Education (Welfare) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2012: Second Stage (Resumed) [Private Members]

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to speak to this new legislation, which forms part of both the debate on child safety and the broader debate on education. Children and pupils will not be able to learn properly or feel safe or secure in a school or class unless they are protected from bullying. As well as being a personal safety and security issue, bullying is a major barrier to pupils attaining a proper education and creates a serious distraction from academic achievements. If it is allowed to continue, it can destroy a child's educational future. There are two major wrongs involved in bullying and while the Bill addresses parts of the jigsaw, I do not agree with all of its provisions.

The most important aspect of this debate is the need to provide for the maximum safety and protection for victims of bullying. Their safety comes first. Anti-bullying actions fail when immediate and direct action is not taken against the bully. Where action is taken, the victim is made to feel safe, his or her peer group gets the message that bullying is not tolerated and the community sees that action has been taken. Dithering and failure to act make the situation worse.

The Bill proposes to amend the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 to provide for the imposition of binding mandatory measures on the board of management of schools to ensure the welfare of the child is adequately safeguarded in respect of all forms of bullying that may occur within the school. Bullying outside school premises is a major issue, as I am aware from my previous occupation. We must be conscious that children who are bullied in the schoolyard or classroom can be bullied in other environments.

The Bill states clearly the definition of bullying and addresses the different forms it can take as well as the different motivations behind it.

Many DEIS and poor schools have policies on bullying and are implementing them in a strong and commendable way. I welcome the debate and will support the legislation.

I also welcome this debate. Never would there be a day in the Chamber when such a debate was not worthy.

My two most formative experiences have been attending school and going to prison. My secondary school experience and that of many of my friends was more difficult than was my experience of prison. School was a complete jungle. Is this because school reflects society? That seems to be the case. What else can one expect in school when, upon turning on a television, a decision on whether someone is a good singer requires being tortured by a bully and a decision on whether someone is a good business person involves being tortured by a bully and eventually being told that he or she is fired? There is bullying everywhere one looks in society. To remove it from schools, it must first be removed from society.

The world's main economic focus is neoliberalism, an idea that is based on the concept of the survival of the fittest. This concept depends on bullying thriving. If we want children to stop bullying one another, we need to set the example. Nothing else will solve this problem.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this legislation. I also welcome our debate on this important subject of child safety and protection. The Bill addresses the school environment, but situations outside the school that have a direct bearing on it must also be tackled.

Bullying affects not just a child's safety, but also his or her education, health and, in some unfortunate cases, life. While I welcome the proposal that binding mandatory measures would be applied to boards of management in this regard, there is little point in having legislation unless we provide the services, resources, teachers and staff required to ensure that the Bill's measures are implemented. The recent reduction in career guidance teachers has been identified as a significant problem. One-to-one engagement between career guidance teachers and children is lacking, a situation that is leading to serious difficulties within schools.

I welcome this amendment Bill. Our only provisions on the dramatically growing phenomenon of bullying are the September 1993 guidelines on countering bullying behaviour in primary and post-primary schools. It is heartening to see that the joint managerial body covering 400 secondary schools has issued updated guidelines. The Irish Vocational Education Association, IVEA, is finalising guidelines and the Association of Community and Comprehensive Schools, ACCS, has advised its members to strengthen their codes of behaviour. These initiatives are in response to the fast growing trend of cyberbullying, which has reached epidemic levels not only in Ireland, but across Europe, and is having a devastating effect on its victims.

Another element of this issue is that of racist abuse. Alongside school authorities and staff implementing codes of conduct, parents can play a vital role by participating in the process, particularly as regards the issue of cyberbullying. Supervision and control of children's Internet usage is vital if teenagers are to be protected from online threats and abuse.

Drastic cuts to guidance and counselling services are taking effect at the worst possible time, with cyberbullying rampant in society. In a recent survey carried out on behalf of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors, IGC, one third of the 745 second level schools and further education and post-leaving certificate colleges identified a 51% reduction in time spent on one-to-one counselling, with a drop from 2,777 hours across 241 schools in the 2011-12 year to 1,349 hours this year, an overall decrease of 21% in guidance and counselling hours. This reduction has led to the abolition of approximately 500 State-paid posts in 700 schools, forcing principals to stretch resources further and to juggle priorities. I urge the Government to reconsider this ill-considered reduction at a time when schools are trying to cope with the growing epidemic of cyberbullying.

I am delighted to speak in support of this Bill. I compliment its proposers. This is an important issue. I have children in national school, secondary school and third level. Every day, we see reports of severe issues. Today, an e-mail from An Post in Cork outlined the effects and damage caused by cyberbullying and bullying in general. The 1993 guidelines are well out of date. We must strengthen them and make them meaningful.

As a former member of the boards of management of a national school as well as a secondary school, one that became a community school, I know that this work will not be easy. It is a worldwide issue. Boards of management are primarily composed of lay people with some teaching staff. The parental role in ensuring good levels of respect for others cannot be forgotten.

As Deputy Tom Fleming mentioned, we must be fair towards and understanding of other nationalities. When I visited schools 15 years ago, the students were all locals. Now, there could be 15 nationalities. The issue has broadened and, obviously, this Bill will not address it, but parents must train their children, as children spend longer at home than they do at school.

I must ask the Deputy to conclude, as we are running out of time.

The cutbacks in career guidance hours, another Government attack, are abysmal and counterproductive. Career guidance teachers are the people who pick up on bullying issues. Can the Government not see that?

I call Deputy Neville. There are two minutes per slot and many Deputies wish to contribute.

I wish to share time with Deputies Michelle Mulherin, Dominic Hannigan, Jim Daly, Joanna Tuffy, Gerald Nash, Paudie Coffey, Tom Barry, Ciara Conway and Joe McHugh.

School can be a difficult place for many. Add a culture of bullying and it becomes intolerable. School should be a place where people feel safe and have the opportunity to grow and develop, but bullying sets growth and development back.

