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Criminalising bullies won't work: children's advocates

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South Australia’s leading advocates for children and young people have appealed to the State Government to refrain from adopting a punitive approach to tackling bullying ahead of a decision on whether to criminalise the behaviour.

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Speaking at yesterday’s Education Department-run anti-bullying conference, both the state’s Guardian and the Commissioner for Children and Young People said the complex nature of bullying meant criminalising schoolyard harassment would be counterproductive for children who have been through trauma and abuse.

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman announced in September that she would facilitate a roundtable discussion with the state’s leading legal, education, parenting and policing experts on ways to better protect children from bullying behaviour.

Part of that discussion, she said, would include looking at what legislative reforms the State Government could introduce to toughen its stance on bullying – including adopting a range of criminal offences to deter children from anti-social behaviour.

A summary report from the discussion is due to be released later this month.

South Australia currently does not have a legal definition of bullying or specific anti-bullying laws, but some anti-bullying advocates, the SA Police Commissioner and some MPs have argued criminalising bullying is needed following the death of Adelaide schoolgirl Libby Bell, who took her own life last year after enduring what her family says was years of cyber-bullying.

But Guardian for Children and Young People, Penny Wright, told yesterday’s conference criminalising bullying was not the answer.

“It’s not so simple, because children who experience bullying are also willing to inflict bullying,” Wright said, making particular reference to children who are under the guardianship of the Minister.

“We know due to the nature of their experiences, a lot of children who have been through trauma and abuse have difficulty regulating their emotions and their behaviour.

“Frequently they will have witnessed or experienced violence – often family violence. Their social and emotional development will be compromised by trauma and abuse and so they’re more vulnerable to being bullied and also to being a bully.

“That’s why criminalising behaviour is not the answer.”

Wright said governments needed to consider more “sophisticated” ways of tackling bullying, which she said should include listening to children about their experiences and suggestions for prevention.

“We have to listen deeply to the experts, those who experience bullying and those who do it as well,” she said.

“When I say listen, I don’t just mean listen to their voices: I mean listen to their behaviour, look at their behaviour because they’re communicating to us all the time.”

Commissioner for Children and Young People Helen Connolly echoed Wright’s comments, saying children across the state had told her that they wanted bullying to be addressed with kindness and not punishment.

Connolly officially launched her major report into South Australian children and young people’s perspectives on bullying – called “The Bullying Project” – at yesterday’s conference.

The report, which took into account the voices of more than 1400 children and young people across the state, found most children believed that learning to treat others with kindness, respect and acceptance is important in preventing bullying.

“By punishing children it doesn’t get to the root of the problem, or teach children how to treat others respectfully,” Connolly said yesterday.

“The punishment can just make someone feel more inferior or isolated.

“We need to listen to children and what they’re saying to address this problem, because they are a vital part of tackling this.”

In the discussion paper for the advisory roundtable on bullying in South Australia, Chapman said the Government had “a range of levers” which it could use to tackle bullying.

“We acknowledge that academics internationally state the most effective responses to bullying behaviour are support and education,” she said.

“We also acknowledge that there are differing views in the community on the efficacy of legislative responses.

“There are some who view the current laws as needing to be strengthened, while others feel that criminalising bullying will have little preventative impact.

“In developing a coordinated and multifaceted anti-bullying strategy, we want to hear all views.”

Wright used yesterday’s conference to share anecdotes from children in detention and care who reflected on their experiences of bullying from their peers, carers, teachers, police and politicians, who, according to Wright, “sometimes like to stigmatise these kids”.

She read a letter written by a 15-year-old girl in care who Wright said wanted to speak out “because many kids hide and are shamed and won’t speak out themselves”.

The letter read: “The reason I’m writing to you guys today is because, to most people, I’m an outsider, a waste of space. Some people even say I’m just property.

“The reason behind all these names and bullying I get is not because of my past or my culture or anything like that. It’s because of the name that kids like me have been called – foster kids.

“To many people, foster kids are homeless as their parents don’t want them because of their behaviour, but what most people don’t always understand is that most kids in care have gone through so much, a lot more than any person should go through.

“Yes, many kids in care have behavioural issues that could have so many different reasons behind them – some being as simple as ADHD or as complicated as PTSD.

“I’m like many kids in care who don’t get much of a say on how their lives are run, but I strongly want to be a kid who has a say.

“I think I understand what most kids in care think of the ways houses are run and would like to have a say on what should change in my eyes and many kids’ eyes.”

Wright read out another anecdote from a 16-year-old boy called Ash, who was in a youth training facility.

Ash wrote: “No-one had the time to ask why I was angry. They always said, ‘you can’t do that, you can’t get into fights’.

“They told me what I couldn’t do but didn’t tell me what else to do until one day a youth worker came out to our school after I lost my cool real bad and bashed someone.

“They sat me down and asked, ‘why?’ I didn’t know what to say, no one had asked me that before.

“They took five minutes to listen to me, get to know me. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. He said, ‘you’re the only one who can help you achieve your goals.’ He spoke to me as a person, not just as another case.

“After this I started studying harder, getting better grades, caring more about doing better with my life.

“That’s all it takes for every kid. To take that five minutes, sit down with them and be there to listen.”

Wright said preventing bullying could be partly achieved by ensuring every child knew that they were “hugely important to one adult in their lives.”

“We need to create environments for children who don’t have that… so they know that they really matter,” she said.

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