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Tackle bullying nationally - and not just in schools: expert

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Australian governments should come together to develop a national anti-bullying strategy that engages children both inside and outside the classroom, Canada’s leading authority on bullying says.

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Addressing an Education Department-run anti-bullying conference in Adelaide this morning, Canadian researcher Professor Wendy Craig said bullying was not a school problem, but a community problem that needed federal intervention.

Her call for national action has been supported by Australian researchers, who say this year Australia has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of states and territories – including South Australia – that have committed funding to address schoolyard harassment.

Craig co-founded Canada’s national anti-bullying network – called PREVNet – in 2006 following a Canadian Government push to tackle bullying at the federal level.

The network focuses on educating organisations, schools and the general community about healthy relationships through evidence-based research.

Craig told today’s conference that when the network started, Canada was ranked in the bottom third of countries where children modelled healthy behaviour.

She said since 2006, the number of bullying incidences in Canada has decreased by 62 per cent.

“We had some of the highest rates of bullying and victimisation in the world,” Craig said.

“Since then we’ve got on board every single provincial government as a partner, we have all of the provincial administrators of education that are partners and we also have a committee that’s called the Joint Consortium of School Health, so that brings in the health ministers as well.

“Of course we can’t claim that PREVNet was responsible and caused this change, but I think that this is significant change.”

Craig argued the similarities between the jurisdictions meant Australia could look to Canada to develop a similar anti-bullying initiative.

“In Canada, education is under the provincial mandate, much like in Australia, where it’s under states and territories,” she said.

“For bullying, we didn’t have a national strategy. What we had was lots of fabulous initiatives that went on all across the country but there was no communication – the provinces were working in silos, they weren’t sharing the information (and) there was no mechanism to do that.

“There was lots of great research out there about bullying and victimisation, lot’s of great research out there about what we could do and our understanding of it, but it wasn’t getting disseminated out to the people who most needed it.”

The Canadian model sets out to work with adults everywhere where children “live, work and play” – including organisations such as Scouts and sporting clubs, as well as the media and places where children congregate.

“Tackling bullying needs to happen not just in schools, but outside as well,” Craig said.

“So, for example, we worked with McDonald’s restaurants because families go out for dinner and we had inserts on trays that gave tips about how do you engage in conversation, what kinds of questions can you ask to find out about your child’s day.

“They went into every McDonald’s restaurant for a month.”

Craig said PREVNet also partnered with Family Channel – a Canadian children’s television channel – to ensure its programming encouraged positive relationships.

“What happens is they do TV programming that focuses and educates kids on bullying,” she said.

“We actually read the scripts and we provide feedback on the scripts.

“One of the things is that we had them take away laugh tracks after kids did something aggressive because we say you’re reinforcing the wrong kinds of things.”

Professor Marilyn Campbell from the Australian Universities’ Anti-Bullying Alliance told the audience now was the time for Australia to look to countries such as Canada to develop its own national anti-bullying strategy.

“Like Canada, Australia’s education systems are split up between the states,” she said.

“Because we look often to schools (to address bullying), where children spend a lot of time, then this is somewhat of a division in our country.

“We need to work together… we have to have a mechanism where parents, governments, schools, government agencies, researchers, people whose lives have been affected by bullying work together.

“I think this is the time and it’s time because there are government initiatives happening all this year.”

Campbell mentioned Queensland’s anti-cyber bullying taskforce, the New South Wales Government’s recent speaking tour of bullying researchers and South Australia’s conference as examples of Australia’s momentum shift towards addressing bullying.

“Let’s hope that this year – 2018 – is the start of us building something that’s going to change of the lives of those kids so they can have relationships and so that we can prevent bullying.”

South Australian Education Minister John Gardner, who opened today’s conference, said in Australia, 30 per cent of students between Years 4 to 9 report being bullied on a monthly basis.

“We have all seen the headlines (and) read the stories of young lives damaged or even tragically cut short as a direct result of bullying,” he said.

“We’ve seen distraught parents, bereaved siblings and the affected classmates.

“In addressing this issue we need to find innovative and evidence-based strategies that can be implemented by schools, students and families working together.

“Students, schools, families alone working in isolation in silos aren’t going to be able to achieve the results – this has got to be a society-led and community-led initiative.”

Gardner said hearing from international researchers would help South Australia develop its own response to stopping bullying.

“Their contributions ensure that we here in South Australia are able to consider those issues for our South Australian young people in the context of global trends, issues and practices,” he said.

“They enable us to focus our efforts and our responses in ways that have shown to work and to avoid some of those that have shown to fail.”

The South Australian Government is currently trialling a new Flinders University-developed approach to tackling bullying in primary schools.

The program – called PEACE – has replaced the former Labor Government’s Safe Schools Anti-Bullying Initiative, a Federal-Government developed program that Gardner scrapped in June this year.

At the time Gardner criticised Safe Schools’ focus of stopping bullying of LGBTIQ students, saying the Liberal Government wanted to instead develop its own “broad-based” anti-bullying initiative.

PEACE offers lessons on conflict resolution, relationship-building and decision –making among bullying perpetrators and bystanders.

It also aims to build the coping skills of students who may experience bullying.

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman announced in September that the State Government had sought advice from the state’s leading legal, education, parenting and policing experts on ways to better protect children from bullying behaviour.

At the time Chapman said she was committed to looking at what legislative reforms the Government could introduce to toughen its stance on bullying, adding a more “cohesive and consistent” approach was needed, with more clarity over the current legislative powers.

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