Ask any student about bullying and he or she will have a story. Each story is unique and tells us a great deal about bullying and the pain it causes. When a child's self esteem is destroyed and he or she takes an overdose to get away from the pain, one can clearly see that the issue of bullying is not to be taken lightly. Bullying is a negative and, often, aggressive manipulation by one or more people of another person or people, usually over a period. It is abusive and based on an imbalance of power. It is also described as a pattern of behaviour in which one person who has a great deal of internal anger, resentment and aggression and who lacks interpersonal skills chooses to displace his or her aggression onto another person. This person is chosen for his or her vulnerability to the bully. The tactics used include constant criticism, exclusion, nitpicking, teasing and verbal, psychological, emotional and physical violence.

Victims of bullying are reluctant to tell others for various reasons, including their fear of further bullying if they tell.

They think they will be singled out even more and, deep down, they hope if they stay quiet that the bully might like them. They do not believe teachers can do anything to make the bullying stop. They do not want to worry their parents or guardians. They are afraid if their parents or guardians tell the school authorities, the bullying will get worse. Telling on peers is regarded as a bad thing to do. Victims feel they are somehow to blame and 30% of them do not tell anybody.

It is important to recognise signs of bullying. A person might be a victim of bullying if he or she refuses to go to school, suffers from depression or mood swings, asks for money or begins stealing it, becomes withdrawn, has unexpected cuts and bruises or has possessions that go missing and he or she attempts suicide.

Thank you, Deputy.

We should have a more detailed discussion on the matter.

I am sorry the debate is so limited but each speaker currently has only two minutes. I must emphasise that to Deputy Mulherin as well.

I thought I had three minutes.

I am sharing with Deputy McLoughlin. I will be brief.

The speaking arrangements have been changed.

I welcome the debate. When I think about the word bullying, another word comes to mind, namely, terrorism. Bullying is interpersonal terrorism. It is unfortunately a current reality. I therefore beg your indulgence, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, in beginning with one of the various definitions of terrorism. There is no accepted universal definition of terrorism for the simple reason that it has been politicised. However, while terrorism is the use of terror and intimidation for some political end; bullying is personal.

Cyberbullying in particular is perpetrated by a generation that lacks communication skills which appreciate civility and the democratic processes of dialogue. It is impersonal ventilation without qualification irrespective of any standards or etiquette. We are failing to impart those standards to the next generation which are necessary for peaceful coexistence with other human beings on this increasingly pressurised and crowded planet.

Bullying can affect all ages, devastating young and old. However, it is with young people who bully that we have the best opportunity to tackle the issue and assist the victims of such behaviour. Parents and guardians are an integral part of the process. They are the people most intricately involved in a child’s life. That includes a parent whose child is bullying. He or she must face up to it and challenge it. Where one has a child who is a victim one must develop a listening ear so that children can be identified.

The Bill is correct in identifying bullying as an educational issue but what is called for is a more comprehensive programme than is proposed, which is being pursued at many levels by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, in conjunction with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, as we speak. I will oppose the Bill.

I thank Deputy Mulherin. I commend Deputy O’Brien on bringing forward this timely Bill. Today’s edition of The Leitrim Observer, a local paper in my constituency, features on its front page the type of sick behaviour by some people using social media. It will give an idea of what is happening. The term Internet trolls is slang for people who host items online in a forum or blog with the intent of provoking an emotional response. The father of Ciara Pugsley, the young schoolgirl from County Leitrim who tragically died by suicide, highlighted this week at a conference a post on a social network which urges teenagers to do a “Ciara”. The front page of the newspaper refers to the site which encourages teenagers to commit suicide. That is the level of depravity that exists and it must be dealt with by schools. Thugs and bullies who are cowards are aided and abetted by websites such as ask.fm because they are allowed to remain anonymous. That is so wrong.

I have only a couple of minutes to speak on the issue because of the high level of demand from Deputies to speak, which can only be a good sign. Too many young people in this country are affected by bullying every day and we must do something about it. Although we will vote against the Bill tonight I agree with the idea behind it. We must stop bullying in schools and elsewhere.

The Government and the Labour Party are well aware of that and are committed to doing something about it. In our election manifesto we agreed that we would tackle homophobic bullying in schools and we brought the commitment through to our negotiations with Fine Gael and it is now in the programme for Government. The Minister for Education and Skills set up a working group on bullying last year in order to introduce a new approach to tackling bullying in schools.

From speaking to parents in Kells, students in Dunshaughlin and teachers in Ratoath, bullying is unfortunately present in all schools throughout the country and it is a problem that all of those groups want to do something about. We expect the action plan on bullying to be produced soon. From speaking with organisations that are involved with it I am aware that it is an exciting plan that will make a difference to the lives of young people. In the Gallery there are members of BeLonGTo, one of the organisations that has been working on the plan. I have been working with it in recent years and I have been impressed with the way it has managed to increase the confidence of many young people who, sadly, have experienced bullying. We must work closely with such organisations in the future in order that we introduce measures that will tackle bullying in schools. I must conclude, but I wish the Minister the best with his plan. All of us in this House are united in trying to do something to tackle the issue.

I welcome the Bill and the debate it has initiated. However, I do not intend to support the Bill no matter how well-intentioned it is. As a former student, teacher and principal I do not consider it to be the solution to the myriad challenges faced by schools in dealing with the problem.

Bullying is a culture that must be acknowledged, addressed and challenged at every available opportunity. The responsibility to ensure that this culture is exposed and acknowledged within a school community is manifold. Legislating to force responsibility for dealing with bullying onto school management is merely shifting the emphasis away from the primary educator, namely, parents. The duty for dealing with bullying spreads much further and wider within the school community and the home in order to address the underlying issues.

Bullying is a culture and for that reason I fear it will not submit to the charms of legislation. People’s tolerance of difference, or lack thereof, has always amazed me. There are myriad reasons why people perceive others as different. I read a story, as Gaeilge, many years ago about a young Irish girl who died of starvation on a sailing ship due to her absolute refusal to eat food that was given to her by a person with black skin. It is probably too easy to suggest that the young girl was racist. Bullying is a difficult and challenging issue and the responsibility for dealing with it must be spread much further and wider than is acknowledged in what is proposed in the Bill.

