School Bullying and its Impact on Mental Health: Discussion

The committee is meeting virtually through Microsoft Teams and in committee room 2 in Leinster House. Apologies have been received from Senator Flynn. I remind members to please ensure that their mobile phones are switched off for the duration of the meeting because they interfere with the broadcasting equipment even when in silent mode. I remind those who are located outside the precincts of Leinster House that they will not be marked as in attendance. The minutes of the meeting of 27 April 2021 have been circulated to all members. Are they agreed to? Agreed.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome Dr. Colman Noctor, board member of Mental Health Ireland, Ms Mary Briody, psychotherapist, and Dr. Claire Hayes, consultant clinical psychologist, Ms Stella O'Malley, psychotherapist, and Dr. Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children. The witnesses are here to brief the committee on school bullying and the impact on mental health. This is a special day for the committee as we commence our examination of a topic that can have a detrimental effect for many years on the lives of many people. The committee began looking at the issue in November last, when representatives of the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at Dublin City University, DCU, came before the committee on the first UN Day against Violence and Bullying at School including Cyberbullying. The meeting had a great impact on committee members and they agreed the issue warranted further consideration.

The format of the meeting is as follows. I will invite Dr. Noctor, Ms Briody, Dr. Hayes, Ms O'Malley and Dr. Muldoon, respectively, to make individual opening statements. The statements will be followed by questions from members of the committee, each of whom will have a six-minute slot to include the witnesses' responses. I will interrupt either the witness or the member after six minutes has passed.

Before we begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses of the Oireachtas or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. As the witnesses are giving evidence remotely from a place outside the parliamentary precincts, and as such may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings that a witness physically present does, they have been advised that they may think it appropriate to take legal advice on the matter. They are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. If, therefore, their statements are potentially defamatory to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed by me to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction.

I invite Dr. Noctor to make his opening statement.

Dr. Colman Noctor

It is a pleasure to be here. I am appearing as a board member of Mental Health Ireland and a child psychotherapist. I also work as an assistant professor at University College Dublin, UCD.

In my clinical experience, approximately 80% of the children who have attended my service have had a significant experience of what they describe as bullying. This appears to be a considerable contributor to many of their mental health difficulties. I work predominantly with girls who have eating disorders. Self-worth, self-belief and self-value are cornerstones of our mental well-being. Bullying is one of the leading causes of these qualities being eroded in children and is, therefore, a significant contributor to the mental health problems of children.

There are some important distinctions to be made in regard to bullying. Some children describe as bullying what can more accurately be described as robust banter. I fear that if we dilute the term too much, it will lose its significance, and language is an important player in the management of this dynamic. The key differentiation is intent. Childhood is a mixed bag of interactions of personality. Robust children, who may be the youngest of four and are used to enjoying the rough and tumble of physical and robust verbal engagement in the world, will share a space with more reserved, sheltered children who have no desire for such antics and may be hyper-sensitive to these events. As a result, it comes down to the spirit of the engagement and the levels of knowledge and intent of which all the parties are aware.

Childhood, by its nature, involves negotiating the social landscape and, therefore, mistakes and social errors or misjudgments will occur. For example, a child may be unaware of how his or her behaviour is impacting on someone else and has to be given an opportunity to adjust that behaviour. If, however, this feedback is given and the child knowingly persists with the hurtful behaviour, and continues to harass, torment, persecute or exclude another child, that cannot be tolerated.

It is my opinion that the most important element in predicting the management and behaviour of bullying is culture. A culture can hide harm in plain sight and the cultures of schools, sports organisations and clubs are strongly influential on the behaviour of their attendees. We need to invest in meaningfully respectful cultures, and a poster at the entrance of a school is not sufficient. In the bullying triad, there are the bully, the bullied and the bystander, and we underestimate the influence of the bystander. To cultivate culture, we must work to convert the majority. Contrary to popular belief, I am not sure the answer lies in making meek children robust or teaching children to hit back or answer back. Instead, it is about selling a culture of values and respect and stamping out a culture of avoidance, dismissal or tolerance.

The stories that have the greatest impact are those that go on for years. It is not unusual for me to hear a story of a child whose parents reported bullying incidents when a child was in senior infants and the response was that the class was spoken to as a group but nothing changed and that the child in question was then continually persecuted for the remaining six years, which can often have a devastating effect on their social and emotional development. Bullying has many forms and guises, some more identifiable than others. The overt name-calling and physical hostilities are easier to name and manage but the greatest challenge is exclusion. With greater opportunity for exclusion and exclusiveness in the contemporary world, through social media and so on, this is a considerable challenge.

The response to this is very complex. How do we instruct children to include or play with other children? How do we avoid micromanaging childhood relationships? This detrimental dynamic is a huge part of the bullying problem. My clinical caseload shows that children are far more affected by exclusion than physical bullying. Perhaps a move towards meaningful value systems is required. Although we have lots of focus on inclusion and embracing of diversity, little has been done to stem this tide of exclusion and isolation. For me, this is what we need to address.

In the meantime, there must be supports for children who are experiencing bullying and exclusion. The inclusion of therapeutically informed school staff would be a good way to start. In my view, having the right culture is the greatest ally. The culture should involve a value system that reflects the seriousness of the issue. A culture will only work if it is developed by the students from the inside out as opposed to the outside in. Parents must be included and must, from the off, buy into the culture of management of bullying and exclusion. Attending school, a sporting activity or a club free from the fear of persecution, hostility or exclusion should not be seen as a luxury. It is a basic human right that we need to take seriously.

Thank you, Dr. Noctor. I now invite Ms Briody to make her opening statement and I ask that she turn on her camera.

Ms Mary Briody

I do not know what is happening but it is not turning on.

Does it make a difference if it is turned off and turned back on again?

Ms Mary Briody

I have tried that several times. It was working when the meeting began but I cannot get it working now.

Ms Briody should proceed to make her opening statement.

Ms Mary Briody

I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to speak to the committee today. Young people who have experienced bullying are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder or suffer from depression. Those who both bully and are bullied suffer the most serious effects. They are at greater risk for mental and behavioural problems than those who are victims or bullies alone. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation and behaviours are greatest in this group.

Bystanders fall into one of two groups, namely, those who act to stop bullying and those who do not. Members of the latter group may be afraid of retaliation and experience upset because they wanted to intervene but did not. They may experience increased anxiety and depression that can affect academic performance and increase their use of substances like alcohol, drugs and tobacco. However, bystanders who act to stop bullying have beneficial outcomes, including increased self-esteem.

There is no direct correlation between bullying and suicide, which is not usually due to a single source of trauma, but bullying can contribute to the intense feelings of helplessness and hopelessness involved in suicidal behaviours. Victims or perpetrators who experience continued, frequent bullying are at greater risk for suicidal behaviour. The types of bullying experienced in a school setting are verbal, social, physical and cyber. The more we learn about mental health, the more we recognise how to address mental health issues. Studies of adults presenting with mental health issues have shown that bullying can lead to depression and anxiety in young people who are bullied, which can continue into adulthood. Those who bully others are likely to engage in violent, unsafe and risky behaviour in adulthood. Even those who simply observe bullying taking place are more likely to have mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. A recent European study looked at adults who had been bullied, adults who had bullied other children and a control group of adults who had never been involved in bullying. In the control group, 12% had needed treatment for some mental disorder, compared with 20% of bullies, 23% of those who had been bullied, and 31% of those who had been on both the receiving end and the giving end of bullying.

What can we do to address these issues? The fundamental need of any student is to belong - to a family, a classroom, a school, a community and a country. Outside of family life, the relationship with peers and the relationship with teachers have the greatest influence on young people's development in all aspects of themselves, including physically, socially, sexually, behaviourally, creatively, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. In terms of the well-being of students, and their adult roles in the future, the psychological safety afforded them by their parents and teachers will allow them to express all aspects of themselves safely. If our schools can create a culture of psychological safety for staff and students, then we can eradicate bullying.

This will involve seeing discipline as a vehicle to transport change. Discipline is about creating psychological safety for the student who has experienced bullying. The focus, first, is on the person who has experienced bullying and, second, on the student who has perpetrated the bullying. Discipline means that people experience psychological safety when encountering violations because of the creation of a response whereby the teacher, supported by school policy, models and teaches taking action for self rather than against the student who created the undisciplined behaviour. Taking action for oneself is a mature response to bullying. We need to realise that all behaviour makes sense. We need to educate young people to get underneath the stand of their behaviour, whether it be aggressive, dominant or passive. This requires a whole-school approach. If a young person becomes conscious of what his or her behaviour is about and what function it has, he or she can learn, in safety, to let go of that behaviour.

