Challenges related to discrimination, bullying and social inclusion

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Families who contact us raise a number of questions or concerns about discrimination, bullying and problems with their child being included at school.

On this page:

1. Challenges related to bullying at school.

2. Challenges related to discrimination at school.

3. Challenges related to ensuring your child has support to develop their social skills and make friends.

4. Challenges related to ensuring your child has support for needs related to a mental health issue or behavioural ‘disorder’ that impacts on their social relationships.

Introduction

Below we raise some common challenges related to discrimination, bullying and social inclusion and offer some suggestions for dealing with them. However, individual children’s needs and situations vary, and families take different approaches to advocating for their child.

Some general tips on raising a concern with school are:

  • You have the right to raise any concern you have with school or with your child’s education.
  • Understanding your child’s rights will help you to feel confident that your requests are reasonable.
  • Try to focus on one issue at a time. It’s worth taking time to gather all the information you can about the issue, to work out how express your concerns clearly and calmly, and to focus on the outcome you want for your child.
  • You always have the right to a support person or advocate in your dealings with school.

Follow these links for more about how to effectively raise a concern with school:

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Discrimination, bullying and inclusion in a Catholic or independent school

Most of the content on this page relates most directly to discrimination, bullying and social inclusion in a government school. However, many of the tips are also relevant to Catholic or independent schools, and all of the links offered also cover information relevant to all three school sectors.

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  1. Challenges relating to bullying at school.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity Act (2010) outlaws discrimination, and requires schools to take reasonable steps to eliminate it as much as possible. The Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act (1992) and other anti-discrimination laws also protect your child’s right to attend school free from discrimination and harassment. ‘Harassment’ includes any actions in relation to your child’s disability that is likely to humiliate, offend, intimidate or distress them, or you as their family member. Bullying is a form of harassment.

The same laws outlaw victimization, which is when someone is treated unfairly for complaining, or helping others complain, about an incident of discrimination or harassment.

Bullying and can come in many forms, which are explored in some detail in the relevant page of the Education and your child’s rights section. Students with disabilities can sometimes be particularly vulnerable to social exclusion, discrimination or teasing due to their disability, or being encouraged by other students to behave in ways that they might not understand to be against school rules or expectations.

If your child is experiencing exclusion, discrimination or bullying, including on the basis of their disability, its important to make the school aware of this promptly. You can raise it as a concern with your child’s teacher or homeroom teacher, or with the principal or other key staff.

  • Visit the Raising a concern with school section for a step-by-step guide to thinking through, raising, investigating and hopefully resolving your concern in partnership with the school.

There are many things that schools can do to prevent discrimination and bullying, and to promote a school culture where everyone’s rights are respected. The Victorian Government provides information and advice for students, families, teachers and school leaders on bullying and harassment on the DET website under ‘Bully Stoppers’.

Many schools have good anti-bullying programs, and yet students with a disability continue to experience high rates of discrimination, exclusion and bullying, according to the federal government’s most recent five-yearly review of the Disability Standards for Education. Bullying on the basis of disability can be combined with other experiences of exclusion, for example for students from Aboriginal or migrant backgrounds, or those who are same-sex attracted or gender questioning.

Prevention of bullying is also about positive measures to support the inclusion of all students. Ask the school for their anti-bullying policy and suggest ways it can be promoted to the school community. Discuss it with your child’s teachers and support staff, and with other parents and carers. Schools could consider developing specific policies and strategies to prevent and address bullying based on disability, including helping staff to recognise and respond to bullying, challenge stereotyped beliefs about people with a disability and support inclusion of all students.

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  1. Challenges related to discrimination at school.

There are different kinds of discrimination, including social discrimination, which is also called bullying or harassment. If your child is experiencing this, whether on the basis of disability or for any other reason, please see the information and tips outlined under issue 1.

There is also institutional discrimination, whereby your child, because of their disability or other additional needs, might be excluded from having access to or participating in the full range of school facilities and activities, or might experience differential treatment from other students.

This form of discrimination is illegal under Commonwealth and Victorian law. If it occurs, you might well be entitled to make a complaint on this basis to an external complaints mechanism such as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC). ACD cannot offer any kind of legal advice to you, but you can ring VEOHRC to discuss your concerns, without being obliged to make a formal complaint. The process that VEOHRC offers complainants is one of supported mediation – to assist you, your child and the school to work through the issues and find a mutually acceptable solution.