I welcome the debate that Sinn Féin has initiated, but I do not welcome its Bill. The definition of bullying is much too broad. It is dangerous, as it potentially criminalises children. Bullying is a complex issue and if we are honest we could all say that at some level we have all bullied and been bullied at some stage. The issue can be sensationalised, but we are talking about children in the Bill, sometimes as young as four or five. In some cases those being bullied and doing the bullying are from troubled backgrounds. I object to the burden the Bill places on school boards of management, in particular the elected officer. It puts a huge burden on one elected officer on the board. Who would want to take up such a position on a school board of management? We are talking about volunteers from among parents and members of the local community. They could inadvertently become an offender under the legislation.

I note also that the legislation specifies that there should be sanctions, which is a negative approach to tackling bullying. We must take a much more comprehensive and positive approach in the main. The Bill specifies that a person must report an incident of bullying to the elected officer within one working day. If that is not feasible such a person could find themselves in breach of the legislation. It is not clear what sanctions would apply if the legislation were breached by an elected officer or any other person involved. It is the wrong approach. The Minister’s approach is what is required, namely, a holistic, whole-school approach that is comprehensive and deals with the issue in a broader way. That includes, for example, mental health and emotional intelligence. Some schools in America now teach mindfulness. It is important to teach children not to bully and also how to deal with being bullied. A member of Comhairle na nÓg raised the issue before the joint committee. He said that the education system does nothing to promote self-confidence in young people and places a massive emphasis on academic development over social development, which is wrong and crazy. That should be the starting point for our approach to bullying.

Deputy O’Brien’s Bill reflects widespread concern in this House and society at large. The action plan on bullying due to be published in the coming days will address those concerns comprehensively. It has been produced by the anti-bullying working group which was established in June 2012 following a successful anti-bullying forum set up by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, in response to a request from the National Anti-Bullying Coalition.

I was happy to have been instrumental in the establishment of that forum. I have worked closely with that organisation since its inception, and in its visits to the Dáil and presentations to Members it has brought home to us the horrendous human costs of bullying. Nobody who has heard the first hand testimony of people such as Jeremy Prince or Jonathan Pugsley on their visits to this House, who lost their children to suicide, could be in any doubt about the need to strengthen the protection available to our children both in and outside school.

I believe it must become mandatory for schools to record incidents of bullying and to put in place corrective and, most importantly, preventative bullying policies. It is interesting to note there is a yawning gap between how bullying is treated in the workplace and how it is treated in the education system and in the school environment. That is instructive. Ideally, the approach to bullying should always include parents, but schools should have discretion as to whether to inform parents in cases where such an action could add to the distress of the child. As Deputy Tuffy said, it is a complex issue.

In her definition of bullying, Professor O'Moore of Trinity College Dublin stressed the repetitive nature of the act, which Deputy O'Brien also includes in his definition. Professor O'Moore also emphasises the need to adopt a holistic approach to tackling the problem. It is not possible to tackle one form of bullying and then return to deal with the rest. There must be an underlying philosophy and guidelines which can be adjusted to tackle bullying in all its manifestations, be it racism, homophobia, targeting those with disabilities or simply targeting the child who wears the wrong clothes in somebody's opinion or listens to the wrong music. I look forward to the forthcoming publication of the action plan as another positive step in protecting our children.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate, and I commend Sinn Féin for putting this Bill on the agenda. It is important to speak about and address bullying and the victims of bullying at every opportunity and, indeed, do anything possible to protect the victims of bullying. Bullying can have severe consequences for a victim's confidence and later life and sometimes can result in tragedy, as Deputy Neville said.

While I acknowledge the motive behind the Bill, I have concerns about the implications of putting it in legislation. Boards of management are already obliged to have child protection and anti-bullying policies, procedures and action plans in place in schools. I have been a chairperson of a board of management for the last five years and I see the challenges for volunteers in giving their time to deal with the demands on them as community representatives, parents' representatives or patrons' representatives on boards of management. We must be careful about imposing statutory obligations on volunteers serving in that capacity. I support the concept of training supports. The action plan which the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, is due to announce tomorrow should go a long way towards addressing this complex problem.

I agree with other Members that this is not just about bullying in schools, but also bullying outside schools, before and after school and during break time. School is already a relatively controlled environment where students come together. I believe the key to this issue is parental and societal responsibility to educate children that bullying is not acceptable and that regardless of whether they are the bully or the victim, if they see it happening they must act. That is where the damage is done. We must also tackle cyberbullying. It is a huge challenge for society. It happens quietly and unknown to parents and teachers. It is the area which must be tackled in a respectful manner.

I welcome the fact that the Minister will launch the action plan tomorrow. He has consulted widely with all stakeholders and I believe it will go a long way towards assisting those in authority in schools, homes and society. A comprehensive response is required to deal with this complex problem, but essentially it will boil down to a non-acceptance of bullying in any form.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. Before discussing it, we must acknowledge the work that has been done for children during this Government's term of office. There was the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the referendum on children's rights and the drafting of the action plan by the anti-bullying working group. Much work is being done in this area, and that will continue throughout the Government's term of office.

I was a member of a board of management, so I have concerns about the Bill. It is not practical or workable. One person is required to report on one working day while another person is required to report on another working day. If a person does not follow these protocols, what are the implications for the volunteers involved? Section 14(7) of the Education Act 1998 means that they might not be protected and the volunteers could find themselves being sued. That would be an intolerable situation and cannot be allowed to happen. We are not running an army in this case, just a school.

The executive functions provided for in the Bill would be functions for the teachers, but we have not discussed them with the teachers. It would be unfair to foist this on teachers without discussing it. A little more thought is required. It is a very important issue. This morning, for example, there was name calling in this House. In my view name calling is a form of bullying. Strangely, it came from the other side of the House. There is a certain element of "do as I say, not as I do". We need to be cognisant of what we say here. I agree with Deputy McLoughlin on social media. We could spend hours going through this debate and the implications of what is happening, but we do not.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I also have some of the concerns outlined by my colleagues, particularly regarding the onus on a person on the board of management to make a report. Previously, in the case of the Children First guidelines, we saw the hesitancy of people, often professional people, to make reports to social workers regarding child protection. This is a very similar area and a huge amount of support and training would have to be devoted to what is essentially a volunteer organisation.