The sad reality is that a young person's diary knows more about him or her being bullied than do the adults taking care of that young person. The responsibility lies with parents and educators to recognise, monitor, challenge, confront and maturely resolve bullying and passivity. Professionals such as relationship and parent mentors can offer such support to parents and the school community to effect change. I have been privileged to journey with many families and schools in helping them to see a young person and not just his or her behaviour. If I confuse the individual with the behaviour, then no change arises. I thank the committee for the opportunity to make this presentation.

Thank you, Ms Briody. The next speaker is Dr. Hayes. Unfortunately, Dr. Hayes's audio does not seem to be working. I will return to her presently. I invite Ms O'Malley to make her presentation.

Ms Stella O'Malley

I am a psychotherapist and author who works in private practice in County Offaly. My work focuses on parenting and family dynamics and working with teenagers. Much of my counselling and writing focuses on mental health. My books include Cotton Wool Kids in 2015, Bully-Proof Kids in 2017 and, my latest book, Fragile, published in 2019.

I work in private practice in the midlands. Of the three second level schools in the area, one of them appears to handle bullying very effectively, another does reasonably well and the third encounters bullying on an almost continuous basis. This is remarkable as the children are mostly from similar backgrounds. The difference is that the problem school minimises the bullying incidents, while the other two schools are willing, to a greater or lesser extent, to address the problem and take steps to deal with it. It is notable that schools that are more competitive and more focused on their student's education results than their emotional well-being tend to minimise bullying. Anti-bullying programmes show varying degrees of success and are insufficient to change a culture of bullying within a school.

The research on bullying provides the resolution to this complex and chronic problem. It is estimated that approximately 75% to 90% of children do not bully, which means that 10% to 15% of them are bullying. The problem is that the children who do not bully are prepared to act as upstanders only some 20% of the time. Dan Olweus, a Swedish expert on bullying, coined the phrase, "If it's mean, intervene." If we can convince children to intervene and become upstanders when they see bullying, we can immediately reduce its frequency, intensity and impact. The role of adults in this context is to encourage the bystanders to act as upstanders and, perhaps more idealistically, to nurture potential bullies to be fair leaders.

Bystanders are the people who see everything but do nothing. Thousands of children today are bystanders to cruel bullying. They let the bullying happen in real life or online. The bystanders are the silent majority but they hold the majority of the power. It is estimated that bystanders are present in 90% of cases of bullying and could stop the bullying, online or in real life, within ten seconds if they chose to intervene. If we can create an environment where being a bystander means one is complicit in the drama, then we will eliminate the safe position of the bystander. Challenging bystanders to become upstanders will change the culture of bullying, whereby it is perceived as an inevitable happening, to one where it is instead perceived as a preventable problem.

It is helpful for schools to view bullying as an opportunity to teach children how to behave in a more socialised manner. Children are not yet fully socialised and their brains are not yet fully formed. This brings to the mind the words of Robert Ardrey: "But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels..." Children may gravitate towards the pack instinct more quickly than adults do. It is our job, as concerned adults, to educate children such that bullying becomes less acceptable within the school culture. Bullying can be significantly reduced. However, to date, not enough people are educated about how to do this.

I thank the committee.

Thank you, Ms O'Malley. I understand Dr. Hayes is now ready to make her presentation.

Dr. Claire Hayes

I thank the Chairman and the committee for inviting me to participate in this important meeting. We know that school bullying can have a detrimental impact on mental health. I have had the privilege of working with clients ranging in age from five to 88 who have shared their stories of bullying. Some of them were victims of bullying, some were deeply ashamed of how they turned to bullying as a way of not being bullied while others were distressed by how they let others down by not recognising that they were being bullied at a time when it might have made a difference. Anti-bullying measures are essential. However, it is my view that it is likely that bullying will always be an aspect of life. My submission invites the committee to focus on how we can help people of all ages develop coping strategies, and build resilience, based on the key principles of cognitive behavioural therapy, CBT, so that treating themselves, and others, with respect and understanding becomes a more desirable option than bullying.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the Chairman for the invitation and remind the committee that I made a formal submission on this topic in February this year, to which I refer members

By way of background, it may be of interest to the committee to know that since 2018 the Office of the Ombudsman for Children has received more than 400 complaints about bullying in schools, both at primary and post-primary level. These comprise 10% of all complaints that we have received in that time. In the context of our broad remit and the endless variety of complaints that we receive, that is quite significant.

The extent to which schools can be a site of bullying and the important role that schools can play, and must be supported to play, in combating bullying involving children are important considerations for today's meeting. This issue has received considerable attention from the UN Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence Against Children, and contributed to the establishment in 2020 of the International Day against Violence and Bullying at School Including Cyberbullying, which the Chairman mentioned earlier. It is notable that the list of issues prior to reporting that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published in November 2020 in respect of Ireland, includes a request for information about measures being taken to tackle bullying with particular reference to cyberbullying and bullying in schools. Based on the complaints that we have received, some of the important issues to highlight are as follows: there is psychological and physical bullying between young people with a noted increase in instances, in complaints we have received, of serious bullying resulting in physical and-or sexual assault; 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 is a failure by some schools to report child protection and welfare issues arising from bullying instances to Tusla. In light of that, I believe that prevention and early intervention would be greatly aided by training, resourcing and support measures that can strengthen the capacity of education professionals working with children and young people in schools. It would also be helpful to co-ordinate and mainstream prevention and early intervention measures across the formal education system.

Back in 2016, our office, as part of its report to the UN committee on the rights of the child, encouraged the State to build on the monitoring framework contained in the Department of Education's document, entitled the Anti-Bullying Procedures for Primary and Post-Primary Schools, by examining schools' annual reviews of their implementation of the procedures. We hoped that the Department would go further than just checking if there was a policy in place and would start to collate specific information, and data, from around the country to determine the issues and solutions that occurred in schools. This is still not happening, unfortunately. In light of a number of consultations that we have had with children, over the past couple of years, who say that within their schools they have experienced issues such as racism, homophobia and negative commentary about their mental health, we believe that this data collection is long overdue. A review of the Department's anti-bullying procedures is also long overdue, which date from 2013, to take account of issues such as those that we have mentioned and cyberbullying. We ask for that because it may be time to start differentiating what constitutes bullying so that more refined solutions can be generated across the education system.

Before concluding, I want to speak about the mental health aspect and reiterate my call to have an independent therapist or counsellor available to every primary school in the country. This is not a unique concept. It 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 are feeling down. I believe that it would complement the well-being policy and framework for practice currently employed across the education system. It would also afford additional comfort to teachers who know they have somewhere to send their pupils who may be impacted by bullying, bereavement, separation, divorce, addiction issues or domestic violence. Having an easily accessible therapeutic service would aid the whole school community to know that they are doing their best for every child. With regard to post-primary schools, I urge that all career guidance counsellors are formally trained to provide therapy for emotional issues as well as careers.

I must mention the Youth Mental Health Pathfinder Project. The project was designed to take a whole-of-government approach to tackling mental health issues for young people. It was backed by the Departments of Education, Health and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The project has not progressed, which is an issue that I have raised many times over the past five years. The implementation of Pathfinder would, undoubtedly, have a positive impact on tackling bullying in schools and dealing with other mental health issues that affect young people.

Finally, I am part of the Wellbeing for Teachers and Learners Group that seeks to embed a culture of well-being across the whole school community. The group has members from the Irish Primary Principals Network, the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, the Teaching Council, and the National Parents Council Primary. We believe that we need to engage the whole school community, comprising parents, teachers, staff and children, to help reduce or prevent mental health issues within education. That must include supporting our teachers and other school staff to be emotionally aware and present for each other as well as students. If school staff are not safe and secure in their well-being, then children will be impacted. I thank the Chairman for his invitation and I am happy to take questions as required.

The first member to contribute is Deputy Jim O'Callaghan and he will be followed by Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire. As there are five witnesses, I ask members to direct their questions to the individual witness to ensure they get a reply. If a witness wants to direct a question to somebody else then please say so as it would speed up the meeting. I will be very strict on the allotted time of six minutes.

I thank all of the witnesses for coming in to the committee. As policymakers, we are in a much better place than we were 20 or 30 years ago since we now are much more aware of the incidence of school bullying and the impact that can have on the mental health of children.

There are four contributors in terms of people who have responsibility for this and, in the first instance, I will ask Dr. Colman Noctor a question on the role of parents. Parents will have an influence in trying to ensure that their kids do not become bullies. They also want their kids to have a protective mechanism if they are being bullied and know what to do. Then there are other factors to do with schools, children and the State. What does Dr. Noctor think that parents can do to change the culture of bullying before their kids get to school?

