Selfish schools pass on bullies

Last week I went to a meeting with a mother and family in support of her 13-year-old son who was the victim of serious bullying at a church-based boarding school earlier this year. The Ministry of Education describes the school as “low-decile”.

Attending the meeting was the school principal, hostel manager and a representative of the school board. The family had decided the boy would not be returning to the school (he has enrolled elsewhere) but wanted to impress on the school the serious consequences for their son. The family wanted an independent review and changes to school policy which would help prevent this happening to other students in the future. 

The mother described her son as a soft, country kid who grew up in a rural Maori community. He’d had a serious health problem as a child and was home-schooled for much of his primary school education. Coming up to secondary school he wanted to experience wider friendships and was keen to attend the boarding school.

He settled in well initially and loved the experience. He liked his teachers and found he was able to keep up with the work without a problem. It was an easier transition than for his mother who found the adjustment of “losing” her boy much more difficult.

However within a couple of months a series of bullying incidents occurred as street-wise bullies moved around at night-time harassing and “dry-humping” other students.  

The boys didn’t report the problem at first and it only emerged when the school investigated another situation. Other issues surfaced, his mother was horrified and withdrew him from the school till the problems were sorted.

It all could have been handled more effectively by the school whose representatives were apologetic. From their point of view they have to do their best by all the students but although they had applied their discipline procedures there were gaps where following through with the families of the suspended bullies and victims was too slow resulting in further concerns.

What emerged though was a wider problem. Over recent years the school has taken on several so-called troubled students tossed out of other schools. They have been prepared to see the good in students whose schools, communities and even families may have given up on. The board chair talked about one such student who had been given a last chance by the school. There were problems but he settled in and eventually became the school dux. It was a life-changing experience and one the school emulates every day in all sorts of ways with other students.

These are the kind of school leaders we need across all our schools but they shouldn’t have to deal with an overload of problems they face from kids expelled from other schools.

This particular school has suffered negative publicity in the past over bullying and any outsider would assume the school deals poorly with such issues. This is far from the truth. Dealing effectively with bullying is a challenge for all schools but this school already does a lot more than most. They still have changes to make however because the unfortunate outcome in this case was that two well-adjusted kids left the school while those involved in the bullying remained, albeit on a shorter leash.

Last week the Children’s Commissioner Cindy Kiro launched an investigation into school bullying and the Minister of Education helped launch a student-inspired card with positive messages aimed at creating a climate in schools which isolates bullying while encouraging students to feel self-confident. It won’t solve everything but it’s a positive initiative.

However the focus still remains on schools dealing with bullying more effectively and while this is important it overlooks the build-up of problems when schools, usually higher decile schools, chuck out students at the first sign of a problem. Here in Auckland Westlake Boys High School is the most high profile recent example. It boasts a “zero-tolerance” policy to all kinds of student misbehaviour but it’s hard to see this as anything other than a mechanism to export problems and create a favourable image in the community.

Setting firm, clear boundaries for students is always important but it’s no excuse for piling up trouble for schools elsewhere. And why should lower decile schools be regarded as dumping grounds for social problems wealthier parents would rather avoid than confront?

The next time you hear a problem of bullying or bad behaviour at a school think first about where the problem originated before blaming the school.