There has been much talk in this debate about the victim and the perpetrator of bullying. However, I have spoken to professionals and, this afternoon, I spoke to a school principal on the phone about their thoughts on the action plan on bullying being launched tomorrow by the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. The big problem is the conspiracy of silence that surrounds bullying. It is not only the victim or the perpetrator but also the onlookers who fail to report it. They do not want to break the code of silence or fear they will become victims of bullying. As a parent, I would like to think my daughter would not stand by and watch other people being bullied. Until we as parents can instil in our children that it is not good enough to stand on the sidelines and watch bullying take place, we will not be able to tackle bullying in schools.

Bullying is as old as time and unless we break the conspiracy of silence that exists around bullying, we will have to debate it again and again. I look forward to and welcome the action plan being published tomorrow. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. I hope it is not a fad because there has been so much tragedy as a result of bullying, but that it will remain a priority for the Government. I also hope we will be able to implement the action plan in the months ahead.

I welcome Sinn Féin's initiative in bringing this issue forward. I will try to be as specific as possible in the two minutes available to me. The chilling reality of the world we live in is that while people have always gossiped in the past, now people can do it on-line and we can see it at first hand. In the past, the subject of gossip was sometimes the last to find out and sometimes never found out at all, and were protected by that. Now, however, there is no escape or protection for the subject because of anonymity on-line and on radio. That is something that must be addressed as well.

We can learn from the schools. I met a group from Milford Community School before Christmas and the teenagers talked about dignity, respect, rights and responsibilities. We can learn from our teenage ambassadors. People of that age have a civic responsibility and a heightened awareness of civic duty, environmental issues and the way to treat people. We must have an all-encompassing strategy. Deputy Conway is absolutely right that we must include the parents and the community. Cyberspace is here and will remain here, so we must learn and teach people the techniques and tools as to how to treat people with dignity and respect. That is the issue.

If adults have the protection of anonymity on national or local radio when they can send in text messages saying they are Bill from Donegal when they are from Cork or Mick from Dublin when they are from Wexford, what message does that give to our young people?

It is clear from the contributions that we are united as one voice across the House in saying bullying is unacceptable behaviour whether it is on the basis of a person's gender, skin colour, sexual orientation, height, hair colour, spectacles or freckles or, in other words, all the various guises and excuses used to target an individual or child and systematically and deliberately to break down his or her confidence and ability to function in a healthy way. We say with a united voice that this is not acceptable and Members have pointed correctly to broader society where schools are a reflection of the world in which we and our children live. All of us who are parents have a responsibility to our children to keep them safe from bullying, to prevent them from being bullies and to instill in them a sense that when they witness bullying behaviour, they must name and challenge it. All of that is correct.

Our legislation does not set out to pretend that what it provides is a catch-all and absolute solution to bullying in society or in schools. No legislation could claim to do that but the difficulty we have, despite our unanimous and well-intentioned views in opposition to bullying, is we seem to be making a prescription for a scenario where everybody is responsible, including parents, teachers, boards of management and key influencers in society, but nobody is held accountable. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure in schools that have robust anti-bullying policies and effective prevention and intervention measures, a person is designated to oversee them and is made accountable for them, which is crucial. If we want to effect a cultural change in schools and to protect our children, we have to be sure there are robust accountability mechanisms in place and they must rest with adults. It is the duty of adults to keep children safe. Volunteers on boards of management are currently asked to take on daunting and responsible tasks up to and including finding the euros to keep the school doors open and the building heated.

I do not accept that it is a step too far to vest in a named individual on a board of management the responsibility for oversight and accountability. If we are not prepared to do that and legislate alongside our regulatory framework, all the goodwill in the world and all the words of condemnation amount to nothing. Accountability has to be instilled on this issue and that is what the Bill sets out to do. I am baffled by Government Members welcoming the debate and setting out the issues who will then vote against the legislation.

I am happy to support my colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, and the Bill. However, it is a poor reflection on society that it is necessary in the first place. Up-to-date legislation is long overdue. The last guidelines on countering bullying in schools were circulated in 1993. School in 2013 is a different place from 1993 when the phrase "cyberbullying" would have been meaningless. It is imperative that our guidelines are updated to ensure technologies that were not around then do not slip through the net.

We must not underestimate the effects of persistent bullying through Facebook and other fora. The media have highlighted the tragedies in which bullying was associated with teenage suicides and we have experienced a number of these in my own county, Donegal, in the recent past. No child should ever feel so bullied that the only way to end the trauma is to end his or her own life. As legislators, we have a responsibility to ensure we do everything within our capability to prevent bullying from occurring in the first place. However, there is a wider issue regarding legislators. We have often heard Deputies pontificate in the Chamber on the issue of bullying and who have then felt comfortable making pronouncements on the way in which other Deputies dress. It is not only hypocritical, it is unacceptable. Furthermore, Deputies have affirmed their commitment to ending homophobic and transphobic bullying, yet they have refused to make a statement on or push to introduce same-sex marriage. I particularly welcome the comments by the US President, Barack Obama, in his inauguration speech, who has taken a lead on this issue. Hopefully, others will follow not just across the US but across the world. If all citizens are equal, that must be reflected in all aspects of our society and law. That is the strongest message we can send.

With regard to the broader issue of sexuality and gender equality, the lack of equality for certain groups goes to the core of why homophobic and transphobic bullying is viewed as acceptable in certain quarters of society. It is heartening that the Minister is open to updating anti-bullying guidelines in schools, but Members should also lead by example and fight all the underlying issues that lend themselves to bullying in general. There was a furore recently when Julie Burchill made transphobic comments in The Observer. However, closer to home, the journalist, Eilis O'Hanlon, made similar comments about transgender people which received must less attention. In my own county, a Fianna Fáil county councillor, Sean McEniff, and a Fine Gael town councillor, Eugene Dolan, attacked the entire Traveller community in a most disgraceful fashion. Eugene Dolan said all Travellers should be sent to Spike Island while Sean McEniff believes they should all be housed on their own. This is 2013 and we have public representatives and journalists who utter statements such as this. We then wonder why such commentary finds its way into schools.

