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Children's Ombudsman warns of rise in number of serious school bullying cases

Dr Niall Muldoon said his office has received more than 400 reports of bullying in schools since 2018.

THERE HAS BEEN a noted increase in the instances of “serious” school bullying resulting in physical and or sexual assault, the children’s ombudsman has said.

Dr Niall Muldoon told the Education Committee that many schools felt “ill-equipped” to deal with such issues and that some had failed to report child protection welfare issues arising from bullying to the child and family agency Tusla.

Dr Muldoon said his office had dealt with more than 400 complaints about bullying in schools, both at primary and post-primary level, since 2018.

It equates to almost 10% of all complaints to the ombudsman’s office.

He described the figure as “quite significant” given the “endless variety” of complaints it receives.

“There is psychological and physical bullying (in schools) between young people with a noted increase in instances of serious bullying resulting in physical and or sexual assault,” Dr Muldoon said.

“There are challenges for schools in dealing with the more serious instances of bullying as many schools feel ill-equipped to do so.

“And there’s a failure of some schools to report child protection welfare issues arising from bullying instances to Tusla.

“In light of that I believe that preventing an earlier intervention would be greatly aided by training, resourcing and support measures that can strengthen the capacity of education professionals, working with our children and young people in schools.”

Dr Muldoon reiterated his call for an independent therapist/counsellor to be made available to every primary school within the country.

“This is not a unique concept that has been shown internationally to offer enormous advantages to schools and their communities by affording children the opportunity to normalise speaking to someone about their emotions, or if they’re feeling down,” he said.

Dr Muldoon added that it would “complement” the system and give teachers extra comfort to know they have somewhere to send their pupils who may have been affected by bullying, bereavement, separation, divorce, addiction issues or domestic violence.

Dr Muldoon was before the committee today to discuss the issue of school bullying and its impact on mental health.

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley told the committee that schools that are more competitive and more focused on their students’ results in education than their emotional wellbeing tended to minimise bullying.

“Anti-bullying programmes show varying degrees of success and they are insufficient to change a culture of bullying within a school,” she said.

Ms O’Malley said it is estimated that about 75%-90% of children do not bully, but that only 20% of those children are prepared to act as upstanders and intervene when they witness bullying.

“If we can convince kids to always intervene – to become upstanders – when they see bullying we can immediately reduce its frequency, intensity and its impact,” she said.

Ms O’Malley told TDs and senators the role of adults in this context is to encourage the bystanders to intervene.

“It is our job as the concerned adults to educate children so that bullying becomes less acceptable within the school culture,” she added.

Child psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor said bullying was a “significant” contributor to mental health problems in children in Ireland.

But Dr Noctor warned that what some children describe as “bullying” can be more accurately described as “robust banter”.

“If we over dilute the term I fear it will lose its significance and I believe language is an important player in the management of this dynamic,” he said.

“It comes down to the ‘spirit’ of the engagement, and the levels of knowledge and intent that all parties are aware of.”

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