Dr. Colman Noctor

I thank the Deputy for his question. Parents play a huge role in this. As well as advocating for the child who is undergoing the bullying, they need to agitate until that is resolved as opposed to letting it go. The establishment of a culture where bullying is not tolerated has to involve parents because if one has a child who gets in trouble for mistreating or excluding another child, there is an emphasis that parents will dismiss that as unimportant or will not follow through. The number of children who experience bullying suggests there are many more children who bully than we know about or come in contact with. It would be good if parents agreed to buy in in the first year of primary school and the first year of secondary school, for example. I mean that if bullying occurs that the parent of the child who is the perpetrator and the parent of the child who is the victim will take an active role in following through on that. If teachers get involved, there is a "not my Johnny" approach and when that happens, it is incredibly difficult to have a consistent approach across the board. We need parental buy-in and ownership of the issues from that start.

Part and parcel of signing up to a bullying policy is that the parents of a child who is at the centre of a bullying issue should get involved in trying to be consistent in hammering home the school message of zero tolerance of that.

I have a question for Ms O'Malley. What further roles can schools play in order to deter bullying? Is increased discipline part of this or is that a factor that should be within the repertoire of the school?

Ms Stella O'Malley

Further to Dr. Noctor's point, I think the schools can go on the front foot. In September at the beginning of the school year, schools need to send a letter to all the parents stating that there will be bullying, and that it is very important that the parents acknowledge that their child might be a bully and that is okay. There is a kind of vilification of bullying and parents are so frightened that their child might be bullied that they completely deny it. The schools need to say, "We're socialising our children. One day they will grow up. In the meantime, they might behave very badly and that's okay because we'll help them to become better people." It is a process and we need honesty and moral courage in this process.

As Dr. Noctor said, the way to do that is to get buy-in at the beginning. More people need to sign up to the bullying policies and they need to be more prominent than they are. Rather than being in the background somewhere on a website, there needs to be a conscious decision that we are going to create a culture of not only upstanding but an acknowledgement that bullying will take place and we will hopefully respond sufficiently. Often the important point about the bullying programmes is their execution. It is not good enough just to write a bullying programme; it needs much more depth than that.

My final question is for Dr. Hayes. One factor that can have an impact on the mental health of children is that they may feel excluded. Of course, they can be excluded without bullying necessarily being perpetrated by another child; they might just not be invited over to the house of a friend who is having a party. What can we do to try to allow children to recognise that they have a role to play in terms of trying to ensure there is greater inclusion among people?

Dr. Claire Hayes

That is a great question. The Deputy is absolutely right. It highlights that at times it is not the bullying itself; it is the perception. Some children might be excluded because they are not liked or because it is an afterthought. If they or their parents are looking at life through the bullying lens, then much of the behaviour can be seen as them being bullied. It is important to look at that and help children stand back a little bit from it and take responsibility for it themselves, but also to be able to acknowledge how they are feeling about it. They feel hurt and upset because they think they are being bullied or they think that they are being deliberately excluded, but they have choices over how they respond to that. Throughout life, as adults, we have experiences where we might perceive we are excluded, either deliberately or unintentionally, and we learn how to respond to that. It is important that children of all ages start taking responsibility for the choices they have in responding to either deliberate bullying or behaviour that they perceive to be bullying.

I am present here in Leinster House.

I thank the witnesses for the presentations, which were very impressive. The previous session we had on this topic was powerful and quite emotive. One of the things that struck me was the fact that bullying has always existed and always has been very traumatic. Sometimes it can be minimised but for families and children who are at its centre, it can make their lives hell on earth when it is severe. Where previously children might have got respite at home, the way that social media can be used and manipulated to facilitate or increase bullying means that there is very little respite even at home, even in the child's own bedroom.

My first question is for Dr. Muldoon. Is he satisfied with how the online safety Bill is being progressed? I know some people are suggesting it should be delayed. Does he believe this needs to be legislated for and enforced urgently? Does the Bill have an important role to play? I believe it does in respect of material posted without consent and harmful material. Obviously, it is not the full solution or the only solution, but I believe it has a role to play.

Ms O'Malley identified a very interesting point about the different nature of the approach taken in schools that typically might be more competitive in terms of their results. Is there any variation in how schools might have implemented policies related to relationships and sexuality education, RSE, and social, personal and health education, SPHE, on religious and sexual issues?

As has been discussed recently, I am somewhat concerned that in instances where a child might feel othered in a school, they do not feel themselves properly represented in educational programmes there because of the way they have been prescribed by the school. Is there merit in tackling that issue and ensuring uniformity in how those issues are discussed?

My final question is for Dr. Noctor. Dr. Muldoon made a few points about access to therapists. That is also a key point in respect of guidance counsellors. Does Dr. Noctor agree with that point? Does the HSE need to provide more support in respect of body-image issues?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

The Deputy referred to the online media Bill. From our point of view, of course, it will have a role and will be very important legislation to look at the edges of criminality around this area. When talking about school bullying and starting from a young age, the answer lies in the culture of the schools. That is really where we need to make a significant difference.

I urge members of the committee, as legislators, to consider the Education (Student and Parent Charter) Bill, which was set up to be an opportunity for schools, students and their families to engage in the processes and cultures they want in their schools. It proposes the automatic generation of a charter, which is reviewed on a yearly basis, and which allows for that informal engagement with families and children when there is an issue and sets up that respect element. That is the way to generate the culture consistently throughout the country. That will be the key to it as far as I am concerned.

Certainly, the online media Bill will highlight many of the areas. I mentioned earlier that the bullying procedures date back to 2013 and are probably out of date in some areas. Certain issues were not happening as much back then. The criminalisation of our children is not the way forward; it is key to have respect and prevention of bullying.

Ms Stella O'Malley

The Deputy raised a very important point about schools and policies. It must be acknowledged that the more competitive the school is, the more likely it is to bring out an instinct of tension among the schoolchildren that they might get very good educational results but it might be at the cost of the emotional well-being. That is a sad reflection but something I have noticed.

In addition, certain schools minimise bullying and almost act as if it is not happening. I have noticed that the more effective schools I work with are all over the bully when it happens. They provide extra support for the bully and put a serious plan in place acknowledging that they have gone askew and they need to be helped. At the same time in a more subtle way they provide support for the target of the bullying and bring in the vast majority of the students in the class who have nothing to do with it but are complicit because they are nodding along. That is to do with the culture. The school needs to acknowledge that it is taking place, rather than being distracted by sports or educational achievement.

Dr. Colman Noctor

I will answer the question on the therapeutic involvement. The landscape for teachers to negotiate is considerably more complex than it was previously. The Deputy asked Dr. Muldoon about the online safety issue. The online world has much more impact on this than we imagine. It is the narrative around what friendship means and how disposable people are. It has a subtle influence on the stuff that is happening, rather than something that is very clear. Returning to the point made by Deputy O'Callaghan, if there is no rule, there needs to be a value system highlighting inclusion, diversity and being upstanding. As Ms O'Malley said, everybody needs to buy into that. If the value system is about academic or sports achievement, bullying probably lies far down in the hierarchy.

We need to understand that it is much more complex.

On the involvement of expertise, we have subcontracted many issues to teachers, such as sex education, therapy and so on. Teachers are correctly saying they are not therapists and they do not know how to manage this. It is a litigious, contentious environment when a child is accused of bullying. The teacher has to decide whom to tell and wonder whether the parents' solicitor will come down on him or her. There are many aspects to think about. The expertise in the room, whether therapeutic or supportive of the school, is essential. I fully concur with Dr. Muldoon's point. It has been internationally proven that we need that influence in schools, and that is something we have been remiss about.

I welcome our guests to the committee. It is great to see Dr. Noctor and Dr. Hayes, both clinical psychologists, as well as Ms O'Malley, Ms Briody and the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Muldoon. When we held a meeting on this subject on 5 November, it was the UN Day against Violence and Bullying at School including Cyberbullying. We heard from the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at Dublin City University, DCU, on all the systems and programmes it was examining. It highlighted the FUSE programme in particular. Our guests might comment on how that should be rolled out. It was intended to train teachers but, as far as I am aware, it has been in place only since September of last year.

As Dr. Noctor stated, a high level of mental impacts result from bullying and 80% of the children who have presented to him have experienced bullying. Dr. Briody stated that there are significant impacts for perpetrators as well as for victims. It was surprising to me that bullying impacts on everybody, from the perpetrators to the victims and bystanders as well. It is important for bystanders to step up and have a say in preventing this type of behaviour.

I liked Dr. Noctor's point that it is important that being safe from bullying is treated as a basic human right and we need to take seriously that we should be able to attend a school or club free from any sort of hostility or exclusion. I feel strongly about the measures that were mentioned regarding training therapists, guidance counsellors and staff to be emotionally aware. It is about a positive school environment. We need to have anti-bullying policies and it should not just be a box-ticking exercise.

On the school environment and training for staff and students, I am curious about mediation training. Does Dr. Noctor have an opinion on the FUSE programme being rolled out by DCU? What impact should it have for parents' associations or school boards?

Turning to Dr. O'Malley, how do we encourage the take-up of programmes such as FUSE, particularly in rural areas with smaller schools and larger secondary schools?