It is up to everyone to speak out when they witness bullying, whether it is in the school yard, council chambers or the newspapers. I urge all Members to support the Bill. If Members are happy with the essentials in the Bill, I urge them to allow it to go forward to be amended on Committee Stage, if needs be. It is too important to become a victim of petty party politicking. All of us should be able to get behind the fundamental principles underpinning the legislation to safeguard children and assist principals, teachers and staff. Many Members are parents of school-going children and will understand its importance. We all have a responsibility as public representatives to ensure what we do and the actions we engage in are an inspiration and guide and a light shone on the path for the next generation. Some of the comments made by public representatives over the past week, including in my home county about Travellers, were shameful, bigoted and racist and it is no wonder they filter down to children in schools.

Ba mhaith liom tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille tábhachtach seo. Is féidir le Teachtaí Dála ar gach taobh an Tí tacaíocht a thabhairt don Bhille mar tá na bearta istigh ann an-mhaith agus is ábhar iontach tábhachtach é seo don ghlúin seo.

A total of 15% of students surveyed indicated that they experienced some level of bullying in the given school term. Bullying is a major component of the discipline issues schools face but most bullying, unfortunately, remains hidden.

Forty years ago, corporal punishment and bullying of pupils by some teachers was a stain on our education system. Research shows that nowadays, as well as student to student bullying, there can also be student to teacher bullying. The children referendum enshrined the rights of the child and all parties supported it. The Constitution will not be worth a whit to the children of the country if resources are not put into actively safeguarding their lives.

Schools are not just places of learning. They are, in good measure, part of the formation of individuals' lives. The children of our generation faced different challenges from today's children. Additional pressures are now brought to bear through mass marketing, the sexualisation of children and pressure to conform and consume. Films and games often stream violent images and narratives and we now have 24 hour social media speaking to and recording the thoughts and actions of personalities who are in the process of being created. Despite these, children still need support, stability and security. They need a safe place where they can develop and grow in confidence. This is not the case.

I acknowledge the concerns expressed by the Minister for Education and Skills about mandatory reporting of bullying incidents to parents and the implications this might have for young people who have not spoken openly about their sexuality. I remind the Government that when introducing this legislation we always accepted that there is room for improvement and refinement. The introduction of amendments would adequately address some of these issues. The Government cannot, on the one hand, say Sinn Féin never offers positive solutions and, on the other, vote against every Sinn Féin Private Members' Bill brought before the Dáil.

Until now, the significant point of contact for children in schools has been the guidance counsellor, but the Government budget reduced their number by 500. Cuts in the number of special needs assistants, English as an acquired language assistants, Traveller support teachers and home school liaison posts serve to brush under the carpet the anguish and suffering of children who are being bullied. The Bill would make a material difference to the children of Ireland. I urge Deputies in the Government parties to rise above partisan politics, prioritise the next generation, support the Bill and allocate the necessary resources.

As a former Sinn Féin spokesperson on education, I have met families throughout the country who were affected by this issue. In my own constituency, and from my own experience, I know of the difficulties many children face at school.

A disappointing aspect of the debate is that we are being told, once again, that our proposals are not practical, that guidelines are in the pipeline or that something will happen in the next six months. I do not believe that. We know that three girls committed suicide in the past six months as a result of bullying.

A number of years ago, a family came to me and asked me for help for their child. The mother of the family had been going through the boy's socks and underwear and came across a suicide letter in which he outlined the bullying he was suffering. The family had gone to the school on four previous occasions to talk about the bullying the boy was being subjected to, with no satisfaction. Other people got involved and the family moved out of the area because of what was going on in their child's life. That is just one example of what is going on.

The children being bullied can be vulnerable or potentially vulnerable. Sometimes they are not vulnerable but are made vulnerable by what is going on in their school. Some schools have the issue off to a T. They respond to bullying in kind and have guidelines and ways of dealing with it. Some, however, do not have guidelines. There is no consistency. Of five schools in an area, each one will approach the problem differently. We need consistency.

We need to wake up to what is going on in Irish society in this regard. I was bullied as a child. I did not see myself as vulnerable but bullying made my life hell going to school, in school and coming from school. I went to school in a different era, but children are going through the same thing in the 21st century. That is wrong. We need to adopt approaches that work for our children, not talk about adopting them. If we are sincere about approaching this problem, why do we not let the Bill go through and have a real discussion about what is happening in society?

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I commend my party colleague, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien, on bringing the Bill forward and giving us the opportunity to debate this issue in the House.

The Bill attempts to update the Education (Welfare) Act 2000. It outlines an updated definition of bullying and includes references to cyberbullying and bullying of at-risk groups. The legislation also attempts to amend where responsibility lies and create a greater role for school boards of management. The aim of the legislation is the introduction of a comprehensive anti-bullying policy in every school.

The Bill also requires the Minister for Education and Skills to introduce regulations based on the existing guidelines. This will give those guidelines legal status in their current form. The Minister will also be obliged to review those newly introduced regulations every two years.

There has been a failure adequately to deal with the issue of bullying in legislation. Schools have been left to their own devices in tackling the issue of bullying. This is not acceptable. It is imperative that the Minister accepts the Bill in order to address the issue of bullying in our schools.

I do not wish to dwell on the tragic cases that have come to national attention in recent months. The issue must still be raw for the families concerned. Considering the horrific cases of self-harm and suicide that have touched so many homes in Ireland recently, we must demand that the Minister act quickly to address the issue of bullying in our schools.

