Revealed: The scale of bullying problems in Norfolk’s schools
Almost three in five parents in Norfolk feel their child is not safe from bullying in school.
A survey of more than 160 parents and carers by this newspaper revealed that 60pc felt their child's school had a problem with bullying and 55pc said their child did not feel safe from bullying and harassment at school.
Six in 10 of those polled said their child's school had an anti-bullying policy in place - but more than half (54pc) felt school staff did not take bullying seriously and were slow to deal with problems while almost 70pc didn't feel bullies were effectively punished.
Of those surveyed, 90pc said their child was experiencing or had experienced bullying or harassment in school.
Around 11pc said their child had been physically bullied and nearly 20pc had experienced verbal bullying such as threats and name-calling, but two-thirds (67pc) said it had been a mixture of physical, verbal or cyber bullying.
The majority (60pc) said a boy was behind the bullying - but 5pc said an adult had been responsible.
Nearly half (46pc) of parents said their child was under the age of 12 when the bullying happened.
Parents and carers who responded said their children left with mental health problems due to bullying, that schools did not listen to complaints and did not communicate properly with parents and that some had cultures of brushing bullying under the carpet.
What the parents say
'This boy was making my son's life hell'
Carole*, from Breckland, said her eldest son, 15, was bullied by a boy with additional needs in his previous high school who she felt had been "let off lightly" due to his problems.
It followed him being bullied in primary school - including one incident where he was pushed into a river and pulled along by the current before being rescued by a dog walker.
Of the high school bullying, Carole, 43, said: "People think because my son is tall and broad and looks quite strong that they can bully him and think he is going to retaliate. But he is not like that at all, he is a very gentle giant."
There were meetings with senior staff, but Carole said little action was taken.
"Then this boy threatened to beat the living daylights out of my son and he said he didn't want to go back to school. He was going into year 10 and was thinking about his GCSEs," she said.
In response to a letter from Carole's husband explaining they were going to withdraw their son, the headteacher said she thought the school had done "all they could".
"But they hadn't done anything about the boy who was making my son's life hell," Carole said. "He was getting withdrawn, quiet, losing his appetite."
Her son was eventually transferred to a new school - Carole said he was "flourishing" there and that the school's zero-tolerance policy on bullying was reassuring.
Her younger son, 13, who has autism and ADHD, was also bullied. Carole said this was mainly by staff at his mainstream junior school - including the headteacher who referred to him as "it" during one distressing telephone conversation.
"He struggled with a lot of people in class. They set aside a separate desk for him, but what really annoyed me is that the teacher said the other children in the class had to treat him differently because he had special educational needs and after that he was picked on all the time," she said.
Eventually Carole and her husband withdrew their son and home-educated him for 18 months until a special school place became available.
She said seeing both her sons bullied at school was "the lowest of the low", adding: "It was a shock to see these happy-go-lucky boys going into their shell."
'They've done all sorts of horrible things'
Sharon* said her 12-year-old son started being picked on when he began secondary school by a boy who gradually roped others into the bullying, to the point that he was dreading going back to start year eight this September.
She said: "First of all it was mild fun-poking and name calling. Then it became pushing and shoving on stairwells and chasing him outside of school.
"He's been punched and kicked, his tie has been thrown in the school pond, they've smashed his lunch box, stolen his locker by pretending to help tidy it up and all sorts of other horrible things."
Sharon said she was in constant contact with her son's head of year, but despite punitive action the situation never seemed to get "completely resolved".
She said school life was already difficult for her son, who has ADHD and struggles with concentration, and that the bullies were "constantly distracting him".
"It's such a shame because he's a really loving, thoughtful and kind boy. This has made him extremely frustrated and he has on occasion lashed out and fought back. Although I don't agree with violence, I also see that there's only so much one person can take," she said.
From arranging meetings with the headteacher and poring over anti-bullying websites to getting the police involved, Sharon feels she has exhausted almost all avenues for help - but doesn't want to move her son to a new school. "I don't see why he should be the one moved when he's not doing anything wrong," she said.
'She comes home from school in tears every day'
Moira*, 40, from south Norfolk, said her daughter had been "struggling with school and her friends" for the past four years.
The 10-year-old is currently at the nearest school to their home and as Moira does not drive and cannot home-school her daughter she does not feel she has the option to transfer her to a new school.
"I am not saying she is perfect - she is a scatterbrain and can go into a world of her own but I don't think her friends know how to react to that," she said.
"It has got to the point where people are calling her a bully. I'm trying to speak to her to work out what is going on, but seeing her come home from school in tears every day I am not sure if it is the other way round.
