Investigations

Breaking point: bullying's deadly toll

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Right now every 15 minutes a child is being bullied. Imagine your son, daughter, niece or nephew suffering in silence, let down by an education system that should protect them.

Every day, more than 100,000 students in Australia stay at home because they feel unsafe at school and social media is spawning brutal levels of cruelty among children online.
 
Kids as young as 12 are being bullied to death. Some services are now reporting up to three suicides a week across the country as a result of the effects of bullying.

Tayla, 13, is one person who knows the impact bullying can have intimately. She has just arrived in Cairns to stay with her grandfather.

Child services deemed the bullying she suffered so severe that she be removed not only from her previous school but the entire town.

The bullying started at school. I was scared of other kids," she says.

"They were always picking on me, calling me names. I got beaten up. I would bring money to school and they started stealing it off me.

"I stopped eating because they said I was fat as a pig... They were so mean to me all the time.

"All the kids would say go and jump off a cliff. We don’t really care. It made me feel really terrible like no one loved me anymore."

For Tayla's mother, Kali, it was a frustrating and heartbreaking situation.

"The principal to me seemed to have no clue of the gravity and the criminality of what was actually happening to Tayla," she says.

"The principal had told me that 'Well, if Tayla's going to do unusual things at school then she’s going to get picked on."

And by 'unusual', she just meant different. 

"I told one of my friends that I wasn’t straight, I was gay and he was like 'that’s the disgusting-est thing I’ve ever heard'," says Tayla. "And he was like laughing and was whispering to everyone. Then I started getting bullied."

While at her previous school in Dysart - a small mining community about 900km from Cairns - Tayla became so desperate for help that she created a petition on change.org, writing every word herself.

Tayla posted the petition early May and it went viral. More than 110,000 people got on board and hundreds of kids shared their stories of abuse. But the bullies retaliated and the consequences for Tayla and her family were devastating.

"She started drawing pictures of people calling her a freak, she started drawing pictures of her dead body and just saying I want to die, I don't want to do this every day, I want to be dead," says Kali. 

"We rang up kids helpline, we had her into counselling. We got her a psychologist but it just wasn’t helping."

They may be just kids but the tactics that they're using are criminal and destroy lives.

Eight weeks after the petition went up, Tayla attempted to take her own life. The Feed contacted the principal of Dysart State High School and the Queensland Department of Education and Training about Tayla’s case.They declined to comment.

For Kali, she says she would like to see "better policies from the education minister about bullying".

"They may be just kids but the tactics that they're using are criminal and destroy lives.

"They may not understand the consequences but the consequences are deadly for people."

Each state and territory in Australia has different policies around bullying. Victoria is the only state where bullying is now a punishable crime for minors.

Known as Brodie’s law, legislation was introduced in 2011 after the suicide of teenager Brodie Panlock who was subjected to relentless bullying in her workplace.

There are no laws that specifically deal with cyber bullying as a criminal offence for children in Australia.

"There's no magic bullet that will fix bullying in a minute," says Sandra Craig, manager at the National Centre Against Bullying. 

"A horrible school culture is very difficult to change. It's no help pointing the finger and blaming.

"You don’t want to demonise kids who are doing bullying behaviours, we don’t want to call them bullies because in the next minute they might be a target of bullying.

"There's a hole in the system and it's a systems problem so it's not a quick fix."

Australia’s only 24/7 national bullying hotline is run by Bully Zero Australia Foundation, a non government organisation. They’ve been running regular prevention workshops at Essendon High and around the country for the past four years.

Former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia Alastair Nicholson and Sandra Craig head up the National Centre Against Bullying.

The National Centre Against Bullyingwas established because bullying was seen to be the most widespread form of violence that kids experience and that something really needs to be done about it on a systems level," says Sandra.

"Whilst there is some research to show the amount of bullying has declined slightly, a the moment in Australian schools there’s still one in five kids who are being bullied and one in seven is being cyber bullied...on social media."

State Government's run anti-bullying programs in some schools. Over the past five years the Federal Government has spent more than 100 million dollars on bullying initiatives.

Yet the question remains: is this doing enough? According to Sandra, no.

"There's been heaps of money thrown at this problem over years but until everybody starts to improve preventative efforts across the board then things probably aren't going to change," she says.

"Punishment hasn’t shown to be very successful against any type of negative behaviour."

Statements from government bodies on bullying in Australia

During the making of this story, we contacted several government agencies and bodies for comment in regards to the issue of bullying in Australia and specific cases. Here are a collection of their official statements.

Statement from Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham:

“All students have the right to feel and be safe at school. Bullying and abuse of any nature is unacceptable at any Australian school.

“While anti-bullying programs and safety in schools are the responsibility of states and territories, the Federal Government works closely with state and territory counterparts to address this important issue.

“We want to create supportive school environments – free from bullying, harassment and violence. So I stand with schools, parents, teachers and students in sending the strong message that bullying and violence are not okay, at any time.

“Evidence is clear as to the psychological and traumatic impact of bullying, not only for those who are bullied, but for those who bully others and those who witness bullying.

“The Turnbull Government continues to support the central Bullying. No Way! portal to give students, families and teachers a central place to get the latest information, tips and advice on recognising, coping with and addressing bullying.

“There are a range of mental health support organisations but if you or anyone you know needs help, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800.”

Statement from the NSW Department of Education (re: Figtree High School and the death of Jessica Tolhurst): 
 
"All NSW public schools have strong student wellbeing policies in place to provide a caring and supportive learning environment for students. This includes anti-bullying programs.
 
"As this matter is under Police investigation for the coroner, it is inappropriate for the Department to comment."

Statement from the Queensland Department of Education and Training (re: speaking with the Principal of Dysart State High School):

"Thank you for your offer of right-of-reply, but the Department will politely decline your request to speak with someone on this occasion."

Make a difference: sign the petition at Change.org and help impact real change to bullying laws in Australia.

If you need help or to speak to a professional, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit their Crisis Support Chat. For an LBGTQI+ dedicated service call QLife on 1800 184 537 or visit their website.

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