‘No matter where you go, you can't escape it’: the real cost of school and online bullying

For years, Sarah Newlassie has been the victim of spiteful, malicious bullying in the schoolyard.

At Sarah’s school, Pakenham Secondary College in outer Melbourne, play time has become fight time. Incredibly, some students even operate a YouTube channel dedicated to broadcasting the schoolyard attacks.

Sarah told her story to Sunday Night’s Angela Cox. “They usually say, ‘We’re going to punch you until you bleed,’ and they say, ‘We’re going to punch you and record it.’”

Sarah says the bullying began with name-calling, before it escalated when a pack of girls chose her to pick on and intimidate. In one incident late last year, she says she was cornered by the group.

“They grab me and they push me into the toilet,” Sarah recalls with fear. “I went into the cubicle and I lock it, and then all of a sudden I see them coming bashing against the door, and I see their feet standing there, and I’m just sitting there texting my mum.”

“I was actually on the phone while it was happening,” explains Sarah’s mum, Jodie. “It was so loud and they were pushing on her, and she was saying, ‘Stop pushing me, stop touching me!” I’m screaming through the phone, ‘Run, just run away!’ It was absolutely awful.”

Then in June this year, the bullies launched a premeditated attack on Sarah. Leaving school at the end of the day, a group of kids began filming her. Then one attacked, punching Sarah in the back of the head.

The video was posted online within five minutes of the incident. Sarah’s dad Simon was horrified when he first saw it. “It was the filthiest, lowest act you could do.”

Her mum agrees. “Unfortunately, it’s all about social media, and that’s what they live by – how many likes can I have? How many people are following me? And they’ve used her to get likes.”

It’s not just in the schoolyard that Sarah is subject to abuse. “You get home and you’re lying in your bed and you look over and your phone’s just sitting there, and you know deep down you’re waiting for a text to say paragraphs and paragraphs of these most disgusting things,” she reveals. “You can’t escape it. It’s like you have the verbal bullying and physical bullying at school, and then you have the social bullying at home, so no matter where you go, you can’t escape it.”

Jade Claffey and Mason Gapes are also in Year 8 at Pakenham Secondary. Just two days after Sarah was hit from behind, Jade was also attacked. Again, it was a playground ambush; the kids filming before the assault begins.

“I was just standing with my friends,” Jade recalls, “and we see thirty to forty kids come over. I am thinking in my head, ‘Shit, shit, shit… What do I do?’ I wasn’t going to get in the fight, and they start trying to get to me to fight me straight away because they knew I would try to stop it, and that’s when my friend steps in front and he protects me.”

Mason was the friend who intervened. “That’s not right. You shouldn’t bash people. I tried to stop them, and then they started laying into me.”

Jade remembers the moment the girls attacked Mason. “I see them starting, having a go at him, punching him… I might have been the first one to punch a girl but they threw the first punch at my friends, so that’s when I jumped in because I knew he wouldn’t have the guts to hit a girl.”

Jade has not only been the victim of physical attacks at Pakenham Secondary, she’s been humiliated by bullies over her appearance. Worst of all, the cruellest of taunts from the bullies at this school have been about her father Paul, who died two years ago.

“I had people texting me [and] telling me, ‘Hey, go kill yourself.’ Telling me to go commit suicide, pretty much. What teen is not going to react to that? I will admit when I got told to go kill myself, I am like, ‘Whoa, these people really want me dead.’ [But] that’s so stupid. Why should I think that?”

Brett Murray is one of Australia’s leading experts on bullying in schools and how to stop it. He says this kind of hateful language has become all too common.

“Unfortunately in Australia now, this is normal,” he explains. “Kids just say, ‘Go kill yourself.’ They devalue the other person because it makes them look good. Kids don’t really understand the depths of what they’re saying, simply because we now know that the teenage brain isn’t fully developed. Sound judgment, logical, rational thinking isn’t developed, so they’re speaking a lot out of emotion and out of hype and out of hormones.”

Mason says it feels like the bullies are running Pakenham Secondary College, with the attackers only suspended for a few days. “The teachers don’t do anything at all, and the bullies will provoke someone to the point where they will either leave the school or they will take action in their own lives. I don’t feel safe at all there, whatsoever.”

Jade and Sarah readily admit they are no angels. They’ve even been accused of bullying themselves.  Both have been suspended for hitting other students.

Jade says she has only acted out when provoked.  “I’ve had people hit me and I hit back and I get in trouble for it.”

Sarah says she “accidentally” slapped someone.  “I did it and I didn’t mean to and I was suspended.” She says she immediately apologised to the student.

The girls’ parents say they’ve been disciplined at home for those incidents. But they want to know how the bullying culture at the school spiralled out of control and they want answers from the school principal, Ray Squires.

“I haven’t even had access to talk to the principal once,” Jade’s mum, Julie tells us. “I would like to talk to the school and… I want some kind of explanation as to what they are doing to prevent it in the future.”

Mr Squires refused to talk to Sunday Night when we approached him. He later provided a short written statement, saying there is no place for bullying at the school. We have posted the full statement below, along with a response from the Department of Education.