"All I am telling her is to stand up for herself. I think people are trying to get her into trouble.
"It has got to the stage where she gets into tears trying to get her to school. I know it can be hard but at the end of the day I cannot do much for her when she is at school and you rely on the school and the teachers to look after your child. For a 10-year-old it is tough.
"Then I have an eight-year-old daughter who is trying to be brave and I feel sorry that I am putting all my attention on my other daughter."
'Issues seem to be dealt with well'
Violet, 30, said she wanted to "fight the corner" for her daughter's school, which she felt dealt well with bullying problems.
Her daughter, aged 10, attends a rural primary school in north Norfolk .
"Whenever we have even slight issues I have been so lucky with the way that they have handled it," she said.
"They had got good policies, but I don't know whether they have policies that are any different to anyone else.
"They had 'buddy groups', different children in each year group who look after each other.
"Issues seem to be dealt with really well. I had something going on with my younger child, even though they are very young they took it seriously."
What the experts say
Paddy Venner is a life coach who specialises in children's behavioural issues, who provides services to around 20 Norfolk schools. He also runs courses for male bullies to help them address their behaviour.
He said: "In my experience schools have mostly dealt well with it at primary school level. However, some high schools might find the problem overwhelming especially when it spills over to activities outside of school which are beyond the schools influence.
"I believe budget cuts play a role in schools having fewer teaching assistants or specialists like myself to deal with such things. Class teachers do an amazing job and have enough on their plates just with teaching.
"Bullying that is homophobic or racist still exists but I feel isn't growing as tolerance of these things increases, but on the definite rise is cyber-bullying.
"Children speak of receiving threatening messages popping up on screen while playing on gaming consoles, threatening texts and other means of social media threats. Bullies are very brave behind a keyboard and I try to teach them to not say anything they wouldn't say face to face.
"Schools need more whole-school presentations at assemblies about the effects of bullying - what it does to the victim and actually get victims to tell their stories. Parents need to be engaged with more, as very often a bully will be what they are because of how they are raised or because of something that has happened at home."
Karen Lee, a therapist from Swaffham, has recently conducted her own survey into bullying in her area - looking specifically at bullies rather than victims - and said she was shocked by the results.
Of the people who had bullied others who responded, 85pc said they would have accepted therapy to help the issues which caused them to bully.
"Bullying someone gives them the power that they perhaps lacked at home. What they don't realise is they are putting someone in the same position as they were in at home," she said.
Ms Lee, 40, has developed a talk aimed at children who bully to be delivered in schools, but said those she approached about it told her they "do not have a bullying problem" and turned down her service. She said: "Some schools are employing people to do things like relaxation therapy, they are catching on to it. Children need time away from the stresses and strains of social media and things like that. It is so important because children are killing themselves - that is my raw motivation."
What the schools say
Scott Lyons, National Education Union (NEU) Norfolk district secretary, encouraged parents to engage with schools in instances of bullying.
"If parents or children report bullying and they work closely with the school through school processes, most outcomes will be happy for both sides," he said.
"There will always be a few parents who feel aggrieved and there are processes they can follow to mitigate that.
"The difficulty is, the vast majority of issues in school are sorted out so children can get on with what they want to be doing - enjoying school and learning, but there are some high profile cases where parents take to social media rather than keeping it within the confidentiality of school processes.
"That is a big concern for us as things get amplified and blown out of proportion very quickly.
Mr Lyons said growing awareness of mental health problems among children had changed the landscape around bullying.
"Schools take it very seriously," he said. "But parents have got to be transparent and engage with the school and their processes from the start."
Nick O'Brien works at Neatherd High School in Dereham. He is a special educational needs coordinator (Senco), mental health champion and lead on safeguarding and equalities.
He said the best approach for schools to curb bullying was two-pronged: building an ethos which discourages it and good record keeping and escalating if issues are ongoing.
He advised schools to "create a climate where students feel they can report issues and will be believed and listened to" and ensure there were front-line pastoral staff for students to build relationships with - although he conceded funding problems had forced some schools to cut back these types of jobs.
"Generally with bullying, unless it was something very severe, we would look to do something restorative first - get the parties together, talk through why it was hurtful and draw red lines, then use sanctions if it continues. "Generally if the first bit is done right, you don't need the second bit," he said.
Mr O'Brien added that schools should provide easy ways to report incidents, for example via the internet or slips in form classes, and could mark occasions such as anti-bullying week, LGBT history month or black history month to encourage acceptance.
"Turn these into big student-led events rather than one-off tick-box activities," he said.
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