place. These sorts of programs save lives and we really need to remember that.
I think it is appalling that being Aboriginal also increases a student’s risk of being bullied at school. The situation is getting worse rather than better, with bullying being increasingly identified by Aboriginal respondents to Mission Australia’s youth survey as a key issue that Australians face. Bullying of Aboriginal students been found to not only impact on their school attendance and progress, which is particularly concerning given efforts to address the gap in education between Aboriginal students and other students, but also contribute to children having trouble making friends and their willingness to take part in sport and leisure activities.
As I have said, bullying is also more commonly experienced by children from non–English speaking backgrounds. A survey undertaken by the Foundation for Young Australians found that 80 per cent of secondary students from non-Anglo backgrounds, most of whom were from migrant and refugee backgrounds, experienced racial discrimination during their lives and that over two-thirds of these experiences of racism occurred at schools.
As has been mentioned, there can be a tendency to attribute normal childhood nasty behaviour to bullying when it is not. Bullying is repeated, intentional behaviour that is intended to cause distress. We talk about the four different types of bullying: physical, verbal, cyber and social, or relational, such as excluding someone, telling others not to be friends with them, spreading rumours or embarrassing someone in public. All schools are required to have anti-bullying plans in place to deal with bullying and cyberbullying. Anti-bullying plans are sometimes called managing student behaviour plans. If I click on the page, “Preventing and managing bullying in schools” on the Department of Education’s website, it says, “There is currently no information relating to this subject”, which I think needs to be rectified. Having said that, I acknowledge that there is information about bullying on other parts of the department’s website.
I want to make some general comments about parents. I absolutely agree with comments that have been made about the need to ensure that parents have the tools to be able to best address issues of bullying that occur against their children. As a mother of three, it is an area of which I would be greatly vigilant. However, not all children who are being bullied have the resource of parents who give a damn about them. There are parents who are absent or have died and sometimes kids are absolutely left unto themselves. We have to acknowledge that, far too often, some of the most bullied children are also the ones who have nobody who gives a damn about them and nobody who is looking out for them.
The fact that bullying rates are so high clearly indicates that our schools are not yet safe spaces for all students. It is, of course, vital that we develop strategies to prevent and manage bullying in schools. Schools need to be caring, positive environments that celebrate diversity in all its forms. That means school staff need to be equipped with the skills they need to be able to support all students, particularly those who we know are more vulnerable to bullying. I am pleased to note there are strategies and programs have been evaluated and demonstrated to be effective. In 2017, the New South Wales Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation undertook a comprehensive review of literature on effective anti-bullying programs in schools. The review found that anti-bullying programs reduce bullying by an average of 20 to 23 per cent. The most effective anti-bullying interventions take a holistic, whole-of-school and whole-of-community approach; allow students to develop social and emotional competencies and learn appropriate ways to respond to bullying; and provide professional development for staff. The most effective programs also ensure systematic implementation and evaluation. Although the report noted that there are a range of effective whole-of-school anti-bullying approaches, researchers identified that schools need greater support to maximise the outcomes of anti-bullying interventions and identify what is likely to be successful based on their specific contexts and requirements. It is simply not enough to provide a range of anti-bullying resources to schools and then just leave them to their own devices. Interventions need to take a whole-of-school approach, including teacher training, and support an inclusive school culture with individual counselling and policies, and plans for conflict resolution. In rolling out school-based anti-bullying initiatives, it is absolutely essential to ensure a particular focus on students who have already been identified as being at greater risk of bullying. That includes concentrating on enhancing the inclusion of students at risk, as I have already mentioned. We know that these strategies work. Research has shown that, for example, where there are protective policies in place for LGBTIQ students, they are more likely to feel safe compared with those in schools without similar policies. These students are almost 50 per cent less likely to be physically abused at school, less likely to suffer other forms of homophobic abuse, less likely to self-harm and less likely to attempt suicide.
In addition to programs that aim to prevent bullying, we also need to provide adequate support for children, including limiting their distress and preventing long-lasting difficulties in later life. It is appalling that one of the widely advertised first points of contact for children and young people who need urgent advice—Kids Helpline— is unable to meet demand and 56 per cent of calls do not get through. This is an area, for example, in which we are going to have to do better.
I want to talk about bullying and the issue of addressing violence in schools, because they are interlinked. Addressing violence in school is also very topical at the moment and I acknowledge the crossover between responding directly to violence and addressing bullying. Although not all school violence is related to bullying, we know that a significant amount is. Although programs that aim to prevent bullying must be an essential part of reducing violence in schools, we also need strategies to address violence when it happens. Of course, it goes without saying that students and staff should all be safe at school. It is not okay to be subject to violence. That being said, I am concerned about the minister’s action plan to address school violence and the plan’s potential to have unintended negative consequences, particularly for some of our most vulnerable students. I am concerned that the rhetoric around this plan allows no flexibility or understanding of individual circumstance. It is very disappointing that, other than mentioning that policy changes will not discriminate against students with disability, there is no recognition of the underlying reasons for students’ behaviour. Our response to behavioural issues has to be appropriate and in the best interests of the child, and take into account underlying causes such as whether they are experiencing mental health issues, have a disability, or there are substance abuse issues or external stressors and traumas that might be happening in those children’s lives. All of that will require different and tailored support; indeed, it would be great to see an interagency response where appropriate.
