Violence and bullying in schools are not recent phenomena. More than 150 years ago, Tom Brown’s schooldays took a turn for the worse when he was assaulted by a group of school peers and threatened to be ‘roasted’ alive.

Dan Olweus, the ‘father of bullying’, started studying bullying in the early 1980s following the suicide of three teenage boys in 1982. What may be more recent, however, is our understanding of how harmful the effects of bullying can be, both in the short and long terms, both academically and psychologically, both for the victim and perpetrator.

Research has consistently shown that children who are victims of bullying suffer from physical and mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide ideation and completion. Current research is also indicating that childhood bullying is related to psychological difficulties in adolescence and young adulthood.

Victimisation is also linked to poor academic performance, absenteeism, early school leaving and change of career plans. The perpetrators themselves are also at risk of engaging in anti-social behaviour and juvenile delinquency. If bullying is not effectively stopped at an early age, children will grow up believing they can satisfy their needs through coercion and violence.

What research on violence and school bullying is also showing is that there are particular groups of children and young people who are more at risk of being bullied than others. As we strive to create more inclusive, cohesive and harmonious communities, it is worrying to observe that children with individual educational needs and disability, minority children and LGBTI children are more vulnerable to bullying at school.

Children with individual educational needs and disability are more likely to be overrepresented in victimisation in both primary and secondary levels. Most vulnerable are children with learning disabilities and autism, with some studies indicating that up to three-quarters of such children are likely to be victims of bullying.

Racial bullying in schools has been largely neglected, but research shows that minority children such as Roma, migrant and refugee children are at risk of discriminatory bullying and more likely to experience bullying when compared to peers from dominant or native groups.

LGBTI bullying is one of the most unchallenged forms of bullying. It is widespread in many schools with many unreported cases. Research suggests that most LGBTI students do not feel safe at school, with about half reporting some form of bullying. Bullied LGBTI students are more than twice as likely as their peers to be depressed and think or attempt suicide, report higher levels of substance use and suicidality, while one in four misses school and one in three experiences problems with schoolwork.

“My fear of prejudice stems mainly from having been bullied at school for being perceived as gay before puberty. This has led me to draw a line between my private and my professional life. As a result, my behaviour at work involves a lot of self-censorship… I believe that secondary school is the crucible in which attitudes to diversity and sexual orientation are moulded. If we want to ingrain acceptance and tolerance in our societies, we should start with fostering positive attitudes in schools,” an LGBTI adult is reported to have said.

LGBTI bullying is one of the most unchallenged forms of bullying. It is widespread in many schools with many unreported cases

School bullying is a complex social issue that requires different solutions at various levels. Research, however, highlights the features of successful interventions to prevent bullying. In our recently published research report on school violence and bullying in the EU, we underline the need for a specific EU focus on the prevention of discriminatory bullying in school and for all Member States to have an explicit strategy in place at national level to address the prevention of discriminatory bullying in school.

We propose a European strategy based on a structural indicators framework developed for a comprehensive approach to bullying prevention, based on international evidence, a rights-based approach and other legal principles, and health promotion principles, with local ownership and adaptation of interventions by schools. The core of the framework is for schools to organise themselves as inclusive systems with a focus on bullying and violence prevention, including discriminatory bullying. Among others this entails:

Childhood bullying is related to psychological difficulties in adolescence.Childhood bullying is related to psychological difficulties in adolescence.

• a whole school approach with staff, students, parents and the local community engaged in promoting harmonious and pro-social behaviour and a clear policy on the actions to be taken in cases of bullying;

• a curricular approach to social and emotional learning and resilience as a key for personal development to challenge a culture of violence in school, with classroom time in this area being given higher priority;

• children and young people from minority or excluded groups providing help in designing concrete curricular resources that address bullying and prejudice;

• teachers receiving education in preventing and responding effectively to bullying, such as including classroom management and conflict resolution;

• active and collaborative parental involvement in contrast to ineffective top down information-type approaches;

• family support services for early intervention, including a one-stop shop where multidisciplinary services across health and education are available in an accessible community location to engage families with a range of needs for emotional and communicative support;

• outreach to community locations to overcome prejudice between groups, focused on developing contact through structured cooperation on tasks that are meaningful for members of the different ethnic or religious groups.

Children have a right to be protected from violence and abuse such as bullying. Bullying violates both the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. It is not only an issue of education policy, but also a health, youth welfare and child protection issue.

As adults it is our responsibility to take action to stop the abuse of minors. It may be too late for young people who committed suicide, for adults behind bars or young people scarred from past traumatic experiences, but we can act now to protect children and young people still attending school.

For more information on this framework and what schools and other stakeholders can do to prevent discriminatory bullying and other forms of violence and bullying in school, see our report: Downes, P. & Cefai, C. (2016) How to Tackle Bullying and Prevent School Violence in Europe: Strategies for Inclusive and Safe Schools NESET II – AR2. Luxembourg: Publications Office of the EU.

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Paul Downes is director of the Educational Disadvantage Centre, Dublin City University, Ireland, while Carmel Cefai is director of the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health at the University of Malta.

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