The Bill attempts to update the definition of bullying to include the quickly developing technologies to which young people have access. While the use of technology and social media must be seen as a source of learning and education for pupils, we must be aware of the possibility of the misuse of this technology. As recent cases have indicated, cyberbullying has the potential to wreak havoc in the lives of young people. We must have legislation that can address the ever-changing use of new technology and tackle cyberbullying head on. The Bill also addresses bullying that can occur due to sexuality and identification as a member of an alternative sub-culture.

Teachers can be the victims of bullying and this can be just as harrowing. The stress teachers experience from bullying can negatively impact on their job and their performance in the classroom. This has implications for the teacher and the students. Pupils can also be bullied by teachers. Everyone has the right to enjoy the comfort of a healthy and happy workplace. The Bill seeks to provide a safe environment for everyone in the school. Having clear and precise procedures in place will assist teachers and boards of management to tackle the problem of bullying head on. At a time of limited resources, it is important that it be clear what these groups must do to be most efficient with their time.

Young people learn from their environment. That is why we must ensure that schools are happy and healthy places to be. The young people of today will be the adults of tomorrow. The type of society we desire for the future must be nurtured in the present. In the broader context, legislation to tackle bullying is important in establishing a healthy and positive school ethos.

I welcome the Private Members' Bill and I thank Deputy O'Brien for bringing it forward.

I want to deal with another form of bullying that is rampant at the moment. Journalists bully. I want to quote: "cute hoors", "sleeveens", "chancers", "gombeen men". These vile, poisonous words were penned about myself and my family by Eamon Dunphy and they were disgraceful.

In fairness, Deputy, this is about the Bill.

Yes, I am just expanding on the Bill. We are talking about bullying and I am allowed to expand on it. "...Animal Farm, where the poor animals (us) were no longer able to differentiate between the Healy-Rae pigs and the FF humans." This was written by another journalist who parades around this House on a daily basis.

In fairness, this is about education.

Some of the journalists would need to be educated.

The Bill is about educational welfare and the Deputy only has two minutes.

If the Leas-Cheann Comhairle does not take up my time, I will be finished but I must have my say.

The sort of bullying that goes on in national newspapers is disgraceful. I want to make it clear that not all journalists are involved in these bully-boy tactics. There are respectable journalists operating in this House but unfortunately some of these people have taken it upon themselves to attack Sinn Féin Members, talking personally about their families, about me and about other Members on this side of the House. They think they can write whatever they like, that they have poetic licence to say whatever poison they like about individuals. The people they write about have families, we have children and we do not deserve to be bullied like that by this type of people.

The Deputy's time is up.

I support the Bill but I also want to make it clear that the whole debate should be expanded because there is more bullying going on than just the sort that is being discussed.

On behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, I thank Deputy O'Brien for the opportunity to have this debate and I commend the House for the wide range of comments and analysis which Deputies have made to this debate on bullying.

As the Minister of State, Deputy White, stated last night, it is important that we use every opportunity to raise awareness about this issue and also to send a clear message that no form or type of bullying is acceptable. I reiterate the views expressed last night that while well intentioned, Deputy O'Brien's Bill is not a workable solution and for that reason the Government is opposing it.

While we oppose this particular Bill for the reasons the Minister of State and others outlined last night, I also emphasise that preventing and tackling bullying has been given a high priority by this Government and in particular by the Minister for Education and Skills. The Minister has taken specific action in the last year to ensure we implement the commitment in the programme for Government to help schools tackle bullying, homophobic bullying in particular. It is fair to say that the Minister has given greater priority and shown greater personal commitment to tackling this issue than any other Minister for Education in the last 20 years. The Minister was due to launch a new action plan on bullying tomorrow but due to a family bereavement, this will now take place early next week, and he will be giving priority to implementation of the actions outlined over the coming weeks and months.

As mentioned already in this debate, he will also be launching new guidelines on mental health for post-primary schools. These guidelines aim to support schools in developing a whole-school approach to mental health promotion and suicide prevention and are of relevance to all members of the school community. In particular, they have been developed to support principals, guidance counsellors, student support teams and teachers.

A number of points have been made during the course of the debate about how we should more effectively tackle bullying in our schools and I would like to comment on some of issues. On guidance, while I regret that any budget measures which reduce the allocation of resources were required, the alternative was to increase class sizes at second level and leave the guidance allocation untouched. Unfortunately, due to the severe financial situation we find ourselves in, savings have to be found. Notwithstanding that, as part of the budget measure we sheltered the impact for all the DEIS post-primary schools by increasing their standard staffing allocations. The day-to-day management of how teaching resources are used in schools is carried out at local school level, and I am confident that in doing so, schools will act in the best interest of students.

It is also important to point out that existing policy makes guidance not just the responsibility of the school guidance counsellor but a whole school activity. Under the existing arrangements each school develops a school guidance plan as a means of supporting the needs of its students. While the school's guidance planning will involve the guidance counsellors in the first instance, other members of school staff and management also have key roles to play and parents and students must be seen as an essential part of the process.

Finally, I reiterate the view that bullying is not just a problem that schools should deal with. The role of parents, other adults and the wider community is crucial in shaping the attitudes and behaviour which encourage respect for and empathy for others in young people. I thank the House for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

I commend Deputy Jonathan O'Brien on introducing this Bill. It is timely and I am encouraged that the Government plans to deal with this in its publication next week. There is no reason, however, why the Bill cannot be supported and allowed to go ahead to Committee Stage, where any necessary amendments can be made.

This legislation is overdue. Guidelines from the 1990s are not sufficient for 2013 and the coming years. This generation of schoolchildren and young people have been immersed in communications technology from a very young age. Anti-bullying guidelines and laws simply do not reflect that; they are out of date.

Our young people deserve to be protected from every type of bullying and I was glad to see that Deputy O'Brien in his Bill set out a comprehensive definition of bullying, specifically including all electronic forms of communication. I also welcome the inclusion of homophobic bullying. This section of the Bill brings anti-bullying policy into the 21st century.

The appointment of a single anti-bullying officer from the board of management is a sensible move because tackling bullying is the responsibility of us all but having a dedicated officer will ensure complaints do not fall through the cracks. Mandatory reporting follows best practice from the Nordic countries and will provide clarity and certainty for teachers, boards of management, parents and students.

