Peer abuse as child abuse and indications for intervention in schools
Peer abuse in the form of bullying is now recognised as an endemic feature of school life, and in terms of impact, outcomes and intervention requirements, it can be equated with other forms of child abuse. The parallels between peer abuse and more generally accepted forms of child abuse must be recognised and addressed with some urgency.
Peer abuse amongst children equates to child abuse on all levels of analysis. The power relationships involved between the victim and the perpetrator, although not as obvious between ‘peers’, are comparable. Secrecy operates in both contexts. In both types of cases the victim lacks access to support structures, either within their social milieu, or through access to professionals who can intervene on their behalf (Ambert, 1995; Portwood, 1999). They are also comparable in terms of the non-accidental nature of the injury.
Peer abuse is more prevalent than many other forms of behaviour that have recently come to be understood as child abuse, such as paedophilia in church and educational institutions, Internet child pornography, and systems abuse related to welfare interventions or ritual or satanic abuse (James, 2000).
Child abuse is comprehensively dealt with in the literature as having a negative psychological and socioemotional impact (Finkelhor & Korbin, 1998). In terms of implications for personal development it is difficult to differentiate the outcomes resulting from child abuse and peer abuse (Rigby & Slee,1993).
Rigby (1996) indicates that the general health of self-reported victims of bullying is significantly poorer than that of non-victims, with many psychological effects reported. Victims of bullying have been reported to exhibit higher rates of depression (Duncan, 1999), withdrawal and suicidal thoughts in response to the abuse (Prewitt 1988; Rigby, 1996), and to experience emotional disturbances such as anxiety, panic, loneliness and rejection. Others report that victims feel humiliated, ashamed and degraded by the rejection they endure (Besag, 1989; Olweus, 1999) and develop introverted and socially avoidant behaviour (Rigby & Slee,1993b). Furthermore, there is evidence of long-term impact and the potential for difficulties in interpersonal relationships in adult life as a result of bullying in childhood (Doll and Lyon, 1998). Duncan (1999) describes a retrospective study in which 46% of college students reported frequent flashbacks to childhood bullying even as young adults, while Matsui, Kakuyama, Tsuzuki and Onglatco (1996) found continued depression and low self-esteem in Japanese males victimised as children. Bullying increases the likelihood of psychiatric referral and is correlated with clinical psychological disturbance (Kampulainen et al, 1998).
Evidence from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) indicates that 36% of abuse of 0–17-year-olds in New South Wales is physical abuse (AIHW data, 2000). This form of abuse impacts disproportionately on males: 33.3% of males and 15% of females in the peer abuse data endured physical abuse.
The AIHW data also indicates that 9% of investigated reports of abuse were substantiated as being emotional abuse. It is clear from the AIHW study that the major source of emotional abuse of young people is peer abuse. This includes being teased and called names (64.3% males, 52.9% females); receiving negative comments about their family, country, religion (26.1%, males, 17.3% females); being left out or excluded on purpose (19.6% males, 25.5% females); being verbally threatened (20.0% males, 10.0% females); receiving negative comments on their personal appearance (44.8% males, 51.0% females); and deliberate damage to their personal property (15.4% males, 15.4% females). Overall, there is a close comparability between the nature and parameters of peer abuse as reported in independent research with adolescent populations in schools and the officially recorded data for reported and substantiated abuse perpetrated by adults against young people.
The seriousness of peer abuse has not yet been adequately assessed (Besag, 1989; Healey, 2002; Smith, 1994). Teachers often do not interpret bullying behaviours as ‘abusive’ but as ‘conflict’. However, ‘conflict’ constitutes mutually aggressive interactions between peers, not the abuse of one individual at the hands of another, more powerful individual. It is a reasonable proposition that many aggressive interactions between peers result from the domination of one child by another in unequal and abusive situations. The failure to distinguish conflict from abuse leaves victims of bullying unprotected and unsupported.
Conflict resolution strategies are not appropriate as an intervention in peer abuse. It may be valuable to recognise and incorporate a response to peer abuse within the legal procedures and professional processes established for protection of children. When teachers become aware that students are being consistently harmed or harassed by a peer, and therefore reasonable grounds are established for abuse, the behaviour ought to be notified under the mandated legislative procedures for protection.
In New South Wales the Children and Young Person’s (Care and Protection Act) NSW 1998 makes it mandatory for teachers to report child abuse. This legislation should be considered in terms of its potential application to peer abuse – to support interventions against serious bullying.
In other parts of Australia stalking legislation and Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) have been used by parents to secure protection for their bullied children under legal provisions (Coate, 2001). Litigation has also been successful where it has been shown that schools and teachers were negligent in their intervention in bullying.
The legal classification of peer abuse as a form of abuse included in mandated provisions for protective intervention would afford teachers and schools protection against litigation and would give the victims of peer abuse formal and legitimate legal redress and protection.
Currently school data on peer abuse is neither recognised nor recorded beyond the school itself. Data gathered in high schools with regard to peer abuse, designed to protect victims, should be given the same status as the data on child abuse collected for similar purposes by the AIHW.
Overall there is a close comparability between the nature and parameters of peer abuse as reported in independent research with adolescent populations in schools and the officially recorded data for reported and substantiated abuse perpetrated by adults against young people. Peer abuse can certainly be classified as a form of abuse and should therefore be addressed with equal seriousness.
Dr Jean Healey is a lecturer in Special Education and Academic Coordinator, Professional Experience (Special Education), School of Education, University of Western Sydney
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