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:

  • Education Act 1989, ss 60A, 61, 63
    National Administration Guidelines, NAG 2(b), 5, www.minedu.govt.nz

    Education policy and guidelinesSchool boards are required by government education guidelines to “provide a safe physical and emotional environment for students”. Schools should have an anti-bullying policy and other policies to achieve a safe environment, and should regularly review these policies.
  • Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, ss 37 and 45

    Health and safety lawsSchools have to take every possible step to make sure no physical or mental harm happens to students, teachers and others at school as a result of any “hazard” – which includes people’s behaviour. This could also include, for example, the long-term systematic bullying that some children with disabilities may experience. A school that allows bullying to occur – for example by teachers failing to take action against it – could face prosecution under the health and safety laws. These health and safety requirements apply not just to school boards of trustees but also to governing committees of school boarding hostels.
  • Accident Compensation Act 2001, s 317

    Duty of care under civil lawSchools also owe a “duty of care” to their students under the civil law of negligence. This means that they have to ensure the safety and well-being of students. A student who suffers harm through being bullied may be able to bring a claim in the courts for a breach of this duty of care. However, in particular cases this right may be barred by the ACC laws. Physical injuries, and psychological harm related to physical injuries, are likely to be covered by ACC, and that means you can’t bring civil claims in the courts for them. A lawyer will be able to help you understand what options may be available in your case. Call into your local Community Law Centre for free legal advice.
  • Code of Ethics for Registered Teachers, clause 1(f) www.teacherscouncil.govt.nz/ethics

    Teachers’ ethical duties A Code of Ethics established by the New Zealand Teachers Council places an ethical obligation on registered teachers to “promote the physical, emotional, social, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing of learners”. You may be able to use this code as a basis for challenging a teacher’s bullying behaviour.

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:

  • hear and respond to them with sensitivity
  • respond appropriately to the problem
  • give them feedback
  • protect them from any negative consequences resulting from reporting the bullying
  • support victims of bullying at the school.

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:

  • Crimes Act 1961, ss 196, 306
    Summary Offences Act 1981, s 9

    Assaults and threats – It’s a criminal assault not only if someone physically assaults you, but also if they threaten to do this and you have a reasonable belief that they can carry out the threat. This would include not just threats made face-to-face but also by, for example, a text message. There’s also a separate criminal offence of threatening to kill or injure someone.
  • Summary Offences Act 1981, s 21

    Intimidation – The offence of intimidation includes threatening to injure you or damage your property, if the person intends to frighten or intimidate you.
  • Harassment Act 1997, s 8

    Criminal harassment – Harassment can be a criminal offence if the harasser intends to make you afraid and there’s a pattern of behaviour that includes doing any of the followings things at least twice during a 12-month period: following or confronting you, contacting you (including by text or online), interfering with your possessions, or acting in any other way that would cause a reasonable person to fear for their safety. If the harasser doesn’t realise you feel distressed or harassed, their behaviour could still be “civil harassment”, which means you can apply to the Family Court for a restraining order to stop the harassment; but you can do this only if the harasser is 17 or older.
  • Telecommunications Act 2001, s 112

    Misusing a phone – It’s a criminal offence for someone to intentionally use a phone to disturb, annoy or irritate you, or to send you a fake instruction or message. It’s also an offence to use “profane, indecent, or obscene” language over a phone, or to suggest something to you that’s profane, indecent or obscene, if they do this with the intention of offending you.

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?

  • Community Law Centres, including YouthLaw, are a good source of free legal advice.
  • Kidsline (0800 54 37 54): Telephone support for 9–13-year-olds provided by senior students, weekdays 4–6pm.
  • Youthline (0800 37 66 33): Telephone counselling for young people daily, 8 pm to midnight.
  • What’s Up (0800 942 8787): Telephone counselling services for 5–18-year-olds daily, noon to midnight.
  • www.cyberbullying.org.nz has information for parents, teachers and young people.
  • www.netsafe.org.nz has information on how to report abuse to social networking sites providers. The site also has resources – like the NetSafe Kit – to help schools achieve and maintain “cyber-safety”.
  • See also “Useful contacts”.