Dr. Muldoon mentioned that data should be collected from schools to allow us to make decisions. Does he mean the use of surveys?

Dr. Colman Noctor

Without speaking to the FUSE programme specifically, there are two issues. We have to make schools accountable. As Dr. Muldoon said, there has to be accountability for how we respond to bullying. It is not good enough just to dismiss it or not to be good at it. Nevertheless, we can overburden schools by asking them to get into mediation and so on. If we are going to have accountability, resources have to be in place that will support the school to do it. It is a two-pronged approached. While we can inform teachers on how to better manage the issue, there has to be somebody to whom they can hand it over. Teachers are educators primarily and there are experts in this field, many of whom are attending this meeting, who would be able to help with that. We cannot just say "we tried that, we spoke to the class and I have done my bit" and tick it off; there has to be accountability of result and outcome, rather than just a tokenistic effort.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

The Senator asked about the data. Since 2013, the Department should have been able to gather what incidence of bullying there has been. We need to start drilling down into that and investigating whether it has related to racism or homophobia, for example. At the moment, bullying can be a catch-all for many different issues that need to be dealt with within schools. We have lost seven or eight years of that sort of data-gathering because the Department did not do it, so we need to get into that immediately in order that we can have proper, disaggregated data and help the individual schools. There are successes to be learned from that as well.

Ms Stella O'Malley

I am not a doctor but I emphasise that the FUSE programme could be the best programme of its kind in the world, but if it is not executed properly, it will be worthless. Asking teachers, who might be very good at providing a lovely atmosphere in the class but cannot provide an anti-bullying programme, is not fair on either the students or the teachers. If we are to be proactive on this, we need to bring in people who can produce good anti-bullying programmes. That could be very much through Dr. Muldoon's proposal of having counsellors in every school and ensuring they are well equipped to roll out a good anti-bullying programme.

I thank our guests. I should mention two websites, tacklebullying.ie and webwise.ie. I might return to the issue if I have time later in the meeting.

I welcome the guests. I am happy for any of them to take the questions. My first point concerns the general issue of bullying in society, which children are aware of. I suspect that bullying is very different now from how it was 20 or 30 years ago because, from my observations, it has become mainstream and features in media, game shows, reality TV shows and politics as well. I sometimes think we have to bully-proof our political campaigning because children see what is happening in wider society and impersonate what they see on screen and what is deemed to be acceptable.

Furthermore, bullying nowadays does not just happen in school. It can follow people home because as long as they have a smartphone and other people have access to the phone number, they can be bullied at all hours of the day and night. There was a time when people could escape from it, at least until Monday, when they went home to the bosom of their family. Now it can happen all weekend long, through the night and the early hours of the morning. Schools will say they have an anti-bullying policy, but at what point does the school's responsibility finish? Obviously, bullying occurs not just within the student body; it can happen within the staff body as well, and children see this and are aware of it. Perhaps Dr. Muldoon or another of our guests will comment on that dynamic of not being able to escape bullying and of the wider societal responsibilities that politics or the media has.

My third question relates to the understanding of bullying. In my experience, parents will sometimes suggest that their child is being bullied because of a once-off incident. Much time can then be spent on trying to explain to the parent the nature of bullying, which is not a once-off incident. Bullying is the persistent intimidation or reduction of one person by another over a prolonged period. The very definition of bullying can sometimes be misunderstood, and it is difficult to tackle something such as bullying if there is such a misunderstanding of its nature.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I agree completely in regard to the culture in adult society and the fact that the way in which we are showing the way forward is not the way we want it to be. There have been a number of high-profile cases of adults being bullied through the media.

We can think of people such as Caroline Flack. There are situations in which children are very much aware of influencers and the way they can lead to high-profile dangerous situations. We need to take hold of that.

The Deputy is correct in that politics is one of the most dangerous situations because there is an automatic assumption that we are allowed to give out about politics and politicians on a personal basis. We need to change that culture as well. We are not leading from the front well as adults with the way society has developed.

I will bring it down to the school situation. We need to start looking at understanding what bullying is taking place throughout the country. It is a matter of gathering data. If we have 4,000 schools and the Department is only asking how many schools have policies in place, then it is only a box-ticking exercise. Within those schools we need to know how many times there has been a bullying complaint, what the school has done with it, what the issues were and how they were dealt with. Only then can we really start to understand where the issues are coming from. We have had consultations with children where they have highlighted racism as an issue as well as other issues. We need to drill down and know about all of this. That creates a culture of understanding. As Ms O'Malley said, it is about dealing with it on an ongoing basis. This takes into account the issue raised about one-off bullying. Families and children will understand that there is more to it than that.

Dr. Noctor indicated a wish to comment.

Dr. Colman Noctor

The issue of jurisdiction is interesting because the school facilitates the introduction but the control the school has over 24 hours is challenging. Results from online schooling showed an increase in online bullying to 28%. The extent of control a teacher has over that is difficult to manage.

The point about clarity over what bullying is and is not will give a focus to what we are trying to address. This is relevant to the issue of one-off events, robust banter and things like that. We need to clarify with parents, teachers and children what bullying is and is not. That is the starting point in tackling this.

Ms O'Malley wants to come in and she will be followed by Ms Briody.

Ms Stella O'Malley

It is unwieldy when online bullying occurs at 11 p.m., 12 midnight or 1 a.m. The school may be asked to control the situation when it is outside the jurisdiction of the school. I do not believe we have come up with a good resolution to that particular issue. We need to get buy-in from the parents regarding technology and good tech behaviour. Perhaps transition year could run delete days with the first year and second year students. There are solutions whereby older school children could teach younger school children good online tech behaviour. Children have not really learned how to behave themselves online and they need to be taught. They are young and we need to give them space. If very young children are online at 1 a.m., then they are all over the place. Some compassion has to be brought in to this as well as discipline and control.

Ms Mary Briody

I agree with all the other contributors. I would also like to bring attention to the fact that this starts at a young age. I wish to go back to what Dr. Noctor said with regard to one-off bullying. There is a big solution to this if we have better communication between parents and the schools. Parents need to see it as okay to talk to the school principal. The school principal has to hear what the parents are saying and agree to keep an eye on the situation and agree that the school policy will take note of all of that.

I would start at junior infants. How do we educate junior infants, senior infants and younger children? There is a great role here for play psychotherapy. Play is a great method to communicate with the younger cohort. I believe it would make a great difference at primary school level in a fun but effective way to get the message across around bullying. That could then be followed into secondary school with the presence of really good psychotherapy measures or counselling. It is not fair to ask teachers to take on more than they are already doing. We need specialised people in place. One of the major things I hear from secondary school students is that they often do not trust going out to counselling in school settings because they are afraid people will see them or get to know why they are going out. That all has to be looked at. If a change can be made there, it could be far more effective.

We will go to Senator O'Loughlin and then come back to Senator O'Reilly.

I wish to clarify that I am in Leinster House. I thank all the contributors for their comments on this difficult area. It is important to all of us. Everything that I have heard this morning has been thought-provoking and stark in respect of what we are dealing with. Last November, we had the opportunity to touch on this and looked at some of the statistics. I have several questions.

I am generally in agreement that the parent-student charter needs to be implemented. Building trust between the whole school community is important in terms of what we are talking about. Schools cannot say it is up to parents and parents cannot say it is up to teachers. Children have to accept that it is not okay for them to say they were afraid to tell. It is really up to everyone involved to try to tackle bullying. The idea and concept of having an independent therapist and counsellor available to every school is really important and should be done.

Ms Briody talked about a recent European study. That was helpful in terms of having research in the area. She also talked about the practice of a relationship monitoring model. Can she tell us a little more about that?

Ms Mary Briody

Experience has taught me that there needs to be a whole school approach. We need to look at the principal and teachers being involved. We need all the young people buying into this as well. Parents in particular should be involved. The board of management has to take an active role in how it is rolled out.

I was thinking about my experience having been in schools, having worked with young people in primary and secondary schools and having experience of working with parents in an evening workshop with the children. What works is bringing it all together. I was thinking about professionals who could actually bring it together. I am thinking about play psychotherapists at primary level and psychotherapists or counsellors at secondary level. I am thinking about how we bring the whole idea together around the parents. What I have in mind is relationship mentoring and parent mentoring in particular. In this scenario we have people who will not judge parents but work with them and help them to understand and make sense of the behaviour of their children. When it is brought to the door of parents that their children are actually bullying they feel judged or can feel shame. When all these big emotions get involved it is difficult for it to be worked out. We need to get underneath and understand what the bullying behaviour is about, whether in respect of the dominant person who is bullying or the more passive person. To me both need help with self-esteem. We need a professional in place to do this. We need a whole school approach and we need to bring people in to do that.

That links in with the parent-student charter issue.

Ms Mary Briody

It does absolutely.

I am particularly interested in the role of the bystander. We know from the submissions that approximately 90% of these incidents have bystanders. Empowering the bystander to make an intervention is really important.

