Bullying and harassment of children in schools

In the Autumn of 2016 the Equalities and Human Rights Committee of the Scottish Parliament began work on the ‘Bullying and Harassment of children and young people in schools’. They collated a wide variety of evidence, both oral and written from a number of stakeholders, including groups working with children and educational professionals and local authorities. The evidence gathered by the Committee found that concerns were expressed ‘around the growing normalisation of sexualised bullying of girls and young women in education’.

Submissions were received from women and girl groups like Girlguiding Scotland, Rape Crisis Scotland and Engender. These submissions describe a very bleak account of the sexual harassment and sexual crimes occurring daily within our schools.

“Girls told us that sexual harassment in schools is widespread. 59% of girls and young women aged 11-21 say they have experienced sexual harassment at school, including sexual taunts and unwanted touching” Girlguiding Girls Attitude Survey

When the unwanted sexual comments and sexual harassment of our girls at school are normalised or dismissed as ‘banter’ then it feeds into our wider culture. Our children and young people grow up learning this behaviour is acceptable. This then impacts how we as a society then respond to the rising instances of sexual assaults and rape.

“We have heard of instances where girls have reported that boys in their school have raped them ……….. In some cases this has been reported to the police or social work, but no further action was taken and they boy remains in the school” Rape Crisis Scotland

To tackle this it is important that we respond appropriately to these issues arising in our schools. Clear guidance and a rigorous recording framework have to be established which will empower our teachers to take the correct action. These two points were recommendations that each of the submissions from Rape Crisis Scotland, Girlguiding Scotland and Engender all emphasised to the EHRiC Committee as being crucial requirements.

“There is also a clear demand from girls and school-aged women for schools to make the issue of sexist bullying and sexual harassment a clear priority” Engender

The Committee scheduled a ‘scoping’ session for the 10 November 2016 and it was agreed that further work on this pressing issue was required. The Convener of the Committee Christina McKelvie MSP thereafter began corresponding with the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, John Swinney MSP, of the Committees preliminary findings. ‘Respect For All’ is the Scottish Governments National Approach to Anti-Bullying for Scotland’s Children and Young People. This guidance was currently in the process of being refreshed and the Committee’s input from their work on the ‘Bullying and Harassment of children and young people in schools’ would be crucial.

What was notable throughout this correspondence between the Committee and the Cabinet Secretary was his introduction of the term ‘Prejudice-based bullying’ along with the omission of the word ‘Harassment’. I find this peculiar particularly considering the title of the Committee’s work was ‘Bullying and Harassment of children and young people in schools’.

Eight months later the Committee were at the final stages of publishing their report but just prior to this they meet to hear evidence from John Swinney MSP on 22 June 2017. There was much discussion on the Government’s approach to anti-bullying with a great emphasis on it being a prejudiced-based approach. Mr Swinney mentions that he has recently established a LGBTI Inclusive Working Group (which I’ll discuss again later) and is also awaiting their recommendations on the refreshing of the Government’s ‘Respect For All’ guidance. It is again very noticeable that the discussions don’t focus more on the rapid rise of sexual harassment within schools. In fact, the word harassment doesn’t get said once during the entire meeting (with the exception of naming its title and purpose at the introduction of the meeting).

How is it possible that discussions can be held at an inquiry into X & Y, and Y doesn’t even get spoken?

As if that wasn’t enough, not one person spoke the word ‘girl’ either. Two MSP’s did refer to the ‘horrifying’ evidence from Girlguiding Scotland with its accounts of ‘sexual assaults and issues around consent’ occurring ‘almost on a weekly basis’. The question of how these incidents were to be recorded and how to support schools to deal with them properly was also asked but no clear answers were given to these points.

Two weeks later the Equalities and Human Rights Committee published its final report. ‘It is not Cool to be Cruel: Prejudice-based bullying and harassment of children and young people in Scotland’. The foreword from the Convener welcomes the refresh of the Respect For All anti-bullying approach and is thankful to John Swinney MSP for pausing this process and allowing the Committee to set out the necessary actions needed to address bullying and harassment in schools.

