Parents warned of 'cyber-bullies'

PARENTS in Suffolk are being urged to spy on their children's computer use and mobile phones in order to crack down on the county's “cyber-bullies”.Anti-bullying experts claim school bullies are increasingly using new technology to torment their victims.

PARENTS in Suffolk are being urged to spy on their children's computer use and mobile phones in order to crack down on the county's “cyber-bullies”.

Anti-bullying experts claim school bullies are increasingly using new technology to torment their victims.

Although exact figures for incidents of so-called cyber-bullying across Suffolk are not available, the number of children excluded for offences such as bullying has risen sharply in the county in recent years.

Examples of electronic bullying range from threats and insults by text message to malicious rumours about individuals being posted on the internet.

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In the most recent figures available (2004-2005) two pupils were permanently excluded specifically for bullying and 75 pupils were excluded for bullying for set periods of time.

Total fixed term exclusions - for all categories of offence - increased across Suffolk from 4,194 in 2004 to 5,382 in 2005.

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Suffolk County Council - as part of its bid to stamp out bullying in the county - is now offering anti-bullying training to parents as well as school staff.

Following a number of concerns raised by parents about the general issue of electronic bullying, staff at Hardwick Middle School in Bury St Edmunds decided to tackle the issue head on by urging parents to adopt a surveillance approach to their children.

The notice to parents said: “Messages posted on websites or sent by text are causing some bad feeling amongst certain groups of children, not just at Hardwick, but throughout the town and possibly further afield.

“Please use parental controls on your computer to monitor what your child does at home on the computer, and check their mobiles from time to time for unsuitable messages.”

Stephen Horne, deputy headteacher at the school, said the advisory notice was sent out after a number of parents came forward voicing their concerns following a TV programme about the issue.

He said he wanted parents to know more about the way new technology was being used - for both good and bad purposes.

School governor at Hardwick Middle School Trevor Hawkins said: “As a governing body we support what our school is trying to do.”

Oli Watts, a former victim of bullying and the founder of the award-winning Pupiline website, yesterday said that internet and text based bullying was massively on the increase both in Suffolk and beyond.

Mr Watts, who attended schools in both Essex and Suffolk, said that even in the past six to nine months there had been an upsurge in electronic bullying thanks to the growing popularity of certain new websites.

He said: “It all reflects how quickly children adapt to new technologies and cultures. Better education is what is needed.”

But, by keeping mobile telephones off school grounds and by severely restricting internet access, Westgate Primary School has managed to keep clear of cyber-bullying incidents.

Howard Lee, headteacher at the Bury primary school, said the main reason that cyber-bullying was kept out of primary schools was that pupils of that age neither needed nor carried mobile telephones.

A spokeswoman for Suffolk Police said incidents where electronic bullying in schools became a criminal matter were extremely rare.

She said: “In an instance where an individual has been threatened or left distressed upon receiving a text message or email of exceptionally offensive nature, the police are committed to looking into the incident and where appropriate take action.”

But the spokeswoman added that the threshold for police involvement was set very high by the law - including direct threats or exceptionally unpleasant correspondence - meaning that police officers rarely got involved.

A spokewoman for Suffolk County Council said the education authority held no central figures about bullying because incidents were dealt with on a school by school basis.

She said: “Bullying incidents are very upsetting for everyone. We work closely with all schools on this issue.

“We have run anti-bullying training for staff and parents, and have provided schools with individual guidance and leaflets to support each pupil in years four to ten.”

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