Bullying at school: Is it time for criminalisation?


On September 28 2016, Asad Khan, an innocent 11 year old boy, was found by his mother hanging in his bedroom. Bradford District Police are investigating this case amid claims that he was bullied by older students at his school. Thousands attended the funeral of Asad, with many calling for an increase in awareness and prevention of bullying.

This tragedy comes alongside increasing calls for bullying to be criminalised. There is no doubt that bullying is a very serious issue that all educational institutions are having to deal with, but after many cases where students have been - quite literally - bullied to death, the question on whether or not bullying should be criminalised is becoming more prominent.

Effects of Bullying

According to the NSPCC, the consequences of bullying can be devastating and can follow on into adulthood. Apart from the general feelings of fear and low self-esteem, victims are more likely to suffer from mental health problems ‘including depression and anxiety’. These long term consequences highlight the great damage that bullying - such as name calling - may cause. Moreover, victims are not the only ones who suffer, the bullies are also crafting a web of problems for themselves including ‘substance misuse and academic problems’. Therefore, when calling for criminalisation of bullying, it is imperative that a balance is struck between punishing the bully and reforming him or her.

Law on Bullying

According to s.89 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, head teachers must ‘determine measures to be taken with a view to’ promote good behaviour and ensure that there is an acceptable standard of discipline across the school. After considering the statutory requirements, it is then the prerogative of the head teacher and school to ensure any disciplinary action is compatible with legislation and does not violate the rights of the offending child. Clearly, legal action is not currently required.

Potential Solutions

Comprehensive criminalisation is not the solution here, though it’s very easy to call for this when we hear about young people taking their own lives, but the causes must be considered and the whole picture looked at before calling for any form of criminalisation.

One potential way of tackling this problem is by creating a national definition of school bullying and setting out a framework for all schools to follow. At present, schools are given some autonomy in how they deal with bullying with the simple guideline of having a ‘behaviour policy...that includes measures to prevent all forms of bullying among people’. This disciplinary consistency would lead to less criticism from parents who either feel that their child is not being protected enough or is being punished too hard.

This framework would consist of a ‘disciplinary ladder’. That is to say, when a student bullies another, unless they stop, they would ‘work their way’ up this ‘ladder’ at every re-offence, with a permanent exclusion acting as the ultimate disciplinary action. Before a bully reaches such a severe stage, steps must be taken to ensure that the bully understand what he or she is doing, how their behaviour is affecting others, and the long-term impacts that such behaviour can have. They should also be aware that their actions may lead to them being reported to the police.

Perhaps if the school has exhausted its internal procedures, including comprehensive attempts at reforming the individual, then there is no other option but to consider any further bullying as a criminal offence. The school and other external services have made consistent efforts in helping the person in question to change the way they treat others, but at the stage of exclusion, it is absolutely evident that the bully is committing a form of deliberate, sustained disobedience and it is now time for the law to step in. Imprisonment is not the appropriate action here, but perhaps a form of community service would be in order. This would allow the individual to contemplate their conduct and evaluate the ways in which their behaviour has affected others. Simultaneously, they would be making a valuable contribution to the local community.

In addition, offenders could also be given probation orders where they would be supervised by an appropriate adult in the community for a certain period and during this time they would receive regular feedback on their behaviour and instructions on improvement.

Furthermore, a somewhat modern approach to justice - restorative justice - could be implemented in such situations and this initiative would allow victims to meet with offenders and articulate to them the ‘real impact’ of their actions so that they may fully understand, ‘take responsibility’ and ‘make amends’. In Bradford alone, the scheme has proved popular among young offenders with the programme boasting a 90% success rate and the Manager of Bradford Youth Offending Team Paul O’Hara claiming that ‘there is a very high level of satisfaction and a high level of involvement from victims’ as he gave evidence before the Commons Justice Committee in 2012. Such a government-backed programme would surely put the victims first whilst also focusing on the development of offenders’ behaviour thereby tackling the two important issues through a single, concentrated approach.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the causes of bullying are deep-rooted and complex, bullies must first be helped to stop themselves destroying the lives of others and destroying their own futures. Failing this, the government and the police should intervene to punish those who have such a flagrant disregard of school rules and laws, and who lead some to sadly end their own lives.

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