On June 29th I attended a conference on bullying organized jointly by Gloucester Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS) and 2gether, Gloucestershire’s mental health trust. This time I was one of four facilitators for group discussions in the morning and afternoon.
This was the third of these conferences that I’ve attended, and I have found them consistently worthwhile both for the range of delegates to mingle with and for the well-chosen speakers. The conference tends to attract a variety of professionals from Gloucestershire and surrounding parts. This time the subject matter, bullying, meant that there were more teachers than usual.
As before at this venue, the Churchdown Community Centre between Gloucester and Cheltenham, the sound system was terrible. At the start of the conference presenters refused to use it, but the acoustics of the hall, the noise from the kitchens and the frequent low-flying light aircraft made this unworkable. Presenters gradually worked out how to use the microphone, but it remained difficult to hear questions from other audience members.
HM Coroner for Norfolk, William Armstrong, gave a standard presentation about inquests and the role of a Coroner, managing to work in a few jokes. Disappointingly, he steered clear of mentioning bullying.
He made the interesting point that although suicide has not been a crime for many years, at an inquest the old standard of proof “beyond reasonable doubt” remains for verdicts of suicide.
Another interesting point is that although inquests are open to the public by law, not all the evidence is necessarily brought into the public domain. For example, the existence of a suicide note might be made public, but its contents rarely would.
In Norfolk he makes sure that bereaved families have a special place in the courtroom and have a chance to speak. He meets them before the inquest. But around the country there is wide variation in the way coroners do things. A delegate made the point that she would have valued his approach at the inquest she attended in Gloucestershire.
Gloucestershire County Council’s lead for children’s health and well-being, Jan Courtney, gave a standard presentation that emphasised processes and statistics. Her presentation overran and then she ran off, so no one had the chance to ask her questions.
The website she advertised at ghll.org.uk doesn’t exist at the time of writing, and there was no information in the delegate pack about the Council’s work on bullying in schools.
School counsellors who were present said later, in the discussion group, that they were astonished she had not mentioned their role. They often work with children who have been bullied. In fact she had said in passing that every school has some form of pastoral care system, even if they do not call it that. The counsellors noted that not every school in Gloucestershire has a counsellor, even though those that do find them very valuable.
One of her statistical findings was that after the Council began its work on bullying, the incidence of bullying went up a little. After that it went down a little. It was all good, she said. When it goes up that means the Council’s work is a success because it has raised awareness. When it goes down that means the Council’s work is a success because it has reduced the incidence. In spite of all this success, the Council had cut the project’s staff from ten people to just one.
Another striking statistic was that the reported incidence of bullying falls dramatically between the ages of eight and sixteen. After her talk Trish Thomas noted that the incidence of suicide probably rises between those ages in exactly the same way. In discussion there was a suggestion that when younger children report bullying and nothing is done about it, they gradually learn not to report it.
Sergeant Tim Harper, of West Mercia Police, gave a standard presentation about anti-social behaviour, describing it as a bucket that all kinds of undesirable behaviour can be thrown into (with a slide showing a photograph of a bucket to make the point clear).
He reported that a new manual on hate crime will include words like “hostility” and “prejudice” to encourage police to take action on incidents that might at present be considered unimportant. He made the point well that seemingly trivial things can have a great impact on people’s lives.
Policing is changing, and there’s more emphasis on establishing the level of harm. West Mercia now has a standard set of simple questions that assess each situation reported to them. He deplored the lack of a standard national computer system for recording anti-social behaviour, because each area having a different system made for difficulties.
He finished off with two brief case studies, and there was time for questions about hate crime, police work in schools, and working with victims and other agencies. It was a well thought out presentation that was positive about what’s changing and honest about the problems police face, even though it didn’t specifically focus on bullying.
Paul King, of global IT company Cisco Systems, gave part of a standard presentation on Internet safety. His day job mainly concerns corporate espionage, but he is also experienced in speaking to schools.
He made a good case for teaching children to recognise danger on the Internet and to report anything suspicious to trusted adults. He doesn’t believe that filters or bans are workable solutions, and he is disappointed that politicians and others have so much faith in these things.
If a school bans Facebook, will children discuss their Facebook problems with teachers?
His presentation avoided addressing bullying directly, but he spent a lot of time pointing out that everything everyone does on the Internet can be traced by law enforcers, and he gave an over-simplified yet over-lengthy explanation of IP addresses and server logs. He also spent a lot of time telling us to use a separate password for each website, and to make our passwords complicated.
Unfortunately, some technical aspects of his presentation were less than perfect. For example, he claimed that you can use the Print Screen button on a Windows computer to capture a series of pictures of the screen, but in fact you would need special software to make it do that. He uses an Apple Mac, and he just assumed that Windows works the same way.
Also, his password strategy is impractical unless you store the passwords on your computer, and he didn’t discuss how to do that safely.
When answering questions from delegates, though, he knew to repeat each question for the rest of the audience to hear. Hooray!
Again, however, a technical question about blocking IP addresses caught him out. He came up with a far-fetched scenario of corporate espionage, but blocking IP addresses is any website’s first line of defence against various kinds of attack, and it’s used by mail servers to block spammers, too.
In spite of some shaky technical content, this presentation was the most successful of the conference, I thought, because it gave delegates concrete things to think about and change.
Bullying and harassment law
Tamsin James, from Gloucester Law Centre® (the only website I’ve ever seen with ® in its title), gave a presentation on bullying and harassment at work. She told a story about when she was bullied at work but it had taken her a while to realize. She and others complained, and the boss who had bullied her eventually left.
After some research it appears “Gloucester Law Centre” isn’t a registered mark in the UK, but “Law Centre” is a registered mark of the Law Centres Federation. On the Gloucester centre’s website the About page doesn’t mention the Federation, and the link at the bottom to a Trademarks page is fictitious. Personally, this doesn’t make me feel good about their ability to cope with complex legal matters.
In the presentation, although she did her best to bring a boring subject to life by basing it on case studies, and by dancing around the floor in an overexcited way, it didn’t really work and the information she gave was difficult to take in.
Her final message was that it’s best to seek help early on if you are being bullied or harassed, but this advice was tacked on to the end of a presentation that emphasized the complexity of the law, so it didn’t ring true to me. Even in the story she told about being bullied herself, she didn’t see the situation as bullying until later. And there’s risk involved in making a false accusation, or in bringing a case that fails, but she didn’t seem to consider that side of things.
Angie Macdonald, of the Sand Rose project in Cornwall, described her charity that provides respite breaks for families who have suffered bereavement. She created the charity following the death of her first husband.
This was an inspiring and moving talk, supported by many photographs of the charity’s three cottages and the families who have stayed there.
Two discussion sessions addressed scenarios supplied by the Gloucestershire Older Persons Assembly (GOPA) and Gay Glos. In the group I facilitated, I thought the delegates seemed to find the scenarios lightweight and lacking in detail. It wasn’t clear that any of the scenarios really involved bullying.
In the scenario involving older people there was clearly an injury that needed a GP’s attention, and a crime that needed to be reported to police. In the scenario involving a teenager becoming withdrawn, delegates hoped that a teacher would notice the change and a school counsellor would be able to investigate and help.
There had been a request from one of the facilitators to ensure delegates knew to report any possible abuse of older people through the county adult safeguarding system, but in my group a delegate who seemed to have experience in this area dismissed the idea, saying that doing that would not result in any action being taken. (This is my impression, too, as I described earlier this year in Safeguarding, and later had confirmed in an actual case.)
Next year’s conference, on June 28th, 2013, will have the title “Taming the Black Dog — Depression and Anxiety”.