It is to teach young people that strong people stand up for themselves, but the strongest people stand up for others and that, to a certain extent, if one is neutral in situations of injustice one is choosing the role of the perpetrator and giving the bully permission to continue being a bully. On that note, can Dr. Noctor make any suggestions on how we can empower the bystander and make it safe for him or her to stand up and intervene? Ultimately, that would be helpful to both the victim of bullying and the perpetrator.

Dr. Colman Noctor

If this has an easy solution, we would have found it by now. When we should have started doing this is approximately six years ago is probably the answer. The issue of the bystander is about value systems. We need to focus less on rules and more on values in schools. The parents have an important role in this. Bullying is not an issue that only affects disadvantage; it happens in all social spheres. Even with the parents who are dismissive of their child's role as perpetrator, it is often not due to a lack of education, awareness or shame. It could be just dismissive of a sense of accountability and responsibility to try to do something about it. The value system has to spread across the parents. I believe they are crucial. We all might agree with the bystander role but, as a parent, would I encourage my eight-year-old to get involved in a row between two others? I am not entirely sure I would do that to the degree that I would like to think I would, if that makes sense.

Some of the anti-bullying information comes through a website or is circulated as a big glossy document. It is something that is developed by a board of management or some entity outside. It must be developed from the inside out. The only bullying policies I have ever seen as effective have been developed by students, so get them involved and ask them what they would do. One school, whose name I cannot recall, had an intimidation squad. It comprised three children. If a child was getting grief, he or she would go to them. They were fifth and sixth years who would listen to the student and talk him or her through it. That is students finding their own solutions as opposed to having a formalised channel. It is parent buy-in, school buy-in and cultural buy-in. The bystander issue is not easy. It is a hard thing to ask people to do. The playground politic is very difficult: "Do I become a target as soon as I raise my head in this and will the bully turn on me?". It has to be a collective effort. To be a single upstander in a group of bystanders is challenging. We must be able to support children meaningfully to do that. As to how one does it, I do not have the answer. However, just because one does not have the answer does not mean we should not ask the right questions or rummage around to find it, if that makes sense.

Absolutely, I agree in that regard. However, it is still worth talking about it.

Dr. Colman Noctor

For sure.

The area of restorative justice is very important in regard to what Dr. Noctor is saying. Obviously, there is great concern about cyberbullying. That must be dealt with in a specialised way. Are my six minutes over?

They are, Senator. I will allow you to contribute again on cyberbullying because I am interested in that issue. I call Senator Pauline O'Reilly, who will be followed by Deputy Alan Farrell.

I thank the witnesses. A couple of things struck me. Sometimes when we discuss bullying we are talking about it after the horse has bolted. Could I hear the witnesses' thoughts on being more creative about the value system mentioned by Dr. Noctor and empathy education? Some other countries are considering implementing education that does not involve having everyone of the same age in the same space at the same time. That creates a type of competitiveness that can drive this because everybody is at probably the same level of maturity trying to deal with something. There are a couple of adults there who they probably do not react to in the same way as they would to a slightly older child. Is there something we can do in our schools? I come from a non-traditional background in terms of home schooling, but it is worth looking at the school system and considering if we took down all the walls from it and decided not to try to bolt on something about bullying but to look at it from a different perspective. What are the witnesses' perspectives on that? What we can do at the start rather than afterwards?

The numbers in home education have also increased. Based on my experience in the past, half of those who dropped out of school wanted to do so but the other half were those who had extreme bullying and traumatic experiences. That is the half we can deal with. We have seen that increase and now there is an opportunity to see how the school system can be better placed to support children who want to stay there.

Those are a couple of points on which I wish to hear the witnesses' thoughts. The point about a democratic approach to dealing with bullying mentioned by Dr. Noctor is very interesting, as well as how to empower students in a way whereby they do not feel overwhelmed by the responsibility of having to deal with something.

On the issue of cyberbullying, all of us, as adults, have probably witnessed it as bystanders and not known how to deal with it. An education for our children will probably make us healthier and stronger adults as well when we come out of that school system.

Dr. Colman Noctor

What we are doing does not work so we require anything that is creative and offers us a possible solution, be it something innovative involving a mentorship system of the older child.

It is interesting that the Senator mentioned home schooling. Some children have thrived in lockdown because they have been spared that level of persecution, and the thought of returning to that has been very difficult.

One of the interesting things that this conversation is mirroring is that nobody has mentioned the tech companies, which have a responsibility in this. When we get to the cyber topic there must a buy-in from them as well. This is a platform of introduction which they need to supervise. I work with young people in groups all the time, and I have worked in inpatient units. The more one listens, the less they shout. It is about involvement, buy-in and getting them to organically create the bystander upstanding policy from inside out, rather than trying to impose it from outside in. From the point of view of the first years coming into the school and the parents, every pupil is sat down and told this is the policy and the pupil signs up to it, so when something comes up one can say that the pupil committed to this approach and to this ethos of exploration, openness and whatever it might be. Again, it has some teeth, as opposed to being a glossy laminated sheet on the wall of little value, if that makes sense.

I thank Dr. Noctor. If the other witnesses have any thoughts, I would be interested to hear them.

Ms Mary Briody

One of the things I found very effective and creative occurred in a particular school with which I worked. I and a colleague of mine were brought into the school and we worked with the first years. We sat them down on the floor and got their thoughts on how they would treat each other, what would happen, the challenges they were facing and so forth. It was very successful. We also did the tree where they left a message anonymously for their parents, and we had a chat with the parents that evening. It was, as Dr. Noctor said, that they all bought into being active rather than just paying lip service to something. The school found that very effective. It would roll it out again for the second years, so they got two years of it, and then introduced it to the first years. In this school before lockdown we were up as far as transition year. It is being rolled out from the first year in the school. I found that and the feedback from the school and the parents to be one of the most effective actions on bullying and how they treated one another in all aspects of themselves. It has proved to be very successful.

That is great. I wonder if there are ways we can roll these things out. Is my time up, Chairman?

Dr. Hayes wishes to speak for a second.

Dr. Claire Hayes

Following on from Dr. Noctor's point about a creative approach, it is important that we shift the conversation from being one of the bully and the bystander. Bullying is a behaviour and any person can experience or exhibit it. To label someone as a bully can be detrimental. To effect change, we need to go back to basics, question our language as adults and work with the whole of society, including the teacher training colleges and the National Parents Council. Just as we put our seat belts on when we get into a car and do not throw plastic bags around, what I am referring to is a basic cultural shift. I would advocate for that.

I thank the witnesses. I acknowledge that, unfortunately, bullying is not the preserve of our school system. It is rife across all of society, including politics, as Deputy Ó Ríordáin noted. I welcome Dr. Muldoon's comments in response to that point. I concur with him.

I was taken by the remarks of Dr. Noctor when he stated that a poster at the door was not good enough. I agree with him. He mentioned the notion of a value system, which was an interesting way of phrasing it, from the point of view of getting to the bottom of this issue and coming up with ideas. As he rightly stated, we do not have all the answers, but asking the right questions is probably a good place to start.

I would welcome responses from our guests to any of my comments. In the context of trying to change the culture, I suspect that bullying has been around since time immemorial. That said, it is possible for us to consider primary schools in particular as the place to start that cultural shift early and create a value system. In line with what other committee members have said about policy formulation, is it good enough that we are allowing schools to create policies themselves and then merely checking to ensure they have policies rather than what is in them? Are there international examples of best practice in the centralisation of such policy formulation or, rather, in setting out that a policy's base should have X, Y and Z and that schools can add to it if they want? That may be a better way of dealing with this matter, particularly if there are schools experiencing issues.

I was taken by Dr. Muldoon's comment that the Ombudsman for Children's office had received 400 complaints. I must assume that those are serious complaints rather than relatively minor ones if parents went all the way to the Ombudsman for Children over bullying incidents. As part of this and future hearings, perhaps that issue should be examined more broadly. There is much for us as committee members to learn from Dr. Muldoon's statement.

I appreciate that many members have already asked questions and had them answered. The availability of therapeutic services and counsellors to school groups or communities is paramount, as may be the upskilling of teachers or guidance counsellors in order to identify and assist children in dealing with this problem within schools. The issue goes beyond school environments, of course. It goes to sporting clubs and other organisations that work with children. The State being able to provide aid for identifying bullying within a group, be it in a classroom, on a football team or wherever, and assisting and intervening is of paramount importance. How to encourage intervention among pupils is worthy of consideration in terms of empowerment for children. Speaking as the former Chairman of the old Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, empowering children is not just about giving them an opportunity to speak on something. It is also about giving them an opportunity to tell us what they want. The examples that were cited were excellent and eye-opening.

