Liston College: Bullying Update

We removed our son Christian from Liston College in May 2009 after a year and half of repeated bullying. In this time it became clear that the problem with the school wasn’t just those students doing the bullying but that the school itself did not take bullying seriously enough.
In every previous blog post on our bullying saga we have avoided naming the school as we wanted to give them a chance to rectify their mistakes and do the right thing. However, after much consideration, we have changed our policy (although we will not name staff members or students). This is due to the letter we received from the school’s Principal in response to our formal complaint.

It is clear to us that Liston have no intention of learning from what happened to our son on their watch so we feel we have an obligation to ensure parents considering Liston College are aware of what they could be getting their son into.

If Liston College want this blog post to be deleted they can send our son an apology, give us a refund of his fees in full, develop a bullying policy and make a commitment to ensure that bullying in the classroom, in front of teachers, is always followed up on and by followed up on, we don’t mean that the victim is sent to the back of the classroom to separate the two and that parents are never informed that their son’s are bullies.

The letter from Liston’s College’s Principal:

Dear Dr and Mrs Flannagan,

I am in receipt of your letter dated the 23rd of May 2009 outlining your reasons for removing Christian from Liston College. It is disappointing that you both feel that the school has let your son down.

I feel that my staff have acted professionally and they have worked extremely hard to resolve the issues but as parents you have the right to remove your son from our College.

There will be a part refund on fees and this will be processed by our Accounts Department and sent to you by the end of the week.

I wish Christian all the best at his new school.

The part refund, according to the accompanying note from the accounts department, was simply an adjustment to reflect the time Christian actually spent at Liston which we would have received if we had left the school for any reason. We are asking for a full refund due to breach of contract and resulting harm; Christian did not get the education we paid for due to their failure to effectively deal with his bullying and both his mental health and education suffered considerably as a result.

As for ‘staff acting professionally’ and ‘working extremely hard to resolve issues’ see the complaint we sent to the Board of Trustees below and then let us know in the comments if you think we are over-reacting. We wish to be fair so tell us if you think we are not.

To the Board of Trustees of Liston College,

Our son has recently been withdrawn from Liston College as we have lost confidence in the school’s ability to provide him with a safe physical and emotional environment.

Christian began attending Liston at the start of 2008 as a Year 9 student. Since that time he has been repeatedly bullied by other students. This bullying included being called names, threatened, being taunted about his medical condition (he has Aspergers Syndrome – see the attachment “medical condition”); he has been shoved, choked, hit, punched, knocked over, kicked, had his pants pulled down and has been dragged across the concrete while a student filmed him on his cell phone. During class, he has had objects thrown at him, he has been hit, punched, kicked, he has been knocked out of his desk, has had people steal his belongings, call him names and taunt him about his condition. Frequently the response of the teachers in these classes to these incidents has not been adequate, often it has been him moved instead of the bully.

Not once, when staff were aware that he had been assaulted, were we ever informed by the school that he had been attacked; including the time he came home with a swollen, blackened, split lip and was crying so loudly the receptionist could hear him from the sickbay or the time he was dropped to the ground and kicked by a group of boys. Instead, each time he would be sent back to class (where sometimes he would be assaulted again) and the first we would hear about any attack on him would be when he got home; by then he would be in an extremely distressed state at, not just the assault, but at having had to come to terms with what had happened on his own, not being able to contact us, and at having to face his attackers before he was ready to.

To our knowledge, no student has been stood down, reported to the board of trustees or even had their parents phoned over the assaults and harassment they have committed against our son in his year and a half at Liston, including the repeat offenders. As far as we can tell, punishments ranged from being spoken to by the dean, sometimes detentions or some form of mediation between Christian and the bully concerned; which Christian often reported to us that he felt he had no option but to consent to participate in even when he did not feel up to facing his attacker.

We were not always informed of the outcome of complaints, so Christian would often return to school not even sure if any justice had occurred. This made summoning the courage to face his attackers more difficult. On other occasions we have been told that Christian’s annoying Aspergers-related behaviour had some how mitigated or made the assaults more understandable.

In response to complaints about bullying during class-time being tolerated or trivialised by his teachers (See the attachment written by Christian entitled “bad teachers”) Christian was told by his dean, XXXXX to just get up and walk out of class. However, Christian was paralysed with fear at the thought of doing this, so was unable to do so in response to subsequent classroom incidents. YYYYY [the Guidance Counsellor] made Christian a card to use in such situations, the card was supposed to work so that he could just show it to the teacher and the teacher would then permit him to leave but when he tried to use it he was not allowed to leave. It seemed to us that a better solution would have been for the teachers to simply not tolerate bullying in the classroom as opposed to putting the solution to the problem onto Christian.

We found as we supported Christian through these events that there was sometimes a lack of understanding of the effects of the bullying on him; Christian often would not feel comfortable reporting the bullying to anyone at school and would instead tell us when he got home. The reasons why he did this were often not understood by the school despite this being a very commonly documented occurrence in victims of bullying and despite our attempts to explain this on Christian’s behalf. For example, in an email dated 3 March 09, XXXXX wrote,

“I met with Christian and Matthew this morning concerning the e-mail you sent. Once again Christian continues to take problems home and not seek immediate assistance when something untoward happens to him.”

This type of comment was made frequently despite it being a very normal reaction on the part of victims of assault and harassment to not report it.

