Friday, September 01, 2006

Schoolyard Bullying Equal to Child Abuse

A disturbing new study by the University of Western Sydney has found the emotional scarring caused by schoolyard bullying is equivalent to the psychological damage caused by child abuse.

Study author, Dr Jean Healey from the University's SELF Research Centre, says the problem is so prevalent it's time that schools and teachers were forced to report serious bullying behaviour going on in schoolyards and classrooms.

Dr Healey surveyed over 3000 students from four NSW metropolitan high schools about the extent and type of bullying behaviours going on in their schools. The schools included single-sex, co-educational, denominational, private and state schools.

These results were then analysed and compared with child abuse data from the NSW Child Protection Council and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare for the same group in the same period.

It found almost one in five school children suffer from the damaging effects of bullying and that victims often feel unprotected and unsupported at school.

"The problem of peer physical abuse in schools was found to be very comparable to the levels of physical abuse reported in child abuse data," says Dr Healey, a respected educational psychologist who has spent 10 years researching the issue and recently had her findings published in the ANZ Journal of Law and Education.

"The child abuse data indicates that 36 per cent of abuse carried out on 0-17 year olds in NSW is of a physical nature. In comparison 33.3 per cent of males and 15 per cent of females from our bullying survey said they had endured physical abuse," says Dr Healey.

"It's clear young people are being physically abused to a much greater extent than is currently acknowledged."

With nearly 20% of children experiencing bullying, Dr Healey says more children may now be at risk from their peers than abusive adults.

"It indicates how endemic bullying behaviour is in our schools and begs the question - why is serious peer abuse not considered in child protection legislation?"

Dr Healey says the similarities between child abuse and bullying are far more noteworthy than the differences.

"Not only are the actual behaviours often the same, there is plenty of evidence that peer abuse can have equally serious and permanent repercussions as other forms of abuse."

"Both forms of abuse have striking similarities in terms of the psychological impact, the power relationship between victim and abuser, the availability of support structures within the social network of the victim, and access to professionals who can intervene on their behalf."

According to Dr Healey, while efforts are being made to address the issue at the school level, bullying behaviour is often dismissed as kids 'just fighting' and can go unnoticed.

"It is evident that teachers often don't interpret behaviours as abusive or bullying, but as mutually aggressive interactions between peers, leaving victims unsupported and unprotected."

"The reluctance of teachers to become involved may stem from an inaccurate understanding of their responsibilities for child protection and in particular their resistance to defining peer abuse as either serious or abusive or related to child protection."

Dr Healey believes introducing mandatory reporting of serious peer abuse is the most effective way to deal with this systemic problem in our schools.

"At present, the data gathered at schools with regard to bullying is not given the same status as child abuse data."

"This is because there is no government response anticipated for reports of serious peer abuse and certainly no funding or services to sustain protective intervention, other than those initiated at a school level."

"If peer abuse were to be reported under the states' current legislative guidelines for child protection - for example, in NSW the Child and Young Person's (Care and Protection Act) - the issue may acquire equivalent status and command similar responsive intervention."

According to Dr Healey, the definitions of abuse incorporated into child protection legislation are broad enough that any harmful act towards a child or young person could be included.

"Legislation mandates early notification of all forms of abuse and increases both the level of responsibility and liability for litigation of teachers and schools for failure to offer an appropriate level of protection to victims.

"Ultimately, we need to be able to offer the protection necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of young people in all circumstances and current child protection legislation would provide the most direct and effective pathway toward this."

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