27 Oct 2022

School accused over playground sexual incidents has history of bullying allegations

7:01 am on 27 October 2022

A school accused of failing to adequately address repeated sexual incidents in the playground faces further accusations of ignoring or minimising bullying complaints over several years.

Boy huddled in fear with bully standing over him

For almost a decade, bullying allegations have been made - and shortcomings identified - at a school where sexualised playground incidents occurred. Photo: RNZ

Warning: This story contains details of sexual abuse and self-harm.

RNZ has revealed the school, which cannot be identified for legal reasons, is accused by two parents of failing to properly address a string of playground incidents where children say they were coerced into exposing themselves.

Now it has emerged that board of trustee investigations in 2013 and 2018 identified bullying as an issue at the school. Both investigations found it lacked a proper bullying policy and complaints were minimised or ignored.

Multiple families have told RNZ their complaints were either ignored by teachers or they were punished for speaking out when their children were bullied.

Read more from this series

  • Children coerced into sexualised incidents at school
  • The families said the problem lay with the school's long-standing principal who refused to acknowledge bullying as an issue at the school. They are calling for the principal to change their approach or resign.

    The principal has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

    'Just a bit of play'

    One mother said three of her children felt bullied at the school. Her youngest, a current pupil, had been repeatedly exposed to sexualised behaviour and bullying and did not feel safe.

    "Every time we try to bring the subject up with the school they look at you as if they're thinking 'oh that again'. They just minimise everything that has happened and don't take it seriously.

    "They tell me it's just a bit of play."

    Former pupils, some now in their teens, told RNZ they still suffered from the effects of the bullying they experienced while students at the school.

    RNZ has used pseudonyms to protect the identities of the children.

    Former pupil Matthew Wright* left the school in 2017 and continues to suffer from chronic anxiety and depression due to his "traumatic" time there.

    Matthew, now 16, said he was often ridiculed, his belongings were stolen or hidden and he was often punched or kicked from behind.

    "It would be a good day when something didn't happen at school," he said.

    Someone once tried to pull down his pants but when he complained, the school told his parents it was "just a bit of fun".

    If he yelled out in class after being hit, or told his teachers about the taunts they would send him outside for creating a noise, he said.

    "If you talk to the teacher you're snitching, and a lot of the teachers would just brush it off anyway."

    The principal also minimised complaints, his mother Linda Wright said.

    "It was sold as always two boys got into a fight, or they were friends one minute then they were just fighting. It was never seen that there was an innocent victim and an aggressor."

    Once Matthew left the school the bullies targeted his younger brother, who lasted only six months before he also left, Wright said.

    Matthew now took antidepressants and attended counselling but his mental health had been so bad at times he had self-harmed and ended up in emergency psychiatry services, he said.

    "Those years [at the school] were traumatic. And it's still affecting me now."

    Accusations of unaddressed bullying at the school stretch back to 2012. A former school trustee said his son was assaulted and held by a group of children but the school never mentioned the incident.

    "We only learnt about it from friends." His son's assailants were never held to account, he said.

    "It was quite a traumatic and terrifying event. It's changed his view of authority, of schooling and we've had to deal with it to this present day."

    "Nothing destroys a child's ability to learn (more) than being bullied. It's an appalling thing," the former trustee said.

    The 2013 audit

    A Board of Trustees report into 'behaviour management and bullying' in 2013 found bullying was not widespread, but the school lacked a proper policy and parents felt staff did not take their complaints seriously.

    Parents surveyed as part of the audit said they felt the school only took action when confronted or they "threatened legal, police or media escalation".

    Some said the school discouraged them from reporting assaults to the police.

    "Most felt that school management/staff did not take parental concerns seriously and wanted to take little or no action to discuss and address concerns," a board report summarising the survey said.

    A new bullying policy was drafted, but it was rejected by the principal.

    Instead, the board adopted a policy written by the principal that differed little to what already existed.

    The bullying and complaints continued.

