RESOURCES from government to deal with bullying in schools were “totally inadequate” a Limerick primary teacher has told a conference on cyber-bullying at the Kilmurry Lodge Hotel.
As the member of staff designated to look after the pastoral care of 600 pupils in her school, it was up to her to deal with issues of bullying as they arose.
“That means I have to leave a class of 33 six-year-olds to take care of a child who has a problem. That is 33 children who need pencils sharpened, lunchboxes opened and all the rest and their parents asking where is that woman who is supposed to be teaching my child,” the teacher said.
The conference was organised by Ireland South MEP Sean Kelly, who was told that the political class that professes a wish to do something about bullying in schools was taking resources out of education rather than putting them in.
Sean Fallon, a retired secondary teacher who addressed the conference, said that if schools could familiarise themselves with how to recognise and address bullying they would end up saving money.
Mr Fallon founded the Anti-Bullying Campaign after the suicide of Cork schoolgirl Leanne Woulfe in 2007. His organisation has developed a set of tools for teachers confronting the issue, including how to distinguish between “banter” and the “deliberate, hurtful and repeated” taunts that amount to bullying.
As a member of the ASTI, Mr Fallon said he was conscious of the dispute where secondary teachers were refusing to co-operate with additional non-core duties but familiarisation with the tools for teachers “doesn’t see an extra minute added to the working week of teachers”.
“If anything it reduces the amount of work they would have to do if the bullying persists,” Mr Fallon said.
And the INTO had just announced that the anti-bullying toolkit was being made available to primary teachers for the first time.
Mr Kelly, who hosted the conference at the Kilmurry, is co-authoring a major report from the European Parliament on data protection which will include recommendations for new regulations around cyber-bullying.
He favours swingeing penalties for social media companies found to be in breach of regulations that could be introduced across member states. There could be “very strict fines and curtailments and if necessary, there would be a route into court if they were continuously not abiding by the rules,” Mr Kelly said.
“For the likes of Facebook, it would be anything up to €2 billion of their global income on a particular year or else we would probably put in for a certain percentage of their global income. So that would be a great deterrent,” he added.
Mr Kelly cited research by the British charity Beat Bullying UK that over 1700 young Europeans were at risk of suicide every year due to cyber-bullying and bullying.
He had invited students, teachers, counsellors and social media experts to the Limerick conference to spread the message that “educating people of all ages on the subject is vital”.
“We cannot allow any more young people to be tortured and negatively impacted in this way anymore and we certainly do not want any more lives lost tragically because of it. Schools should also be supported in rolling out anti-bullying programmes. I am also strongly advocating for the establishment of an EU Anti-Bullying Day to raise awareness of the issue,” the Fine Gael MEP said.
Claire Quinlan, a Limerick psychotherapist, said nobody should leave the conference thinking that bullying or cyber-bullying was an issue solely for children or teenagers and that adults could be just as culpable. She asked Mr Kelly to spell out what bullying and harassment policies were in force for politicians and asked him to address complaints of bullying made against the Minister for Health Dr James Reilly.
Minister Reilly dismissed complaints he had been involved in bullying Fine Gael backbenchers into supporting the Protection of Life in Pregnancy Act. Those Fine Gael TDs who did oppose the legislation lost the party whip and lost their seats on Oireachtas committees.
Mr Kelly said of the party whip system that he was “not sure it would be classed as bullying”. “People going into a political party do so as mature adults and are aware of the expectations on them.”
But he added that “no matter where you are working, there is always a tendency by people who are in a position of strength to use their power in an unfair way towards those who have less power. It is a fair point”.
Cormac Keenan, head of user operations and safety at Facebook’s offices in Dublin, urged parents to engage with their children on what they were doing on social media.
“If you don’t know, ask your kids to explain it to you. Then you can talk to them about tech safety just as you would when talking about staying safe crossing the road,” said Mr Keenan.