Dáil Éireann - Volume 655 - 22 May, 2008

Written Answers. - Cyber Bullying.

[396] Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Education and Science if his attention has been drawn to the extent of Internet and cyber mobile phone bullying presenting a particular threat to young people, sometimes ending in suicide; the extent to which action is taken or is expected to be taken to deal with the issue. [20534/08]

  Deputy Batt O’Keeffe: I can assure the Deputy that I am aware of the recent survey conducted by the Irish Independent in conjunction with RTE on the issue of “cyber bullying”, through the use of the internet and mobile phones. I share the Deputy’s concern that any child would feel upset in school because of bullying — be it physical, verbal or what is being termed cyber bullying and I assure him that supports are in place to enable schools both to prevent bullying and to deal with cases that may arise.

There is no requirement for schools to report incidents of bullying to my Department, nor do I believe that this should be the case. I also believe that it is unreasonable to expect schools to have a sole responsibility for tackling it, responsibility extends beyond the school and parents and young people themselves must take protective measures. It is at local level that an effective anti-bullying climate must be established. However, I am anxious to support schools in tackling bullying and it is for that reason that a number supports have been put in place in recent years. Each school is required to have in place a policy which includes specific measures to deal with bullying behaviour, within the framework of an overall school Code of Behaviour and Discipline. Such a code, developed through consultation with the whole school community and properly implemented, can be the most influential measure in countering bullying behaviour in schools.

My Department has issued guidelines as an aid to schools in devising measures to prevent and deal with instances of bullying behaviour and to increase awareness among school management authorities of their responsibilities in this regard. These guidelines were drawn up following consultation with representatives of school management, teachers and parents, and are sufficiently flexible to allow each school authority to adapt them to suit the particular needs of their school. In view of the increasing demands which have been placed on schools as a result of statutory obligations and the requirement for policies in a range of areas, my Department has been working to ensure greater availability of guidelines and template policies to assist schools.

My Department has published policy templates for post-primary schools in five key areas, including anti-bullying on its website of as part of our ongoing efforts in this regard. The template documents are not prescriptive, but rather highlight possible approaches and potential material for inclusion in school policies. The anti-bullying policy template is based primarily on the key document Guidelines on Countering Bullying Behaviour. However, it does take account of more recent legislative and regulatory changes, and reference is also made to issues of contemporary concern such as the need to tackle text bullying, cyber-bullying and homophobic bullying.

The National Educational Welfare Board (NEWB) has developed further guidelines for schools on Codes of Behaviour, as provided for under section 23 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. These guidelines have been informed by broad consultation. The guidelines are currently being distributed to schools. It is envisaged that implementation will commence in the next school year. Once schools have had an opportunity to familiarise themselves with the NEWB Guidelines, my Department will commence the process of revising and updating its own “Guidelines on Countering Bullying Behaviour”. This review will take into account issues such as legislative developments, the involvement of the support services available to schools, technological advancements such as use of the Internet, e-mail, mobile phones and camera [397] phones and the latest developments in International best practice on dealing with bullying behaviour.

My Department, through the National Centre for Technology in Education has also developed Policy Guidelines and Advisory Notes for schools and parents which deal with the issues of internet and mobile phone bullying. I wish to draw the Deputy’s attention to the “think b4 u click” internet safety campaign. This new campaign seeks to raise awareness and promote safe, responsible practice by young people when online. The key messages of the campaign are:

be creative

be yourself

but be in control.

The campaign has a strong peer-to-peer perspective and centres on an interactive online service, www.watchyourspace.ie developed by the National Centre Technology in Education (NCTE). This site offers practical tips and advice and supports teenagers who use the web. A key feature is the advice given from teenagers to teenagers on how to cope with the fall-out from abuses and misuse of social networking and picture-sharing websites. This new initiative perfectly complements the other NCTE safety activities that are already up and running successfully such as Webwise, SAFT and the Once projects. The site offers invaluable help to those who may encounter cyber-bullying:

DO NOT respond to the message as this will only make things worse

DO keep a record of the message so that the problem can be dealt with properly

DO block the sender and

DO talk to someone in authority about what has happened.

The NCTE provides ongoing advice and support to all schools to have an up to date Acceptable Usage Policy (AUP) in operation to deal with use of the Internet. Schools cannot be connected to the schools broadband network until they confirm that they have an AUP in place. Within the school environment access to social networking and computer based instant messaging services are blocked under current filtering arrangements, inherent in the Schools Broadband Network, to which 99% of schools have connected.

The NCTE has advice on tackling cyber bullying on both www.ncte.ie. and on www.webwise.ie. The NCTE works with the National Parents’ Councils (NPC) on developing and promoting advice to parents. Webwise.ie is the key Irish website for advice and guidance to schools, pupils and parents. The site has materials and resources for both teachers and parents to assist children to develop safe online skills and a sense of responsibility about what to write and post on websites. Working with the NPC (Primary) the NCTE has developed a seminar to advise parents on how to engage with their children’s online lives. Since September 2007, over a 100 seminars have been delivered in schools around the country. The NCTE has 41 trainers throughout the country.

Through the combined work of the Department, the NCTE and the NEWB schools will have available to them extensive guidance to enable them fulfil their responsibilities in relation to this issue. Dealing with bullying has also been incorporated in training for principals through the Leadership Development for Schools programme. I have also stressed to the teacher unions the importance of not just having a written policy on bullying but also ensuring a climate in [398] which it is not tolerated in any form and in which children know that if they make a teacher aware of bullying that it will be dealt with. The education of students in both primary and post-primary schools in relation to anti-bullying behaviour is part of the SPHE curriculum. SPHE is now a compulsory subject both at primary level and in the junior cycle of post-primary schools.