20 Nov 2013

Principal calls for more powers to combat cyber-bullying

12:21 pm on 20 November 2013

A leading principal says schools need the right to search students' cellphones so they have a fighting chance against the growing problem of cyber-bullying.

Patrick Walsh is in charge of developing guidelines on searching students and says a law change will help schools act quickly to prevent students from sharing inappropriate material such as explicit photos of other students.

Mr Walsh says schools need the right to take students' phones and delete inappropriate material such as explicit photos of other students before it can be shared.

He says the guidelines are needed by the start of next year to help schools understand changes made to the Education Act in order to ensure they comply with the Bill of Rights.

The guidelines are nearly finished but there are still sticking points such as whether schools can breathalyse students who appear to be intoxicated when they arrive at school balls.

"It's another matter up for debate, as are issues such as pre-emptive searches of students who take camps and school activities which are a high-risk to health and safety," he says. "Likewise, if something goes missing in a school context - such as a scalpel in a science lab - (there's a question) whether schools can in fact conduct a search of the class to recover it".

Mr Walsh says he expects the guidelines will work for the most part, but principals will probably ask for changes to the Education Act in some areas.

Work on the guidelines had been so difficult Mr Walsh resigned in frustration a few months ago from the group developing them.

He says the Education Ministry invited him to return as the group's chairperson a month ago and the guidelines should be complete in about a week.

Mr Walsh says he resigned from the group because the Ministry was not striking the right balance between the rights of students and the needs of schools. Some principals were worried the rules will go too far in protecting students' rights.

"The public, parents, teachers, and students themselves, want to be working in a safe place. They expect their schools to be drug and weapon-free ... to have their schools empowered to deal with cyber-bullying and theft, and that is far more important - to a large extent - than mild invasions of their privacy rights," he says.

Principals Federation president Philip Harding recently joined the group developing the guidelines and says they will need to be concise.

"The original guidelines, from a legal point of view, were extremely well crafted and written ... but they do amount to nearly 47 pages of guidelines for schools," he says.

Mr Harding says teachers could end up having to make very subtle decisions when confronting problems such as suspected theft.

PPTA Principals Council president Allan Vester says the problems with developing the guidelines indicate schools might find it difficult to work strictly within the Bill of Rights.

Mr Vester says he expects the guidelines will try to find ways around the limits that a strict interpretation of the law would put on schools.

The Education Ministry says it is important to take the time to get the guidelines right and there is a strong process in place to work through any issues.