Thursday, 8 February 2007

Bullying: The lies that led to death and devastation

Today I have an article in the Independent about the issue of false accusations of bullying in schools.
If you want to read the article online, here's the link,

If you don't want to click and move on, then here's the piece in full....

When Lucy Cochrane was accused of bullying, her school was obliged to investigate. But the allegations were false - and now Lucy's parents are dead. What went wrong?Sarah Ebner reports on a tragic case

The Children's Commissioner, Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, has warned that relentless bullying is driving some children to the brink of suicide, while the number of children counselled by ChildLine about bullying rose by 12 per cent last year.

But what of those children who are accused of bullying, but aren't guilty? Just as it took years to recognise that charges of assault against teachers can be false, so people are starting to realise that accusing another child of bullying may simply be a way of getting them into trouble. And that trouble can have devastating results.

At the end of last year, Michael and Jane Connor were convicted of the murder of another set of parents, Maureen and Alex Cochrane. Their daughters, Natalie Connor and Lucy Cochrane, had been at the same schools and at some stage had fallen out.

Lucy, who has learning difficulties, was regarded by school staff as a pleasant but vulnerable girl who was bullied by Natalie. However, it was Natalie who claimed to her parents that Lucy was the bully, accusing Lucy of assaulting her at a dance class at school. A subsequent police investigation found the contentions to be entirely baseless, but they still had to be investigated.

Natalie's allegations, which were described during the Connors' murder trial at Manchester Crown Court as "groundless and an invention", goaded her parents and contributed to the ill-feeling between the families. The Connors plotted to set fire to the Cochranes' house and Michael Connor subsequently poured petrol through the letter box, killing both parents and seriously injuring Lucy.

Michael and Jane Connor were convicted of double murder, and Natalie Connor was convicted of manslaughter and causing grievous bodily harm with intent and arson.

Clearly this was an extreme case, but the prosecution lawyers agree that the false bullying allegations exacerbated the situation. Such claims are not entirely unusual.

"Contrary perspectives and malicious reports will always be part of bullying disputes," says Sir Albert, while John Stead, education adviser for the NSPCC and a former head teacher, agrees that false accusations are "certainly something that you come across". However, he adds, when a child makes a false accusation, it is often a cry for help.

"It's never straightforward," says Stead, who is also the Anti-Bullying Alliance co-ordinator for Yorkshire and Humberside. "Sometimes it's quite deliberate because a child wants to get someone else into trouble, but sometimes it may be that the child is unhappy because of something else, such as other children not playing with them. Occasionally there's almost a sense of delusion - the child actually believes they are being bullied."

Still, Stead is keen to emphasise that he believes most bullying accusations are true. "The danger is that children who are being bullied are ignored," he adds.

Joanna Ross (not her real name) accepts that it's important not to dismiss children who accuse others of bullying. However, she is also concerned that increased openness about the subject of bullying may be leading to false accusations. She's convinced that more care is needed with young children.

Ross's son Leo, 10, was accused of seriously bullying a younger boy towards the end of last year. The trouble began in the summer term when class teachers discussed bullying and then asked the children to fill in forms saying whether they had been bullied. One child - who was friendly with, and in the same class as, Ross's younger son, Callum - said that he had been bullied, by Leo and two of his friends. This boy, David, said that the older boys had told him to go away and said they didn't want to play with him.

Callum Ross says their teacher told David, then seven, that such behaviour was not bullying. However, the forms were filled in, and Leo and the two other boys were accused.

"Everyone thought it was minor," says Ross. "I spoke to David's father and he said that his son simply wanted to join in with the older boys and then when they didn't want him to, he would poke, prod and kick them. They would respond by cuffing him and telling him to go away. Neither of us was really concerned."

After the summer holidays, there were new, more serious allegations. David accused the boys of punching him, kicking him and kneeing him in the groin. He also said that they had "threatened to bully him more than he'd ever been bullied before".

"It was quite ironic, because one of the boys he had accused had been off sick on the days he specifically said some of these things had happened, so I really thought they couldn't be true," says Ross. "Still, it was awful. The previous term I had told Leo to keep away from David, and he assured me that he had, but as one of the oldest boys in the school, the younger ones want to play with him and his friends. David's father then came to speak to me and said he hadn't been concerned before because it was rough and tumble, but that now he felt it was getting serious. He thought there was no smoke without fire.

"He also said that the bullying had gone on for two years, even though for a lot of that time, David had been coming to my house to play with my younger son. He alleged that three times a week Leo and his friends had been kicking him, punching him and threatening him. He also said that they had been bullying his sister, Ruby, and held her upside down, threatening to drop her on her head.

"I was really worried about the whole thing, but most of it just didn't ring true. It's not simply that I would defend my own son, but the fact that when I started asking around, no one had seen any of this so-called bullying. The children attend a very small school, but none of David's friends knew anything about it, none of the teachers said that David had seemed unhappy or hurt and, despite him accusing Leo of forcing his head into the toilet on more than one occasion, no one had seen him with his hair wet or in tears."

John Stead says that falsely accusing another child of bullying is one way to seek attention.

"There aren't any easy answers when you've been falsely accused," he adds. "The biggest way we protect against false allegations is to look into it as soon as possible."

Ross agrees that, once the allegations had been made, the school had to look into them, and that they did so fairly. At this point Ruby admitted that she had made her story up, but David stuck to his.

"I think he was in a bit of a trap," says Ross. "His father had asked him many times if the accusations were true and he could have got into more trouble if he'd backed down."

However, Ross has a problem with the way the school initially went about encouraging the reports of bullying.

"The school gave out these forms and a lot of children felt they needed to fill them in," she says. "I think the school handled that badly, and I also felt the onus was on me to disprove everything. I thought they should have given my son some defence mechanism."

"Schools need to talk about what is and what isn't bullying and encourage children to talk about it," says Stead. "And I do believe we should be asking children every year how safe the school is. But I'm not sure we should be asking them to specifically name people."

Joanna Ross has some sympathy towards her son's accuser because of his age, and also because she thinks he might well have been unhappy.

"The family had moved a lot and were actually about to leave again to live abroad," she says. "It probably was disconcerting for David. His mother sent me an e-mail saying that they weren't going to pursue the accusations, that she didn't want any bother and that they would leave school a few weeks early. She also said that only the boys would 'know the truth' of what had happened.

"But that view has left my son and his friends under a cloud. If the school had actually believed David, my son would have been expelled. It's left him vulnerable and having learnt a funny lesson, that you can say bad things and get away with it.

"You have to take bullying seriously, but you also have to analyse it. Parents have to accept that children can be mean, but that's not necessarily bullying. There are noticeable symptoms when it comes to a child being bullied, but David wasn't unhappy, crying on the way to school or upset during the school day.

"If a small child picks on a big child they are in a win-win situation. If a big child lashes out, then he'll be accused of bullying. I've told Leo that he must now always walk away."

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