Christian felt that many of the adults at the school had failed to act justly on this matter previously so he did not feel safe going to them. Sometimes, as reporting it opened the whole thing up, took him out of class, ate up his lunch-times and got us upset, even though he wanted some justice and wanted it to stop, it seemed easier to leave it but then it would escalate and he wouldn’t know what to do then because he would have to explain why he had left it. This was especially common on days or weeks where there were several separate incidents. Further, he was also aware that his condition makes him annoying to other children and that given his struggles with social contexts, he frequently lacked the confidence to be sure that what had happened met the standard for bullying. Given all of this, we don’t think that it was fair to expect him to always feel able to report it immediately and to make comments to that effect to him. We understand the need for immediate reporting but victims are not always capable of doing this and understanding that is an important part of helping them.

Notwithstanding this, we do not want to give the impression that XXXXX or YYYYYY or ZZZZZZ, the former guidance counsellor, did not care about what was happening to Christian or that they failed to follow through on investigating complaints. This was not the case and we appreciated their concern and their investigations. Our issue was that we were not always informed of outcomes of complaints; we were never informed of attacks on Christian – even the more serious ones – and there was insufficient understanding of the effect bullying has on a victim. In addition we were not happy with the consequence meted out to the offenders or with Christian’s teachers more than once failing to act on classroom bullying.

It seemed to us (aside from the repeat offenders) that as each bully was dealt with another one popped up to take his place. This suggested to us that a culture of bullying had developed within the school; that to the other students, bullying didn’t come with serious consequences: your parents didn’t get told, you were not at risk of being stood down and the teachers didn’t really view it as anything serious anyway when it happened in the classroom. We feel that this is why the situation was never able to be gotten under control and why the school cannot, at this point, provide Christian with a safe learning environment.

The result of the last year and half of enduring bullying at Liston is that Christian’s education and mental health has been harmed. He has been recently referred to mental health by his doctor and he reports suffering from severe panic attacks 4-5 times a week when he is at school. Discovering this meant that continuing to try to work with the school was no longer in Christian’s best interests. We could not in good conscience keep him in an environment that was causing him that much harm.

The consequence of this decision is that he now has to face adjusting to a new school, change is a big deal for someone with Aspergers Syndrome, and having to face this in the middle of his first year of NCEA is especially difficult. Further, having a Christian education is also something very important to Christian, who has a strong faith, and he is disappointed that he now he has to go to a secular school where he cannot take his favourite subject, religious education. Finally, his grades have slipped, which he says is due to his constant worrying about avoiding bullying and the panic attacks which have messed with his ability to concentrate and also, due to the amount of time he was spending either out of class reporting bullying or the days off school emotionally recovering from bullying.

Needless to say we are extremely unhappy at what has happened to our son. We seek a full refund of Christian’s school fees on the grounds that he has not received the education that we paid for due to the breach of duty of care that the school owed him. Further, it is our and Christian’s, hope that as a consequence of what he has endured at Liston, that the Board will develop and implement a just bullying policy that has consequences as its primary focus, is more closely mirrored with what happens in real life when an adult commits assault against another, so as to prepare students for what awaits them when they turn 16 and engage in this behaviour, and involves a joint strategy with both home and school for all parties concerned.

Assault and harassment carries serious legal consequences if people engage in it when they are adults. Given this, a school does its students no favours if it fails to treat these things as seriously as the law does. The school we are moving Christian to has a very strong policy on bullying; the first offence earns the offender a trip to the deputy principal’s office and a letter home and a second offence is an automatic stand down and a report to the Board of Trustees. We feel that a similar policy is warranted at Liston.

Please see the attached appendices to further support and elaborate on the claims made above.

We won’t list all the appendices as the whole complaint was 16 pages long but here is Christian’s report on the incidents that happened in class with the teacher present; it relates to four separate teachers:

Bad Teachers

Written by Christian

Social Studies: Once, I was attacked and the teacher said I deserved it because I hadn’t done my work. Another time I tried to use my card and I couldn’t leave. On Liston Day some boys were punching me, I told the teacher and she believed them when they lied and said it was all someone else (who she didn’t talk to).

Physical Education: I was pushed right out of my seat onto the floor, knocking over my desk in the process, by CCCCCC who always hits me, I told the teacher and CCCCCC lied, saying that I was “shouting in his ear”. I was actually facing the opposite direction talking quietly to somebody else. I told the teacher this and he confined me to my seat and said that CCCCCC was justified in assaulting me.

Graphics: I was hit in the head. I reported it, the teacher said he would deal with it but he did nothing. About 10 minutes later I reminded him, then he said “let’s just put it behind us”. Ok, fine. I got angry and couldn’t do any work. If the teacher complained, I would say exactly what he said: “let’s just put it behind us.”

Science: CCCCCC was throwing paper, folded so much that it was hard, at me. I reported it. Teacher didn’t notice (the class was misbehaving, I’m not surprised he didn’t notice when I reported it). He did nothing about it.

I hate the school because I am ALWAYS being pulled out to avoid bullying because the school won’t take the bullies out. This is wrong and I think it’s wrong to do anything they tell me to if they are that stupid. EVERY SINGLE TIME I get bullied in class I’M the one who has to sit in the back of the class. The bullies just get told to stop it (and they never stop) when they should be the ones made to sit at the back. When I speak out against the teacher I get told off and threatened with detentions but they can do what they like to me.

We could go to court and we reserve our rights to do so, but the education sector is highly regulated and there is the cost and the time frame to consider. The official complaints mechanisms via the government departments are bureaucratic and backed up; as a result only severe bullying tends to get followed up on (what happened to Christian is deemed low level). Options like the blogosphere, Fair Go, the media are more accessible, quicker and are generally more effective.

We realise that this is a bullish move but we have been trying to resolve this issue with Liston College for over a year now and they appear to think they did nothing wrong and do not owe our son anything.

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