The following is my speech which was made in the Seanad during an Adjournment debate:
I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this issue for debate. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon.Last year the people adopted a new Article 42A in the Constitution recognising that children have rights of their own and inserting these rights into the Constitution. Last week Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the Government’s special rapporteur on child protection, published and presented his sixth report to the Oireachtas. I hope we will have an opportunity to discuss it in its entirety.
There is one recommendation relating to cyberbullying and homophobic bulling on which I wish to concentrate, as it was highlighted as being particularly important by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. Cyberbullying has been linked to a number of high-profile deaths and difficult situations. The growth of the Internet, online chat rooms and blogging has caught us all by surprise. It has become a forum for bullying where children are targeted and the area has little or no regulation. I am speaking about schools, and although I recognise that not all responsibility can be laid at the door of schools, they none the less play a role. However, that role is not clear. Where is the demarcation line between the school gate and other environments such as the home? We are aware of high-profile cases from the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools in which principals have had to deal with, for example, pictures taken in the school and posted online with the school name and school uniform, not necessarily on school grounds but outside the school. There is also bullying of students by other students and there can be interaction between staff and students.
Schools boards of management have a responsibility in the area of bullying and they must set up a code of conduct following guidelines on counteracting bullying behaviour in schools. They have been provided with a template by the Department on how to do so with particular reference to cyberbullying and homophobic bullying. The purpose of these is to protect the student. The school itself can have a liability, as a victim of cyberbullying may seek reparation for damage, as pointed out in Dr. Geoffrey Shannon’s report. School management bodies are engaged in updating existing policies and launching new initiatives.
In his report, Dr. Shannon reviewed what is happening in other jurisdictions, particularly in New South Wales in Australia and in the State of Massachusetts, where legislation was introduced recently to ensure effective implementation of guidelines across the board and no deviation from them. The report states that the most effective means of preventing bullying may be to adopt a whole-school approach. This would encompass school policies on, for example, anti-bullying initiatives, codes of behaviour and the use of social media as an educational tool as well as the involvement of parents. Legislation should be introduced compelling schools to have a strong disciplinary code. Moreover, learning from the observations made regarding the laws in Massachusetts, disciplinary measures should be uniform nationwide, as schools currently have too much latitude in determining how to discipline students who are engaging in bullying.
Those are strong recommendations. Recently the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs sought to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis for the reason that there was no uniformity of implementation across different jurisdictions. As we are reviewing the whole area of bullying and homophobic bullying in schools, it is an opportunity to address the suggestion that legislation should be introduced in this area.