Best practice and all the goodwill in the world, however, are not enough when it comes to defeating bullying. We need comprehensive plans to defeat bullying in all its guises. Regulations based on the Department's guidelines need to be produced and need to be reviewed every two years. Bullying is changing as fast as technology and the anti-bullying guidelines need to be able to do so too.

We are all sadly too aware of the effects bullying can have in some cases. Coming from Donegal, and representing the Finn Valley area, it would be remiss of me not to talk about the awful tragedy that unfolded late last year for the Gallagher family. There is no justification for the torment that young girl, Erin Gallagher, was subject to. In the aftermath of Erin's untimely death, there was a huge outpouring of grief from people across Donegal that took the form of Facebook pages and social network comments. There was a genuine outpouring of grief and a genuine desire to do something about bullying and to stamp it out.

Many others, however, took the opportunity, perhaps not deliberately, to hit out at those who were named by Erin Gallagher as her bullies. Those people, we must remember, have just started their teenage years. I read some of the comments on Facebook earlier and selected ten for the debate: "you's lot are murderers", "i hope you lot suffer for the rest of your life", "you are evil lil scum bags", "their parents r scum", "evil ppl", "kick those bullies face in", "evil little demons!!!", "scum bags", "who ever was involved should be killed" and "we all know who these bitches are". I say that because these young girls are reading those comments. I know that because their family has told me. These young people are vulnerable themselves. All of us want bullying to stop and the people who made those comments, and there are many more comments like that on social networks out there for eternity until they are deleted by the people who posted them, wanted to see bullying stopped but what they did instead was become bullies themselves. God forbid one of the people who reads those comments would decide to end her own life prematurely and leave a note quoting those comments.

We need a comprehensive way to deal with bullying. It must be stamped out in all its guises and people must be very careful of what they say and the effects their remarks have on others.

I want to begin by applauding an Teachta O'Brien for bringing forward this important piece of legislation. Recent tragedies have acted as a wake-up call for all of us of the terrible impact bullying, including bullying through the social media websites, can have on young people. There have been numerous studies in recent times about the pressures faced by young people. Indeed, the first all-island report on suicide revealed that Ireland has one of the highest rates of suicide among young people, particularly young men, in Europe and bullying plays its part in this.

The issue of bullying is a complex one that affects families, and, of course, parents and families have their role. It affects entire communities and there needs to be a community response as well. Of course, it affects the whole school community. In my constituency, just before Christmas, County Louth VEC requested that all of its schools and centres undertake a root-and-branch review of their approaches to dealing with bullying, including cyber-bullying. That is a very good initiative.

I recently attended the young scientist exhibition at the RDS and met students from De La Salle college in Dundalk who had carried out their own project on bullying and its effects on young people. It is a remarkable piece of social science and investigative work that highlights the importance of this issue for young people.

I am disappointed that the Government has set its face against supporting this Bill. I can see no logic for this. The Government seems to work in this way on many important issues. Rather than embracing and, if need be, amending a Bill such as this in a positive way, the Government opposes good initiatives by the Opposition and trots out its lobby fodder to do so. It seems that this is solely about party politics and the authorship of this Bill, not about dealing, as the Dáil should, in a collective and non-partisan way with an important issue such as this which affects so many citizens. Therefore, I want to deal with some of the criticisms levelled against it.

Last night, the Minister of State, Deputy White, expressed concern at the pressure he claims the Bill would impose on the boards of management as a result of the mandatory reporting of bullying to parents. He further claimed that the Bill will force schools boards to convene a meeting to address any and every incident. This is wrong. It is a disingenuous interpretation of the legislation. I would refer the Minister to section 2 of the Bill which clearly defines in detail bullying behaviour. What we are talking about here, therefore, is clearly defined behaviour where a victim is singled out for targeted abuse of a psychological and-or physical nature.

The Bill does not set out to over-burden school boards by forcing them to respond to every argument or row. Most teachers are well equipped to deal with this. Instead, we are talking about very specific incidents that are in part covered by the Government's own guidelines and the updated guidelines contained in section 2. It is ironic that the Government criticises the Sinn Féin legislation for supposedly putting the onus for responding on an individual board member and then expresses a concern that a school board would be expected to meet collectively whenever an incident is reported. This seems to contradict the Government's stated views on collective governance and runs contrary to the whole-school approach needed to tackle this issue.

The suggestion that boards might have to meet weekly or even daily is another red herring. As I have already stated, the Bill refers to very specific threatening behaviour and if this was happening regularly in a school, then clearly there would be very serious problems within that school which would need to be addressed on a wider level.

This Bill is a considered response to this problem and so far, the Government has failed to respond adequately. The Bill put forward by an Teachta O'Brien provides an appropriate starting point in getting to grips with a growing problem and I would urge Government Deputies to support it.

First, I thank all of the Deputies who contributed to the Second Stage debate on this Bill, both those who spoke for and those who spoke against it. I also thank Dr. Stephen Minton from Trinity College Dublin, who is one of Ireland's leading experts on bullying and who freely gave his expertise at both the research and drafting stages of the Bill, and Mr. Simon Gillespie and Mr. Gavin Gallagher in my office who put in a great deal of research time prior to the final draft being published.

It is clear from the individual contributions, both last night and tonight, that there is a recognition that there is a need to urgently address this issue. I do not think any Deputy who spoke on the issue would disagree with that. We also realise that it is not only something which is confined solely to the education sector. It is something which has to be addressed across society as a whole. The question is will we continue to speak as individuals or will we act as a collective in this Oireachtas by introducing legislation to provide the framework needed to deal with this complex issue? We need to ask ourselves are we individuals or will we deal with it as a collective.

Last night, in my own contribution I provided some detail of the rationale for putting forward this Bill. I did so in the hope that we could achieve cross-party consensus on this issue because it is one that affects tens of thousands of people across the State, from children and teenagers to teachers and parents.