I note that yesterday the minister released a media statement titled “Violence policy at work in WA public schools”, which identified that there has been a 700 per cent increase in the number of students who have been excluded from school. It stated that at this time last year, no student had been excluded from school and that seven had been excluded this year. It also promotes the statistics as a measure of success of the tough new measures. We know that engagement in education is a protective factor against suicide, particularly for troubled kids; likewise, disengagement is a very real risk factor. I think characterising the policy as a success based on the number of children excluded or expelled completely fails to take into account what is happening to those students, including, for example, those with problematic home lives and those who might not be able to travel to access other educational options.
Members, year 6 was a terrible, terrible year for me. At that time I had a very traumatic home life. My mother was gone, and my father was in and out of mental health institutions and during that time attempted suicide twice. In that six-month period, I was a tiny 10-year-old girl who was responsible for three acts of violence against my fellow students. I was called up to the principal. It was unusual for me. I was a minister’s daughter. I had always been the teacher’s pet; I was always really well behaved. There was no explanation that I was capable of giving as a tiny child for why I was behaving in such an appalling way. I wish someone had been able to ask at the time what was happening to me at home. It was very difficult for me to make sense of what was going on and it was very difficult for me to regulate my behaviour. It was not until my father did suicide that same year that perhaps people had some inkling of what was going on with me. My point is that sometimes kids do things that they would not otherwise do because of chaotic home lives—things that are completely out of their control. I am not happy that that is what happened for me, that I did that, but I am just saying that life is sometimes very complex for children.
I was contacted by a range of stakeholders following the minister’s announcement that she would be developing the violence action plan. Those stakeholders were concerned that the plan would have unintended consequences, particularly for students with disabilities such as autism, and it was parents of children with autism in particular who raised those concerns. I raised this issue in questions without notice while the plan was being developed. Yet now, disappointingly, feedback from the schools is that school staff are being put under pressure to explain decisions, and not to suspend or exclude vulnerable students for behaviour that is clearly the result of significant underlying issues. It is clear that excluding a student in these circumstances is not only inappropriate, but also likely to have a significant long-term negative impact. I remind members that we are talking about children. They have a right to an education, but, further than that, they have a right to be protected from discrimination, and in all actions their best interests should be our primary consideration. So when a school becomes a place where young people experience trauma and harm, it has an immediate as well as a life-long impact. The social costs of bullying are absolutely considerable. I also note that the economic costs of bullying are also considerable and felt by the whole community. I note that economic analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the Alannah and Madeline Foundation last year found that bullying in Australian schools has cost an estimated $2.3 billion over 20 years for each school year group. Therefore, we know that anti-bullying initiatives make a significant difference. It is imperative that these programs are given the priority that they so clearly warrant. I would like to see outcomes like reduction in violence not only in schools, but also across the community longer term to be used as a measure of success of anti-bullying and anti-violence programs and that we do not measure success by the number of children who have been excluded from school. We have to get that balance right. I believe that we can strike the right balance by working to ensure that our schools are safe places for everyone, while also appropriately responding to the needs of vulnerable children.
Childhood is a complex time. Children do need to learn how to be resilient, but also parents need to not enable their children when they are bullies. We need to ensure that children who do not have present parents are able to get support and that schools are able to step in to support children when they do not have anyone else to protect them. We also need to remember that even the students themselves, whether they are engaging in acts of violence or otherwise, may often have very deeply complex issues occurring in their own lives. This is why there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It is really important that we are able to identify those students who are at risk and who are experiencing trauma, and, ideally, be able to refer them to additional supports as soon as possible. Schools have the capacity to be our frontline resource for damaged children and children who are experiencing trauma. Schools can be the pathway to ensure that children do not go on to experience lifelong mental health issues or, indeed, take their own lives.
[Speeches and comments from various members]
Hon SAMANTHA ROWE: ………………………..
Hon Alison Xamon mentioned that bullying has long-lasting effects on individuals and she said that we need to understand that a number of individuals in society are more vulnerable. She is absolutely right. One of the comments that the Commissioner for Children and Young People made to me when I had a meeting with him about bullying is that kids need to have three really important relationships in their life. The first is with family, the second is with a teacher and the third is with their peers or their friends. If children can start out with those three core relationships, the likelihood is higher that they will not be bullied at school or be the bully. That is not always the case for everyone so we need to make sure that we look out for those who are more vulnerable in our schools. I am really glad Hon Alison Xamon highlighted that in her contribution. I thank members of the house for their support of the motion and all their contributions. They were really worthwhile.
Question put and passed.