Principals push to seize phones in bullying epidemic

Last updated 12:00 02/04/2013
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NO MORE: Principals throw support behind extraordinary measures that could give them the powers to search and seize pupils' phones and iPads.

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Cyber bullying is reaching epidemic proportions in secondary schools, prompting principals to throw their support behind extraordinary measures that could give them the powers to search and seize pupils' phones and iPads.

Palmerston North's principals want stronger tools to combat cyber bullying in schools, and are backing the Ministry of Education's push to give teachers the right to confiscate pupils' internet capable devices to find evidence of foul play in text messages, photographs, or online, in changes proposed within the Education Amendment Bill.

Online watchdog Netsafe has claimed that one in five New Zealand secondary school students report being cyberbullied online, or via text message or photographs.

Palmerston North Boys' High School principal David Bovey said school guidance counsellors were resolving cyber battles daily.

"Social media, I think, is one of the single biggest problems facing schools and students today.

"It is incredibly damaging. It's not the sites themselves, it's the incorrect use of them."

Boys' High does not permit pupils to use mobile phones at school or while they are in uniform.

Mr Bovey anticipated a backlash to the ministry's proposals on the basis of pupils' individual rights to privacy but said pupils could not entertain a sense of entitlement to the technology if they could not use it responsibly.

"We do [understand objections,] obviously but there's also an element of the greater good, and if you've got someone who is doing this sort of thing we think we should be entitled to investigate the situation."

Awatapu College principal Gary Yeatman agreed.

"Anything that helps parents and schools to push back against bullying has to be good," he said.

"Schools have always had to deal with bullying but technology has added a new level."

Palmerston North Girls' High School principal Melba Scott likened social networking site Facebook to a "gossip column" that some teenagers used to hurt and ridicule one another.

She said the school needed stronger tools to battle misuse of the site on its grounds.

"We are now resolving conflicts that are occurring 24/7," she said. "It is a bit of a silent war in that unless we are onto it or connected to that situation we have a problem, if we want to know what's going on."

Freyberg High School principal Peter Brooks called cyber bullying an "insidious" form of abuse that carried on beyond the school grounds. "The problem we have now got with the cyberworld is a whole new area where bullying can occur, and we are on a pathway where we are going to try to do anything we can [to prevent it]."

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One of the problems with disciplining cyber bullies was that many teenagers who bullied had been targeted themselves, and it wasn't as simple as identifying a culprit and a victim, Mr Brooks said.

Feilding High School already performed search and seizure measures and frequently confiscated pupils' mobile phones in allegations of bullying, principal Roger Menzies said.

In a message delivered to a national guidance counsellors' conference held in Palmerston North at the end of last year, chief coroner Judge Neil MacLean outlined his concerns about the links between cyber bullying and self-harm.

"It is just incredible that flow of information going into young brains, particularly late at night when they are alone, they are unsupported, their parents are unaware of what is going on and we see it sometimes that that's the sort of environment in which these thoughts start to fester and sometimes have an unfortunate outcome."

- Manawatu Standard

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