Bullying, morality and the law

Home Teaching & Learning Bullying, morality and the law

Bullying, morality and the law

Bullying is first and foremost a moral issue. Curiously enough, although it is broadly understood that bullying is essentially an abuse of power, few consider the implications of such a belief. We do not, as a rule, go on to think about how power should be used and what may constitute its wrong use.

An old tradition tells us that 'we should do unto others as we would they do unto us' Resolutely applied this would spell the end of bullying. And not only in our so-called Judeo Christian culture. Almost identical injunctions can be found in the scriptures espoused by Hindus, Taoists and Jainists and by the followers of Confucius and Mohammed.

As is well known, the Law and Morality overlap: the former owes its force and legitimacy to the latter. However, bullying per se is rarely described as illegal, except for rhetorical purposes. In fact, you will find no legal definition of bullying, although many actions or behaviours that people might call bullying are subject to prosecution, such as physical assaults, theft and stalking.

The law can be, and has been invoked by children or - on their behalf - parents when it is believed that the school has not taken reasonable steps to prevent or stop a student from being bullied and seriously harmed. Numerous cases have now been reported of schools having to face charges of negligence when it has been thought that schools have not acted appropriately. Very large sums have had to be paid out by schools or Departments of Education.

These implications are now clear

  1. Parents and schoolchildren have a legally enforceable right to expect schools to deal with cases of bullying in a reasonable and humane manner and protect children from serious harm from their peers.
  2. Schools have a legal responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent bullying from taking place at school and to deal with cases that may arise appropriately. See for example Butler, D. (2006) on the liability for bullying at schools in Australia. (click here) and Alastair Nicholson , Chairman of the NAAB (click here)
The recognition of such responsibilities should lead schools to examine carefully what can be done proactively and reactively in tackling school bullying. It is of course unrealistic to conclude that all bullying is always preventable even in the most dedicated schools, but schools can become far less vulnerable to possible legal action being taken against them if they take these minimum steps:
  1. Develop a sound, agreed anti-bullying policy that the school knows how to implement
  2. Exercise a reasonable degree of surveillance of the interpersonal behaviour of members of the school community and act when bullying behaviour is identified
  3. Address the issue of bullying through the school curriculum
  4. Apply appropriate strategies in dealing with identified cases of bullying.
  5. Work closely and supportively with parents in dealing with issues.
This site seeks to describe how this can be done.