If anyone among our guests wishes to respond to my points, I would be delighted.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

The Deputy referred to the 400 complaints. As he rightly alluded, we are the last port of call. Before coming to us with a complaint, a person has already gone through the teacher, the principal and the board of management. People take their complaints seriously if they are coming to us. Obviously, not all of the 400 complaints are of the same level of seriousness, but we are finding more complicated and difficult issues arising under the title of "bullying". We need to examine them from a systemic point of view, including the Department of Education's responses as well as the supports it gives schools. As we discussed the previous time I was before the committee, there is a sense of the Department being hands off and that the response should be from the individual school. That makes achieving consistency, including in communication styles, across the 4,000 schools difficult. When does a school engage with child protection services or the Garda when the bullying becomes more serious and complicated? That last point concerns me. We are hearing about incidents that might have been called "touching" years ago but are now known to be sexual assaults. We are recognising different issues and naming them appropriately, but they can be hidden under the term "bullying". People have got away with things because of that. We need to start considering this in the longer term. We had not examined our figures before this committee meeting was arranged. What we found was surprising, so we were delighted to do that. We need to support the boards of management and teachers in finding a proper system so that they have a way of naming what is happening and gathering those data into the future.

Dr. Colman Noctor

We can be a bit fatalistic. This is a big problem and has been around since time immemorial, and now we have technology as well. However, we in Ireland are proving to be good at cultural change. As Dr. Hayes mentioned, we do not use plastic bags any more, we have outdoor smoking areas and we wear masks. Self-policing is a good approach if we look at what has worked in the past and made us buy into things. Borrowing from that and putting it into the school culture is the way forward. It will be difficult, but not impossible.

I thank the witnesses for that. Empowering-----

I am sorry, Deputy, but Ms O'Malley wishes to speak. I will revert to the Deputy afterwards.

Ms Stella O'Malley

We can be quite fatalistic in this. It is important that it become known that even a child standing beside another child or talking to him or her about a different subject will dilute the chances of bullying. Based on the children I work with, children are not aware that there is more than one way to intervene than just standing up to the bully. It can be a case of interacting in a kind way with the target when he or she is not being bullied. It can be gentle. There are many stages.

Dr. Muldoon mentioned sexual assault. Many sexual assaults are happening. It is very common. Often, it is young girls who are being assaulted, but they do not know they are being assaulted. They think the boys are being mean and so on. It has to be called out and acknowledged on a clearer basis than is currently the case.

We have primarily been focusing on secondary schools, although I could stand corrected on that. I hope that starting in primary school would not just involve continuous professional development for our teachers to provide them with the necessary skills or allow them to build on what they already had through their own experiences, but also empower children so that, when they reached their teenage years when there may be a greater prevalence of bullying in our school system, they would be better able to cope with it.

It would certainly be helpful in the process. I appreciate the responses and the contributions of our witnesses.

I thank all the witnesses for their contributions. Much has been said at this stage. In 2012, I was involved in developing a whole-community and whole-school approach to bullying with the Trinity anti-bullying centre, with Stephen Minton and Leanne Bart. It was part of a community development project that obviously involved the whole community. I cannot see any other way that we can tackle bullying meaningfully except through a whole-community approach. Within that, there was the Garda, the GAA, the soccer clubs, clinicians, teachers, students and everybody else involved in the approach. It worked and it is one of the evidence-based models that was produced.

Now we have a huge amount of information internationally and nationally. We have the evidence-based models. It is time to look at how we bring all this forward. I commend the schools which implement good anti-bullying policies. There are good practices out there and I know of them even in my own area. We need to encourage the schools which are not participating. I was always concerned when teachers said bullying did not happen in their schools. Straight away, that should alert us. I would not send my child to a school where the board of management or the teachers said bullying did not happen there. We know that where there are human beings, there is the potential to be bullied and for bullying behaviour. It is about how we deal with it. We have models of good practice there to deal with it.

We have not spoken about the whole cost of bullying. We are being foolish in terms of not investing in the way that we need to tackle school bullying in a meaningful way. Have we estimated how much it has cost us? In Australia, it is estimated to cost €2.3 billion. From an economic and social point of view, it makes sense for us to get a grip of this. That is why I am glad the committee is putting aside some sessions to deal with this.

When 400 cases arrive on Dr. Muldoon's desk, after all these years, we have to ask why. We must assume there is a gravity to those cases and that all other procedures have been gone through in trying to deal with them. That is a failure of the system. That is 400 failures about which we know. We also know that the majority of children suffer in silence and damage is being done. What measurements are in place to see if the anti-bullying procedures divvied out to schools are actually working? I hate to use the word "sanctions". However, what sanctions are in place if an anti-bullying policy is not implemented in a school? I use the word "sanctions" in the wider sense of the word. What extra resources have been specifically ring-fenced to deal with bullying in schools over the past ten years?

In part of the project we did, Drumcondra accepted and approved the teacher training that had to be done. Is there a recognised training programme for teachers that is sufficient to meet their needs in order for them to be able to tackle bullying in the way they need to? I like the idea of having a counsellor in place for national schools, both in terms of supporting teachers as well as children. It is also good in terms of the wider acceptance of seeking help when one needs it. That would have many broader benefits, above and beyond helping the children that would need to see the counsellor.

The Deputy has nearly taken up her six minutes with questions. I will give the witnesses one and a half minutes. There is a full attendance at the meeting today and I want to make sure we get everybody in. I will allow people back in to answer the Deputy's question.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

This is part of the case about data collection. There is no result if a school fails in regard to policy. The Department only looks to see if a school has a policy. I would like to see how many times it has been used in the year, what it has been used for and its success rate. Again, that would allow us to find out who has been successful and who has communicated well around this.

Much of the time it is about finding a perpetrator and dealing with the perpetrator in a disciplinary area. The committee has heard from all the therapists that this is not the way forward. Even when we consulted with children, they were clear that it has to be a relationship between the two people, the bullies and the victim. That has to be dealt with and often schools just do not do that. That is a cultural point with which we need to deal.

Does Deputy Conway-Walsh want to direct her questions to another witness and I can give them 30 seconds?

Maybe in the context of answering other questions, they might just refer to some of the issues that I have raised in terms of resources within schools and what is needed, as well as how we are going to measure this and ensure more schools are aware of models of good practice.

Okay. I call Senator Mullen.

I welcome and thank all the speakers.

Can the Senator turn off and turn on his camera as it is not showing up in the committee room?

I want to raise some issues and I am happy enough for people to decide among themselves how to answer them as much ground has been covered.

On what the evidence shows, is it easier to build resilience in a child to help them push back against bullying in appropriate ways or to develop a culture of upstanding, which is a good word? If one were sitting around a bar, one would often hear phrases like "most people are sheep". It is not entirely true but it is not entirely untrue either. It strikes me that it is difficult to build a culture where people will stand up against and call out bullying behaviour. I know the witnesses have been trying to achieve progress on all fronts. Does the evidence show it is easier to build resilience in children? Should we be talking about that more than we have been doing?

What can be done to help parents before all this becomes a problem? I get the impression that in our society we are slow to talk about good parenting and bad parenting. It strikes me that if a child has access to tech in his or her bedroom at 1 o'clock in the morning, then the parents have already failed to some extent and something needs to change. I hope that does not sound too right wing. Is there any way we can educate parents when they are making decisions about how soon their children should have access to tech? Is it a crime against the elasticity of a child's young mind to deprive them of technology at a certain early stage of their life?

Is it possible to say it is too soon for some children to have smartphones? It is not the only way bullying can occur but it compounds the range of potentially problematic situations.

There are many more issues I could raise but I will happily cede ground to the speakers. They are the experts and I would like to hear whether what I have intuited is wrong or whether the evidence bears it out to any extent.

Dr. Claire Hayes

When I was a student, research was carried out which showed that if one was going to have an accident or a heart attack, it was better to do it with one or two people around. If one has a heart attack in a crowded street, people will feel reluctant to assist because of their sense of inadequacy or the thought that others will do it better. There is something to be said about the notion that we are less likely to stand up if there is a crowd but, like anything, that can be changed.

On parents, my experience is that they do their best 99.9% of the time with the resources and information they have. It is important to support parents to know what is and is not appropriate. While parents may not have their children eating sweets at 1 a.m. in their bedroom, they may be less aware of what is going on with technology. It is a huge thing that has taken hold in our society and it can be extremely detrimental. However, it is out there and children have phones. It is about teaching them and teaching parents to teach them to use them responsibly. It is about supporting parents. It it is not about whipping or blaming. It is about understanding. If we come back to what bullying is, it is bullying behaviour treating other people with disrespect. People might do that from a sense of fear from themselves. From my experience of parents who shine the bullying lens on other children or other parents, often it is because of their own experience. They are determined their children will not experience the lives and the difficulties they had. It is about support.