While researching the issue of bullying in preparation for publishing this Bill, we looked at what works best internationally. We placed a particular focus on the Norwegian model because it is recognised internationally as one of the most progressive in dealing with anti-bullying measures. During that stage of research, it quickly became evident to us that all of the countries that have progressively dealt with bullying and that have reduced the number of incidents of bullying, particularly within the school network, had done so on the basis of putting in place legal frameworks from the outset which they then used as building blocks to carry on. It is clear that a key principle of anti-bullying work starts with such legislation.

The initial legislation put in place in those countries which we looked at, such as Norway to which I referred and Sweden, provided not only the framework for that space where they were currently dealing with it but also the building blocks for future frameworks. For instance, it has been proved that countries which have in place the legislative framework are better equipped to deal with the evolving nature of bullying as a result. They are not relying solely on guidelines and are beginning with a head-start.

As I stated yesterday, the current problem in the State is that we are relying solely on 20 year old guidelines which are outdated. The Minister has stated he will publish a report. The report has been put back to Tuesday next but so far none of the media reports on it has stated whether it will contain any legislative reform. All of the media reports have talked about enhanced guidelines. All of them have talked about reporting mechanisms which are templates. I believe that unless there is a combination of regulations and guidelines, we will continue to see this ad hoc approach from school to school. Some schools are excellent when it comes to bullying in the procedures they put in place but other schools are not. We have a responsibility to provide that legislative framework so that every school is starting from a good place.

Last night, the Minister of State, Deputy White outlined a number of issues that the Government had with this Bill. One of those that stuck me was where he cited the concern about tasking one individual with too much responsibility. Perhaps he understood and needed to justify the Government's decision not to accept the Bill because if he had read section 3(2)(d) he would have seen it states clearly that "the Board of Management shall prepare countermeasures to bullying which the school must comply with." It is not up to one individual. It is up to one individual to have the oversight of those anti-bullying measures.

This Bill also directs the Minister for Education and Skills to introduce regulations and those regulations will form the basis of the anti-bullying measures which the board of management will then introduce. This is in keeping with the whole-school approach because it is the board of management which formulates the anti-bullying measures, in consultation with parents, students, teaching staff and based on regulations which have been issued by the Department of Education and Skills. We are tasking one individual with the responsibility for the oversight because we can no longer have a situation, as Deputy McDonald stated, where everybody is responsible but nobody is accountable. I ask the Government to reconsider voting against the Bill.

Question put:
The Dáil divided: Tá, 45; Níl, 77.

  • Adams, Gerry.
  • Boyd Barrett, Richard.
  • Broughan, Thomas P.
  • Browne, John.
  • Calleary, Dara.
  • Collins, Joan.
  • Colreavy, Michael.
  • Cowen, Barry.
  • Crowe, Seán.
  • Daly, Clare.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Donnelly, Stephen S.
  • Ellis, Dessie.
  • Ferris, Martin.
  • Flanagan, Luke 'Ming'.
  • Fleming, Tom.
  • Grealish, Noel.
  • Healy, Seamus.
  • Healy-Rae, Michael.
  • Higgins, Joe.
  • Kelleher, Billy.
  • Kirk, Seamus.
  • Kitt, Michael P.
  • Lowry, Michael.
  • Mac Lochlainn, Pádraig.
  • Martin, Micheál.
  • McConalogue, Charlie.
  • McDonald, Mary Lou.
  • McGrath, Finian.
  • McGrath, Mattie.
  • McGrath, Michael.
  • McGuinness, John.
  • McLellan, Sandra.
  • Naughten, Denis.
  • Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
  • Ó Cuív, Éamon.
  • Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.
  • Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.
  • O'Brien, Jonathan.
  • Pringle, Thomas.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Stanley, Brian.
  • Tóibín, Peadar.
  • Troy, Robert.
  • Wallace, Mick.

Níl

  • Bannon, James.
  • Barry, Tom.
  • Breen, Pat.
  • Butler, Ray.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Byrne, Catherine.
  • Byrne, Eric.
  • Carey, Joe.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Conaghan, Michael.
  • Conlan, Seán.
  • Connaughton, Paul J.
  • Conway, Ciara.
  • Coonan, Noel.
  • Corcoran Kennedy, Marcella.
  • Costello, Joe.
  • Coveney, Simon.
  • Creed, Michael.
  • Daly, Jim.
  • Deasy, John.
  • Deering, Pat.
  • Donohoe, Paschal.
  • Dowds, Robert.
  • Doyle, Andrew.
  • Durkan, Bernard J.
  • English, Damien.
  • Farrell, Alan.
  • Feighan, Frank.
  • Fitzpatrick, Peter.
  • Griffin, Brendan.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Harrington, Noel.
  • Harris, Simon.
  • Hayes, Brian.
  • Hayes, Tom.
  • Heydon, Martin.
  • Humphreys, Heather.
  • Humphreys, Kevin.
  • Keating, Derek.
  • Kehoe, Paul.
  • Kenny, Seán.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lawlor, Anthony.
  • Lynch, Ciarán.
  • Lyons, John.
  • Mathews, Peter.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • McGinley, Dinny.
  • McHugh, Joe.
  • McLoughlin, Tony.
  • Mitchell, Olivia.
  • Mitchell O'Connor, Mary.
  • Mulherin, Michelle.
  • Murphy, Dara.
  • Murphy, Eoghan.
  • Nash, Gerald.
  • Neville, Dan.
  • Nolan, Derek.
  • O'Donnell, Kieran.
  • O'Donovan, Patrick.
  • O'Dowd, Fergus.
  • O'Mahony, John.
  • O'Sullivan, Jan.
  • O'Sullivan, Maureen.
  • Phelan, Ann.
  • Phelan, John Paul.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • Stagg, Emmet.
  • Stanton, David.
  • Timmins, Billy.
  • Tuffy, Joanna.
  • Twomey, Liam.
  • Varadkar, Leo.
  • Wall, Jack.
  • Walsh, Brian.
  • White, Alex.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Jonathan O'Brien; Níl, Deputies Emmet Stagg and Paul Kehoe.
Question declared lost.