The toxic bullying isn’t confined to Pakenham’s school grounds. A wider look at the issue reveals no school is immune, and no age group off limits.

“If any school says [they] don’t have a bullying problem, they are lying,” Brett tells us. “That’s why we have over 450 teen suicides in Australia each year. That’s over one a day. But for every one suicide, there’s 161 attempted suicides, and for every one of these numbers that we’re mentioning – that’s a person. That’s a life. That’s a son. That’s a daughter. That’s a person who has an amazing future that’s been cut short.”

On the other side of the Australia, Angela Cox visits Eva Davey. She’s a smart girl with a lot to live for, but she’s also been pushed to the brink by bullying. After arriving in Perth from England with her family, she was first picked on for being the new kid in class.

Her mother, Leigh, explains the abuse at its worst. “One girl told her to go and kill herself.”

Traumatised by the relentless bullying, Eva began to cut herself.

“I feel I deserve it because they must be saying this sort of mean stuff for a reason,” Eva told Sunday Night. “If they don’t want me here, then I feel like I shouldn’t be here. I feel like I should just do them a favour and just to stop everything that’s happening to me because I think it would help them, but also it would help me to stop the pain.”

The situation got so bad that Eva was admitted to hospital late last year after a therapist discovered she had a plan to kill herself.

Her father Carl was devastated. “[It was] heartbreaking from a parent’s perspective, to watch your child disintegrate into a shell of a person, which is what we’ve had to watch.”

While Eva was in hospital, Leigh took an emotional photo of Eva with her father, and shared it on Facebook with the message, “Our beautiful girl has been subjected to some awful bullying at school… weeks of ridicule… our girl had a plan to commit suicide.”

Before long, the post was shared thousands of times. The response shocked Eva’s parents. “It had just gone absolutely berserk, and [we] suddenly realised that there are young children all over Western Australia – Australia – the world – that are experiencing this.”

The response also surprised Eva. “I didn’t think that I was that important to people, people that I don’t really know. I knew that bullying was a popular thing, but I didn’t realise how popular. I didn’t realise it was going on literally every single school.”

Carl and Leigh are upset the girl responsible for most of the bullying hasn’t even been expelled.

They want the government to do more – specifically, a three strikes and you’re out policy in every Australian school.

Brett Murray says parents also have the power to reduce bullying by controlling what their kids are doing on their mobile phones.

“If your child doesn’t want to turn their phone off, take it off them,” he insists. “They’re a child. All of their rights and their devices and their privacy – no, they’re children! Parents need to really step up and say, ‘You know what, no means no.’”

Back in Melbourne, bullying victims Jade, Mason and Sarah have had enough. With the support of their parents, they’ve all left Pakenham Secondary and enrolled elsewhere.

They’re all in agreement – they have nothing but good feelings about leaving. “I’m out the door. I’m going somewhere else,” Mason says. “I’m sick of this place.”

 

Reporter: Angela Cox

Producer: Paul Waterhouse

 

Sunday Night believes that bullying – in schools and online – is an important issue. It’s resonated with a lot of parents and children out there, and many of you have already shared your experiences with us. We want to STOP BULLYING NOW. Send a video or photo to our Facebook, Twitter or Instagram holding a sign with the hashtag #StopBullyingNow – and remember, a little kindness goes a long way.

 

If this story has raised any issues for you or someone you know, there is help available.

Kids Help Line

1800 55 1800

www.kidshelpline.com.au

Kids Helpline is a free 24/7 phone and online counselling and support service specifically for children and young people aged 5 to 25 years.

In addition to their phone and online counselling work, the Kids Helpline @ School program connects with schools via video streaming to talk with classes about both school based and cyber bullying.

 

Lifeline

13 11 14

www.lifeline.org.au

Lifeline is a national charity providing all Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services.

 

Make Bullying History

www.makebullyinghistory.org

Brett Murray is the CEO and co-founder of Make Bullying History. The foundation provides educational seminars to both primary and secondary-aged students, as well as professional development workshops for teachers and seminars for parents, creating a proven holistic school community approach to disarming bullying.

 

Sunday Night sought comment from the Department of Education, as well as Pakenham Secondary College Principal, Ray Squires.

We received the following responses:

Department of Education

Incidents of violence and aggressive behaviour involving students from Victoria’s government school system, which includes more than 1,500 schools and over 600,000 students, remain relatively rare.

The safety and wellbeing of our students is our number one priority and there is no place for aggressive and threatening behaviour in our schools.

The Department’s policies were followed. Police have investigated this incident and issued cautions to those involved.

The school has taken these allegations very seriously and has taken disciplinary measures. Safety plans are in place at the school, and students are being supported through this difficult time.

Principals work hard to ensure all students are safe at school and remain engaged in education, and ensure that all interventions and disciplinary measures are utilised.

Ray Squires, Pakenham Secondary College Principal

There is no place for incidents like this at our school.

It does not reflect the behaviour of the overwhelming majority of our students.

The school takes these matters very seriously and has introduced a range of measures to prevent and respond to bullying and aggression.