Ms Stella O'Malley

I hear the Senator in the context of resilience versus upstanding. I would argue it is more productive and more likely to build a cultural of upstanding, where people start to learn. They are starting to learn online and things like that. If one is silent, one is complicit. If one is not doing something kind in certain cases, one is complicit. Asking someone to be resilient in the face of bullying, when any of us who have been at school know how extraordinarily poisonous and insidious it is, is too much. I am as in favour of resilience as one can be but in this context I do not think it is appropriate. It is more appropriate to fold in the culture and start talking about, "What have you done to be kind today? Have you looked out for people? Have you smiled at the person who is on their own? Have you shared whatever you can?" That is really important.

I thank the witnesses for their responses. I was struck by the closeness of the figures on the long-term effects of bullying. Some 20% of bullies need some kind of assistance; of those who had been bullied, 23% need assistance. How great is the overlap? Have people any handle on what percentage of those who have bullied people have experienced bullying themselves?

The Senator's time has concluded. I will ask people to come in again at the end. I want to get the other members in.

I confirm that I am on the grounds of Leinster House. I am late on in the debate so a lot of the ground has been covered already. I draw attention to what Ms O'Malley said about compassion. That is central to all of this. Dr. Hayes referred to labelling. We have to at all times be conscious of our language. When we talk about this, we should talk about bullying behaviour. We should talk about the behaviour rather than the child.

In a lot of this, self-esteem is the silver bullet. I knew very few children in my teaching life who had good self-esteem and engaged in bullying behaviour. We have to look at causes and at mitigating the effects of bullying. When we talk about culture, upstanders and bystanders, we are talking about mitigating the effects of bullying. If we are going to the root cause, we should be looking at the child who engages in bullying behaviour.

I am struck by Dr. Noctor's phrase in his opening that culture is the greatest ally. It made me think of the famous Peter Drucker quote that culture eats strategy for breakfast. As Dr. Noctor stated, one can have all the signs in the world on the school gate but if the culture is not right in the school, strategy counts for nothing.

I draw attention to the atomisation in schools, particularly primary schools. The child's reality is set within the four walls of the primary school class. It is difficult to share culture even between classrooms and between teachers. In Dr. Muldoon's opening piece, he talked about information-sharing between schools and I do not think that happens enough. We certainly do not have a formalised enough process to allow that to happen whereby we could share the experience of what went well and what went less well. I think of Ms O'Malley's example of the three schools that are geographically close but that have such different school cultures. How do we share that experience? How does one school learn from another how to culture-set in the right way?

My question is directed to Dr. Muldoon because three minutes was very short for his opening statement. He mentioned two things in particular. The first was the Department's anti-bullying procedures which date from 2013 and which he believes should be updated. I agree with him. Second, the Youth Mental Health Pathfinder Project commenced five years ago but has not been implemented. I want to give him the opportunity to expand on those a little bit and tell us how important they are for the work of this committee.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the Deputy. The anti-bullying procedures came into place and they were the first ones ever in place for the Department of Education. Coincidentally, our office carried out a big consultation with children just prior to that. We chatted to over 300 children on what they thought about bullying and what they wanted. They were always clear that they wanted the relationship between the bully and the victim to be worked on. They did not call it restorative justice but that is the concept the children had, as well as and compassion for the other person, because they know they have to meet that child in the street again and unless the child is fixed and worked on, there is no point doing it. A lot of that stuff fed into the policy procedures the Department made up. It is past time to revisit it. There are many things changing in our lives. Smart technology alone has changed everything completely and schools and the way they educate has changed. That is hugely important.

The vast information mine and the data that is out there from every school around bullying could be phenomenally useful for us as we look for evidence-based progress. There are fabulous schools out there doing a brilliant job on bullying, changing the culture, increasing self-esteem and encouraging diversity. Encouraging diversity and children's rights in a school eliminates many opportunities and reasons for bullying. We could gain a lot of information from individual schools.

On the Youth Mental Health Pathfinder Project, it essentially means officers from the Departments of Education, Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and Health would work in the same office to streamline the process of sending a child for mental health support. If a teacher says he or she needs a child to be referred, it goes through the GP, the teacher is kept in the loop and the education system pays for some degree of mental health support. That reduces the input from the Department of Health. All of those things become streamlined and much easier. It has been budgeted for four or five years in a row but has never happened because they cannot determine who will take the final budget Vote and which Department has the final responsibility. That is a cop-out that is causing a lot of harm and hurt for our children.

If the three Departments are going to work together there needs to be a joint budget and some way to streamline the process. That is the essence of changing the way we think about this and putting the child at the centre of our system. It is being promoted as a way to show the reactiveness and positive change taking place in the Civil Service and we need that to happen as soon as possible.

Dr. Hayes will hate me, but I have a question that will require about half an hour to answer. I want to ask what CBT looks like in this context because it is one of the things referred to in the opening statement.

Dr. Claire Hayes

In a nutshell, it involves everybody acknowledging hurt, pain and upset. People feel upset because they think someone has hurt or bullied them, but a person is choosing to take responsibility, tell someone, look after or learn from the experience. It is about acknowledging feelings and linking them with thoughts. That is the cognition piece. It involves questioning the underlying core belief. Going back to labels, somebody may not be a bully but perhaps his or her behaviour is not appropriate. It is about deliberately focusing on helpful action.

I thank Dr. Hayes.

I thank the Chairman for facilitating a late change of time with Senator O'Loughlin. I was a teacher for 15 years. Many committee members were teachers or were engaged in education in one form or another over the years. We have all sat on boards of management and played a role on that side of things in terms of education.

I might know the answer to my question, but I will ask it anyway. How effective are the anti-bullying procedures or arrangements currently in place in schools?

My second question follows on from that. I think I know the answer having listened to the earlier responses. Has a database been compiled on the number of bullying incidents or allegations of bullying in various education settings over the years ? Are there data on whether the allegations were successfully resolved or remain unresolved or outstanding or how have they been dealt with?

I ask this because in Northern Ireland a new anti-bullying law will be introduced in September whereby schools will account for those types of incidents and the motivation behind them. It would be interesting if we had a similar arrangement here or if it was something we could introduce.

My next question concerns bullying in schools. Many instances of bullying might happen off campus or outside a school setting. That created difficulties for principals and boards of management in the past because they would have said it was somebody else's issue. All of these bullying incidents inevitably find their way into school settings one way or another, through modern technology, people being friendly with other groups and so on. What is the experience of the witnesses in how boards of management deal with bullying that is happening off campus? Could they play a greater role in dealing with those types of issues?

I refer to data on the number of potential suicides caused by bullying in our schools. Are statistics on suicide being compiled, and how many suicides could be partially attributed to bullying of one form or another?

Dr. Claire Hayes

I apologise. I did not realise my hand was up. I will pass those questions over to Dr. Muldoon.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the Deputy. From my point of view, the clear indication that there has not been data collection is that the UN committee, as of November 2020, has asked for the State to give it disaggregated data on the cases of bullying and harassment in schools and, in a wider sense, the evidence and disaggregated data relating to child victims of violence, sexual exploitation and bullying in general outside of the school setting. We are trying to get that data. The UN is not happy with the type of data that have been gathered so far.

As regards the database on the number of instances of bullying, some of the other witnesses may be able to address that point. The Deputy is correct that off-site bullying is an issue. Ten years ago, before I worked in the Ombudsman for Children's Office, I worked as a psychologist. I remember many principals said there was a separation and they could not deal with such bullying. I must acknowledge that most principals are now willing to take that on board because it is part of what children experience. It is part of their lifestyle and it happens all the time. The best place to deal with that is within a school setting.

There is a system in place that tends to look for accountability as opposed to moving towards the personal and compassionate and asking why something is happening and how it can be prevented. Again, we need to keep pushing for a culture change that allows for the sharing of diversity and the promotion of respect for the self and each other. That would carry through regardless of whether the setting is online, offline, inside or outside of school, in sports clubs or any other setting.

Deputy Conway-Walsh referred to the whole-of-community effect, which will be crucial so that everybody has the same set of values and culture. That would be a step forward and would help principals enormously because they would not have to deal with all of these things on their own.

I will allow Dr. Hayes and Dr. Noctor to contribute, followed by Ms Briody.

Dr. Claire Hayes

I have nothing to say on this.

Dr. Colman Noctor

From the point of view of statistics, something being addressed and dealt with is really interesting in a bullying context. I often hear comments to the effect that something was dealt with in senior infants, but it was never resolved. We can lean on those examples. I would like to see more outcome-focused results about how something was resolved rather than whether it was addressed. There is a question of whether something is a tick-box exercise.

People ask me all the time whether a school is good or bad. There could be a wonderful school with a third year group that is particularly toxic. That involves cultures within cultures. How do we address that? We nip it in the bud early and try to manage to move on the culture rather than letting it progress through first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth year.

On the Deputy's last point regarding the contribution of bullying to suicides, I see it as considerable. In this country we are not very good at looking at psychological autopsies to determine the psychological factors that led to a suicide. Suicides become something that happened, as opposed to people digging into the why. That is something we need to look at.