You can also, of course, use the existing processes within the school and the support system for students with disabilities to raise and resolve the issue, and you can seek support from an advocacy organisation like ACD to do so. Like the VEOHRC process, this would be a matter of working with the school to investigate the issue at hand, understand the underlying issues, and look at a range of adjustments that would resolve the problem and prevent it from re-occuring.

  • The section Raising a concern with school will take you, step-by-step, through the process of how to identify, express, investigate, seek advice on, and hopefully resolve your concern with school. It includes information about how an advocate or support person can help, and how to find this kind of assistance.
  • The section A guide to the complaints process explains the complaints system in detail, including taking unresolved concerns ‘up the ladder’, using external complaints mechanisms including VEOHRC, and the different complaints processes in government, Catholic and independent schools.

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  1. Challenges related to ensuring your child has support to develop their social skills and make friends.

It’s important that schools understand that your child might require a range of supports or adjustments to feel comfortable in the classroom and to learn. This is supported by DET policy, which says that in order to learn, every student needs to be ‘engaged’. According to the DET policy, student engagement has three aspects:

  • Behavioural engagement: whether your child can actively participate at school, including in all academic, social and extra-curricular activities
  • Emotional engagement: how comfortable your child feels being part of their class and school community – their sense of belonging and connection at school
  • Cognitive engagement: how your child feels about learning – their interest and motivation to learn.

DET recognises that when all these are in place, your child has their best chance of achieving their potential at school. If your child is feeling isolated or excluded from social groups, is struggling to make friends, or is getting into conflict with other students because, for example they need help to learn the skills to negotiate play, then this puts them ‘at risk of disengagement’.

Its useful for you to understand this language of ‘student engagement’, to know that Victorian government policy supports your child’s right to receive supports that help with their social learning and inclusion.

Teachers have access to many tools and strategies to encourage all students to communicate effectively, and to teach them the social skills they need to include each other well in play and in learning. This social learning is critical for all students in schools. The DET website outlines frameworks and provides resources to teachers for preventing bullying, and for helping students to learn the skills to resolve conflicts. Many schools also provide supervised or organized activities that can be very helpful to students who find unstructured time at recess and lunch stressful.

Learning Together does not provide prescriptive information about what kind of adjustments a school should make to meet an individual student’s needs, including for social learning. This depends entirely on the child, their disability or additional needs, their individual needs and strengths, and their school environment and approach.

  • Organisations like Amaze and Positive Partnerships, and resources available through the DET Autism Friendly Schools program provide excellent support and resources that can help schools better support all of their students to learn how to get along and be more inclusive, not only those with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

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  1. Challenges related to ensuring your child has support for needs that relate to a mental health issue or behavioural ‘disorder’ that impacts on their social reationships.

It’s important that schools understand that they have the same legal obligations to a student whose additional needs are primarily due to mental health issues or a behavioural disorder, as to a student whose disability affects their sight or mobility, for example.

The Commonwealth Disability Standards for Education apply to all students with a disability or additional needs, including mental health issues, illness, injury or any other ‘impairment’, if they experience discrimination as a result of that impairment. This includes students who are not eligible for the Program for Students with Disabilities (students on the PSD account for only around one in four students with additional needs in government schools). A very small number of students with mental health issues or behavioural ‘disorders’ are eligible for the PSD, but this only applies to those with a ‘severe behaviour disorder’ – at a level that applies to only very few students.

Schools obligations to provide support to students with additional needs due to mental health issues or a behavioural disorder is also supported by the DET Student Engagement Policy, which obliges school to provide support to students ‘at risk of disengagement’ from their education.

The Victorian government’s approach to student engagement includes supporting students to engage socially, emotionally and academically, with their learning and with their school community. If students with these kinds of additional needs are not supported, this can result in social conflicts, behaviour problems or disengagement from school (such as school refusal or, for example, and anxious student being unwilling to participate in school activities).

  • For more about the Victorian government’s approach to student engagement and expectations on school to support students at risk of disengagement, see Education and your child’s rights.

There are many ways in which a school can adjust its programs and provide a range of positive supports to students with mental health issues or behavioural disorders. The school should use the same approach to learning about your child’s needs, planning and monitoring their supports as for any other student with a disability or additional needs – regular SSG meetings, partnership and consultation with you, input from DET specialist staff or exernal consultants, an individual learning and support plan and so on.

If possible, it is much better to work with the school from the outset to discuss how your child’s additional needs will be met, and monitored. However, often, schools will not properly address these needs until a ‘crisis’ occurs, or their parent or carer raises a concern or makes complaint.

If this is the case for your child, visit the section Raising a concern with school, for a step-by-step guide to thinking through, raising, investigating and hopefully resolving your concern in partnership with the school.

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