It contains a detailed breakdown of their findings, the impact of bullying and harassment, setting out the evidence gathered across all protected characteristics and their recommendations. Despite the report incorrectly using the terms ‘gender’ and ‘gender identity’, it did go on to state that ‘sexual harassment and intimidation …… is disproportionately impacting girls and young women’. It mentions the Children in Scotland research with showed

‘sexualised name-calling, uninvited touching, encouragement to send inappropriate and sexualised photos and also bullying in relation to the onset of puberty’

and

‘Girls also raised issues about attending new schools and feeling pressure from young men in relation to sex, leading to name-calling, threats, and rumours bring spread about them’.

The list of evidence is difficult to read. Schoolgirls have always been exposed to sexual harassment and sexual assaults, but the young age of these girls, the frequency of the incidents and the lack of appropriate action taken all indicate we are now at a crisis point, one which our society can no longer ignore. The report recognises that urgent action is needed and for a framework to be established for the reporting and monitoring of all bullying and sexual harassment in schools.

The long awaited update of the anti-bullying guidance ‘Respect For All’ is published in November 2017. Does it dedicate a large section to describing the epidemic levels of sexual harassment? No, no it does not. Does it lean more heavily on the theme of ‘prejudiced-based’ bullying that we suspected would be the case? Yes, yes it does. So what exactly IS prejudiced-based bullying? It’s defined as

‘bullying behaviour .. motivated by prejudice based on an individual’s actual or perceived identity’.

There is a list of what bullying behaviour could be with examples like being hit, having belongings taken and name calling. There are no explicit examples of what sexual harassment is. In fact, the issue of harassment doesn’t feature at all throughout the entire guidance. There is not a single mention of any of the widely evidenced issues that disproportionately affect girls. The words ‘misogyny’, ‘sexist’, ‘young woman’ and ‘sexual harassment’ are not used once in the entire guidance. The word ‘girl’ features only once under the header ‘Sexism and Gender’.

“Bullying in the form of derogatory language and the spreading of malicious rumours can be used to regulate both girls’ and boys’ behaviour – suggesting that they are not being a real man or a real woman”

I struggle to see how anyone could agree that this one small mention would be anywhere near sufficient to explain the issues affecting school girls. It is incredible that this refreshed document wasn’t more specific by including the findings within the EHRiC Committee’s report of the bullying and harassment of children in schools. Why did it change the focus of bullying to prejudice-based bullying, and why did the issue of harassment not feature at all? This is a guidance for ALL children, its main focus shouldn’t be just for minority groups. Yet this would appear to be the case, with references to homophobia and transphobia being prominent throughout. A word search of associated LGBT terms reveal they appear over 30 times. This guidance should be fair and balanced, and with girls being 51% of the school population this really doesn’t appear to be a proportionate approach. How could this have happened? Who was responsible for compiling this document?

respectme is Scotland’s anti-bullying service, funded by the Scottish Government and is aligned with the national approach ‘Respect for All’, with the details and definitions contained within the guidance repeated verbatim on the respectme website, so clearly they are main players. But who are they? Are they an impartial composition of representatives from a wide selection of groups across Scotland, ensuring inclusivity of the needs of all children experiencing bullying related to a protected characteristic? No, no they aren’t.

respectme is jointly managed by LGBT Youth Scotland and SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health).

In addition to this bizarre management structure that no doubtably would emphasise the importance of one group, we need to also remember the working group that John Swinney had recently established who were also compiling recommendations, the LGBTI Inclusive Education Working Group. This working group were responsible for the rollout of the controversial ‘Supporting Transgender Young People Guidance for schools in Scotland’, (See here) which coincidentally was also launched in November 2017, alongside a further LBGT Youth Scotland bullying resource, at the same time the Scottish Government published its updated ‘Respect for All’. The one thing that is striking here is that no representatives from any women or girl groups were involved in the creation of any of these guidelines that have since been circulated to every school in Scotland.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, this working group was tasked with creating the framework for the recording and monitoring of bullying. This supplementary guidance was recently published in May. It is estimated that the schools electronic system SEEMIS will be ready to go live later this month. But what isn’t clear is how will a national guidance that doesn’t even mention the sexual harassment and sexist bullying experienced by girls be able to accurately record and monitor instances of it.

This new soon to be launched feature for every school in the country should be seen as a positive step towards the eradication of bullying and harassment of children in school, however I can only wait and hope that our girls haven’t been forgotten again.

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