Student Rights

Free legal help for students, parents & caregivers

Bullying in schools

What is bullying?

Bullying is behaviour that makes you feel afraid or uncomfortable. It includes not just physical attacks but also verbal bullying and other emotional attacks, such as gossip, name-calling, humiliating or shaming people, and excluding people from groups and games.

There are a range of legal and other protections against bullying, and these apply not just to things that students do but also to teachers’ behaviour

With the arrival of texting and social networking websites, bullying in schools has become more sophisticated and more difficult to control – for example, bullies can create false online profiles or post abusive comments or embarrassing pictures or videos. Although “cyberbullying” of this type might start outside school, the flow-on effects can lead to serious problems within the school.

Schools’ responsibilities to protect against bullying

What are the school’s obligations to protect against bullying?

Schools have various legal and ethical responsibilities to try to stop bullying and to deal with it effectively when it happens:

Complaining to your school about bullying

Reporting the bullying to the school

If you are concerned that you or your child is being bullied at school, you should start by talking to the student’s teacher or the principal.

Find out if the school has a specific anti-bullying policy, and processes for dealing with it. This policy may say who reports of bullying should be made to. You could also ask if the school has a “confidential disclosure system” so that both victims and bullies can talk safely about the bullying.

If the school doesn’t have a specific anti-bullying policy you could emphasise to the school that it has a legal duty to provide a safe environment for students, and encourage them to develop a policy.

If the school does have an anti-bullying policy but it doesn’t seem to be working in practice, you could ask that you meet with the principal and the chairperson of the board of trustees to discuss how to address this.

How the school should respond

The Children’s Commissioner has made suggestions about how schools should respond to reports of bullying. In summary, students and their parents should expect that the school will:

What if we’re not happy with the school’s response?

If a student and their parents aren’t happy about the way the school has dealt with a complaint of bullying, they can make a written complaint to the board of trustees. Parents can ask to be at the meeting where their complaint will be discussed. To get to speak at the meeting, parents will need permission from the chairperson. It may help to take along a support person who’s used to dealing with these sorts of complaints (see the support agencies listed at the end of this chapter.)

If parents are unhappy with the way the board of trustees deals with their complaint, they can complain to the Education Review Office, the Ministry of Education or the Children’s Commissioner (see Useful Contacts).

Complaining to the police under the criminal law

Can I lodge a complaint with the police?

In some cases, yes. The section below explains when bullying can amount to a criminal offence.

Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989, ss 14(1)(e), 18, 272(3)

If the police decide the criminal law has been broken, and the student doing the bullying is under 14 years old, the student could be asked to attend a family group conference with their family. Young people aged 14, 15 or 16 can be charged and dealt with in the Youth Court, while those who have turned 17 could face a criminal charge in the District Court (the adult courts). In deciding whether to take action on a complaint, the police will consider all the circumstances, including how serious the behaviour was.

Whether or not you complain to the police, you should report all forms of bullying to the school.

Can bullying be a criminal offence?

It might be, depending on how serious and damaging the bullying is, and depending also on the context and the type of bullying:

Cyberbullying – what you can do about bullying through texts and social media

“Cyberbullying” means using a mobile phone, the internet or other technology (like a digital camera) to bully another person, by causing them hurt or embarrassment.

For most social networking sites like Facebook, and all New Zealand mobile phone providers, bullying is a breach of the terms of use. If you’ve been cyberbullied, you can complain to the bully’s mobile phone provider or the social networking site. A warning to the bully from the provider that they could be banned from using their phone or the site is likely to be a powerful deterrent to them.

The website www.netsafe.org.nz has information on how to report abuse to social networking sites providers.

If the cyberbullying involves physical threats, and you’re concerned about your safety, contact the police.

If you’ve been cyberbullied, you should make sure you save all the bullying messages and pictures. Text messages can be saved on a mobile phone, and you can save screenshots of bullying on websites or online chats. These can be useful if you report the bullying to your school or the police.

Support for victims of bullying

Who can provide support for victims of bullying?