    The 2018 audit

    Concerns about bullying and the principal's failure to address complaints led the board to hire an independent consultant to investigate the issue in June 2018.

    But the findings were withheld and only a summary was released.

    The summary said the school needed a new policy that acknowledged bullying was happening, as well as clear procedures to deal with it.

    It took a former school parent two years - and the Ombudsman's intervention - to get his hands on a redacted copy of the report.

    "That just struck me as quite bizarre. If you're doing something for the benefit of the school children, to see if there is bullying, you need to be open and transparent about it, not hiding behind it," he told RNZ.

    The audit found the school was strongly committed to the Education Ministry's Positive Behaviour for Learning (PB4L) programme - "which promotes positive behaviour and aims to create inclusive learning environments" - but this approach wasn't working well.

    "There is significant disquiet in the community where many believe bullying is 'rife in the school' and that school management is ignoring and minimising the existence of these behaviours.

    "The situation reflects an element of the Emperor's New Clothes where teaching staff are steadfastly focusing on the language of positive behaviour and refusing to countenance the existence of the darker aspects of bullying," the audit said.

    The redacted report cited parent and staff concerns of gangs operating in the playground; staff "turning a blind eye to students that habitually bully"; victims being forced to leave school because complaints went unaddressed; and one parent reporting their child suffered from panic attacks following an incident.

    "There seems to be a culture of mean is okay," one comment says.

    A new bullying policy was adopted and pledges were made to establish a bullying prevention team, upskill staff and "take all incidents of bullying seriously," but little appeared to change.

    A former parent whose daughter left the school in 2019 told RNZ her child felt severely bullied for more than a year before she found out. When she did, she found her daughter had become a bully.

    "The school never said anything."

    Another former parent told RNZ one of the teachers was a bully, throwing whiteboard markers and yelling at students, even when they asked for help. When the parent approached the principal to complain about the teacher she said they told her: "That's just how she rolls."

    The parent who took two years to obtain the redacted copy of the audit said his daughter was bullied at the school and still felt the effects of that experience today.

    It was a shame the community was unable to read the whole report in 2018 and "strike while the iron was hot", he said.

    Hands forcefully holding down person's wrists.

    Allegations of bullying at the school span almost a decade. Photo: RNZ

    The school's response

    The school declined to be interviewed and did not respond to RNZ's questions.

    In a statement, the newly elected board chair said a commissioner previously appointed at the school had worked to ensure the 2018 audit report was "adequately considered and that all policies, systems and processes were fit for the purpose in this area".

    "This included work on the consistent implementation of these systems and processes.

    "A return to self-governance is an exciting next step for the school and community, and the incoming board of trustees will continue to work closely with senior management to govern the school effectively."

    Systemic issue

    Bullying researcher John Fenaughty said bullying was a systemic issue requiring a systemic response.

    "One of the key things about bullying is that it is actually quite a complex phenomenon.

    "Culture and context are key to understanding bullying behaviours, as well individual characteristics. It's thinking about what is happening in the environment and the ethos of the school that is enabling bullying to occur.

    "What's happening in the teaching in the school? What's happening with the curriculum? Are students being taught about positive relationships, how to manage themselves, are they being encouraged to value diversity?"

    Fenaughty, a senior lecturer at Auckland University, said schools had a legal requirement to provide a safe and supportive physical and emotional environment for all students, and clear policies and processes were needed to deal with complaints.

    "It's absolutely critical that schools respond appropriately and consistently to all bullying cases. When schools don't respond well it can actually make the bullying situation worse."

    Being bullied was associated with increased negative mental health outcomes in later life, Fenaughty said.

    Call to resign

    A former trustee said progress would not be made until the principal changed their approach or stepped down.

    "I'm still talking to parents now who still have bullying issues at the school and I know, having read that report, a large proportion of that blame is laid very clearly at the foot of the principal."

    A former parent agreed, saying the school's principal has had plenty of chances to tackle the issue.

    "The only hope for that school is the principal not being there. While [they're] there, there's no suggestion that anything is going to change."

    *Names have been changed.

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