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Who Should Take the Rap?

June 25, 2013

The idea of criminalising children who use bullying as a method to get their own way, gain power or ‘have a joke’ at someone else’s expense does not sit easily with me.
This could raise many problems. I will just mention a few: one person’s word against another’s; who started it first?; mental health issues; wrong perception; mixed messages – all go to muddle the bully with the bullied, the bully-victim, the bystander and the vulnerable child who cannot speak the truth for fear of reprisals! A nightmare even to contemplate!
I think we need to come at this problem from another angle. Harassment (bullying) in the workplace is the employer’s responsibility. Employers are charged with making their work environment a safe place for employees to be – not just in terms of health and safety (electric cables, dark corners and narrow steps) but in terms of the environment. Have you heard of a ‘hostile working environment’? That is where an employee finds the impact of particular behaviour humiliating, embarrassing, frightening or exclusive. In these circumstances a ‘hostile work environment’ has been created by workmates. So jeering, staring, unkind personal remarks, snide or sarcastic comments, laughing at someone, unkind photos with captions, talking about other’s personal lives (‘outing’, gossiping etc), all create a hostile environment. Does this sound familiar? Yes – it is bullying behaviour in another guise, between adults and at work
Responsible companies train their staff regularly. A new employee is inducted into the company’s policy on harassment. They are told that it is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe and dignified workplace, managers are regularly trained in how to deal with harassment both with the target and the alleged perpetrator, and there is a trained and experienced HR manager to whom employees can refer. There may be trained anti-bullying ambassadors, posters telling employees what to do if they feel they are being harassed, an off-site helpline 24 hours a day: Now we are talking!
So if I work for a responsible company I would expect to know my rights and my responsibilities. I will know what I should not do/say/tweet and that I am expected to behave with respect and professionalism. If I transgress, I am disciplined by my employer, and it would only become a police matter in an extreme case such as assault, imprisonment or threatening text or phone messages.
I may be sacked, warned – verbally or in writing – and I may well be sent on a refresher course – one to one – to understand how my behaviour has hurt, embarrassed, frightened, humiliated or upset someone.
If as an employee I feel that I am being harassed I take my employer to an employment tribunal (ET) for allowing the behaviour that has upset me and prevented me from doing my work (which is why I am employed) and for not providing me with a safe working environment.
If at the ET the employer can prove that their company has followed their own policy and procedures, that the person who did the harassing had been trained and had read and understood the harassment policy, they may escape liability. If not, the company is penalised (and in some cases the employee is awarded many thousands of pounds compensation) and is publicly humiliated in the local and sometimes national press for having allowed the harassment.
So if we transfer this concept to the school environment and make a law requiring the headteacher and senior management to ensure that all the learners have a safe place to learn, what might that look like and how might it affect the environment at school?
I should imagine the whole concept of bullying might be taken more seriously. The Senior Management Team might include an HR specialist with the specific task of dealing with the children, staff and parents involved in any incident, and a senior PSHE teacher to reduce the incidence of bullying by raising awareness, training staff to recognise, intervene appropriately and close down an incident of bullying in a non-combative way. There might be compulsory student training, drama workshops, theatre in education performances, PSHE classes, strategies for dealing with the behaviour at individual, group and institutional levels. There might be a clear policy that children are trained to use, workshops for parents, a named contact person to whom parents can refer cases, restorative justice procedures trained across the school, a full time counsellor – I could go on.
So let’s not discuss criminalising children who bully. Let us adults get our acts together to create safe learning environment for all our kids and if we don’t then we take the rap!

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