A former Yorkshire headteacher and mother of a teenager who took his own life has urged schools “to create a climate where it’s hard for bullying to flourish”.
Pat Sowa, whose son Dom was bullied - a factor which contributed to his death aged 17, said schools also needed to respond quickly to minimise its impact.
Her comments come after new figures revealed the number of pupil exclusions for bullying had risen in Yorkshire by two per cent over the last two years - the only region in the country to see a rise.
She said: “As a parent whose son was bullied and as a former headteacher, I find it very upsetting to see bullying incidents on the rise.
“Schools need proactive approaches which create a climate where it’s hard for bullying to flourish. And they definitely need to respond when it happens to minimise its impact. It is not easy but taking a whole school approach to wellbeing and building trust are a good start. Kindness goes a long way to making life better too. As adults I think we all have a responsibility to show what respectful conversations and relationships look like so young people can feel safe.”
Ms Sowa, from Harrogate, said even though bullying had contributed to Dom’s social anxiety, she was not convinced exclusion was the most effective response.
She said: “I am concerned that it can result in young people, whose own lives might be difficult, being passed from one place to another without the underlying issues being resolved, so what happens afterwards if someone is excluded must be addressed.”
The figures, published by the Department for Education, revealed Wakefield had the biggest increase in the number of school exclusions due to bullying between 2016/17 and 2017/18 - a rise of 84 per cent.
Beate Wagner, Wakefield Council’s corporate director for children and young people, said: “Schools manage their own initiatives and policies with regards to bullying in line with Government recommendations.
“Both schools and academies have access to the Future in Mind Team, who offer a range of support and interventions for both young people and professionals around emotional health and wellbeing. One of the teams - Primary Intervention, from the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service - can offer support through an initial meeting to identify together what the issue is and then together look at developing strategies and help in dealing with the issue.”
Ms Wagner said schools are also able to follow a “Risk and Resilience Framework”, which was designed by the council for practitioners working within the Wakefield district.
She said: “The purpose of the framework is to reduce risk and to build resilience, and in doing-so will improve health, educational and social outcomes for children and young people. It also addresses the issues of bullying.”
The figures also showed that North Yorkshire had the most exclusions in 2017/18 with 70.
Coun Patrick Mulligan, executive member for education and skills at North Yorkshire County Council, said: “We support schools in addressing bullying by using a range of options that offer an alternative to exclusion. This involves the implementation of relationship-based behavioural approaches across the county, seeking to tackle the causes and effects of bullying.
“Schools have access to regular support and guidance from behaviour and attendance advisers, along with the offer of safeguarding and bullying reviews. Through our Special Needs and Disabilities (SEND) strategic plan, we work with school leaders to develop universal approaches to improving social, emotional and mental health, including the impact of bullying.”
'I am going to have a Dom-shaped hole for the rest of my life'
Pat Sowa’s son Dom took his own life in October 2017.
Bullying was a contributing factor, after the 17-year-old came out as gay at 14 on Facebook.
Ms Sowa, who is a former headteacher of Brackenfield Primary School, in Harrogate, said the post received dozens of “likes” and at first he felt proud, however then the bullying started, in person and online.
She said: “Dom was bullied old-style at school. He was pushed against the walls in corridors. No one would pair up with him in PE. They shouted ‘faggot’ as he went to and from school.
When he was going into assembly there were comments below the teachers’ radar. His grades went downhill and he started skipping lessons.
“He was also bullied on social media. Someone took photos of him when he was at a party and published them. He described this in the notes from his counselling, which we received after his death, as like being raped.”
Dom struggled with the bullies for two years, finally moving to Harrogate Grammar School in the sixth form, where for a year he thrived.
His family thought he had turned the corner, with the teenager making plans to go to university or art college, but the bullying had taken its toll and left Dom anxious and depressed.
He tragically took his own life during the second year of sixth form.
Ms Sowa is backing the Government’s introduction of LGBT information as part of sex education lessons, as well as mental health classes and training for teachers in how to support children who might feel suicidal.
Following the tragedy, she set up Starfish, an organisation that campaigns for mental health first aid and suicide prevention training.
Ms Sowa is also a trustee for Parentkind and an ambassador for Papyrus, the charity which works to prevent young suicide.
She is determined to give other parents the knowledge and awareness to spot the signs that a young person is contemplating taking their own life.
“I am going to have a Dom-shaped hole for ever. My biggest thing now is to try to stop this happening to any other family,” she said.