Ms Mary Briody

A lot of what Dr. Noctor said was part of my contribution. Some schools are really good at dealing with bullying. I hate using the term "bullying", and prefer to refer instead to behaviour that does not work in schools.

I thank Ms Briody.

All of the witnesses referred to the crucial importance of the culture in a school. Can they each identify three key ways to embed a school culture that encourages genuine kindness and inclusivity for all of the students?

Dr. Noctor referred to the insidious and toxic behaviour whereby children are excluded as distinct from more overt forms of bullying. Could he elaborate on this and the ways in which this behaviour could be changed?

An issue that does not seem to have been raised yet is the question of what unique role parents can play in combating bullying and how they can contribute in a more meaningful way within the school community. It is often the case that schoolchildren come home and inform their parents of what is happening. The way people were educated 20 or 30 years ago is totally different from what happens in schools today. In the context of the rough and tumble of family life or whatever, parents might be a little wary or shy of contacting the school about their son or daughter being bullied. I am interested in how the witnesses would encourage parents to play a meaningful role within the school community if they know their son or daughter is being bullied.

Dr. Colman Noctor

To answer the question on culture, it would be quicker to turn the Titanic than to make changes in culture. The issue is that as well as being very positive, the culture of a school can also hide harm in plain sight. Ms O'Malley pointed out that issues relating to gender, sexuality and sexual assault are accepted as subjects for locker room talk or as the way things are. There is often much more emphasis in schools on academics than there is on students' well-being. We have to address the bad cultures before we start encouraging the good ones. First, we must identify where the culture is not good enough. There may be a culture of dismissal, avoidance and brushing things under the carpet when a bullying issue arises because it might affect the reputation of the school or whatever it might be.

We talk about parents being the solution and not always the problem. It is often the passive parent, not the argumentative parent, whose child is disenfranchised in the ways we have been discussing. The parent may not feel able to go to the school. Parents might say they have brought an issue up twice, for instance, and nothing happened. The parent who has a path worn to the school principal's office is actively trying to manage something. It is when the parent has never approached the school, or perhaps did so once through a telephone call, that there is nobody advocating for the child. We should encourage parents to not let these matters go. Just because one has tried and it has not worked does not mean one should not keep trying. As I said in my opening statement, these issues have to reach a resolution. It is not good enough just to say that one tried but it is still happening. It is not about having a zero-tolerance culture but, rather, a culture that has a value system whereby bullying and mistreatment are not accepted.

Dr. Claire Hayes

I agree with what Dr. Noctor said. When it comes to the culture around bullying, it starts with the school. We have not spoken yet about situations where there is a culture of bullying behaviour within staffrooms. My background is in primary school teaching and I know, as many members will know, that such a culture can, unfortunately, be part of schools. That is an important point when looking at changing cultures. In a school I worked in at one time as a student, there was a notice saying that no parents were permitted beyond that point. Fortunately, that was a long time ago. It is about making schools a place where respect is a core value and where respect is lived, not just through having anti-bullying policies but in the way teachers are treated by the principal and how parents are treated by the principal and board of management. It is a whole culture shift.

On the issue of CBT, like Dr. Muldoon and, I assume, the other guests, I submitted a detailed document to the committee. I did not have time in the three minutes allocated for my opening statement to draw more on that issue. CBT involves looking at and responding to our feelings, thoughts, beliefs and actions. Parents may feel disenfranchised and may believe they will not be listened to. Schools should focus on creating a culture of respect and really working on changing behaviour, as opposed to having lots of policies. I would love to see those policies implemented.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

On the point about thinking of three ways to encourage kindness and inclusivity in schools, something that comes to mind is the need to have schools celebrate diversity, whatever the diversity is in a community, make it as normal as possible and celebrate the value of it. That changes the way children see each other, especially if it is started early, and it takes away a lot of the sting that often creates the othering of certain individuals. It is about promoting respect and rights. Children's rights are one of the issues on which we intend to focus. In Wales, children's rights have been put into the education curriculum. It is a way of acknowledging that everybody has a right to be respected and everybody is equal. That should be taught in schools.

On the role of parents in changing the culture of a school, I agree with Dr. Noctor that parents are often not able to push forward. That is why we should legislate for a student-parent charter, which will, in effect, enable a coming together of the whole school community to agree what the plan is for a school and what its culture should be. That will allow the children in junior infants as well as the children in sixth class to say, for example, that they want more gardening, mechanics or music, and parents can have an input into that as well. This changes the focuses so that it is not always about wanting everybody to get As across the board. It allows the whole school community to integrate and it generates a statutory obligation to produce an annual report on whether those targets were reached. It becomes a whole-community engagement and that is when the culture starts to change. Bullying and how it is dealt with could be one of the topics included in the charter, as agreed by the whole school community. It would be a hugely important step forward if we can get that across the line legislatively.

Does Deputy Ó Cathasaigh want to come back in?

I am being a bit cheeky. I have umpteen questions still to ask.

There are three minutes remaining, so I will allow the Deputy one additional question.

I want to raise what I see as the elephant in the room. I had a cursory look at the excellent Walk Tall programme that has been implemented in primary schools, comprising 68 lessons across 11 units. However, there is only a half an hour per week set aside for the SPHE curriculum. When and how will the Walk Tall programme be covered? If CBT is to be included, which I am very interested in, it will be even more difficult. How will educators be trained to implement it? I am looking forward to recommendations the committee might make in this regard. Does more space need to be made for this in the school curriculum?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

One of the ways of making a difference, as we have discussed, is ensuring the school has a culture of combating bullying. Dr. Hayes talked about the importance of teachers feeling safe and not being bullied. Bullying is never going to go away. However, if a school has a culture of caring for every member of the community, then it creates a situation in which bullying will be caught much more quickly and dealt with in a much better way. Dr. Hayes may have more to say on this point.

Dr. Claire Hayes

I would like to make a very clear distinction between CBT and cognitive behavioural principles. I do not think it is appropriate for teachers to be trained to be cognitive behavioural therapists. As mentioned earlier, there is an incredible demand on teachers and it is not fair for society to keep pushing for teachers to respond to everything. However, in terms of cognitive behavioural principles, there is benefit in helping teachers to understand and work with their students around a language that says it is okay for someone to feel however he or she feels. If people feel hurt, upset, excluded, dismissed or anything else because they either have been bullied or think they have been bullied, there should be a facilitation of the language to express that. Perception is hugely important in this and it should be emphasised that people have a choice in what they do. I would absolutely love if the committee would come out with a recommendation that cognitive behavioural principles should be taken as seriously in terms of teaching principles as the campaign to help people stay safe during the global pandemic. They should be given that level of priority.

I apologise but I will not be able to bring in Ms O'Malley or Ms Briody on that point. There is one minute remaining and I have a question for Dr. Muldoon. He mentioned in his opening statement the appointment of therapeutic counsellors in schools. What feedback is he getting from the Department of Education in that regard? The issue was included in our Covid report, very much based on Dr. Muldoon's recommendation. What can we, as committee members, do to assist him in this? Without focusing on any particular Minister, where do the departmental officials and the teacher unions, particularly the INTO, stand on this issue?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I have personally engaged with a number of Ministers on this issue but it has not yet made any progress.

I am looking for a therapist or counsellor to be available so there may one therapist for two or three primary schools, depending on where they are located, for one or two days a week. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Would it be worthwhile to carry out some sort of trial in a number of schools? Has Dr. Muldoon looked at that sort of scenario?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I have not. There has been little engagement in this area by the other side. There is much to be said for creating an opportunity to pilot it across a number of counties. I have no doubt there are enough trained professionals available and willing to do two or three days a week. It would take a great deal of pressure off many teachers and parents in many different areas, and prevent much of what we are talking about. If the committee is willing to make a recommendation in that regard, I would be delighted.

I would appreciate if Dr. Muldoon would communicate with the clerk to the committee and look at some sort of pilot trial across a number of counties. If he puts together a proposal, we could communicate with the Department of Education about it.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I appreciate that.

I thank Dr. Noctor, Ms Briody, Dr. Hayes, Ms O'Malley and Dr. Muldoon. I also thank members. We have had an important discussion over the past two hours. It amazes me that, from schools and colleges to workplaces and places for pastimes, bullying is much highlighted but is still a real issue that affects many people. Many people do not have the courage to come forward to talk about it and that is one reason that I, as Chair, and other members have made it a priority in the committee's work. We need to encourage and give people the confidence to come out and talk about this. This is happening in every secondary school, primary school, workplace and place of pastimes across our society, and it is a significant issue.

The committee is grateful to the witnesses and commends them on their obvious dedication and commitment to assisting young people with their mental health. I thank them each individually. I have no doubt that our paths will cross again in this committee.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.32 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 May 2021.