One in two Kiwi kids is bullied at school, yet most schools claim to have a zero tolerance for bullying. New Zealand has one of the worst rates of bullying in the OECD. How did we get here? And what can we do to change the statistics? Fiona Connor reports.
"How would you like it if they did that to you?"`
This is the heartbreaking call to the oppressors of an eight-year-old boy who was bullied at his Palmerston North primary school.
When Toby* was just six years old, two boys told him they wanted to kill his baby brother. He says that twice in school swimming lessons his head was pushed underwater for so long he thought he was going to drown. He was also threatened with scissors.
Two years later, Toby can still remember what it was like when his bully, Jordan*, and his mates made him feel victimised, isolated and full of fear.
The now-eight-year-old told Newshub he "felt scared" at swimming lessons during two separate incidents where one of the kids pushed his head under the water and held him there.
"I thought I was going to drown, because I didn't know how to swim," he said.
When Toby's mum approached the school, they told her that the boys had just been playing. Toby didn't think so.
"He's six years old, he doesn't know how to swim and these kids are pushing his head under the water. Twice he came home and said 'They tried to drown me'," she told Newshub.
"This one kid took a dislike to my son, and then he and another little kid just made it their mission to make him miserable."
Toby's mum understands a little boy who at the time was her son's best friend used to be best friends with Jordan, and suspects that may have fuelled some negative behaviour.
"The worst part [was]... Jordan and this other kid made up a plan to kill my youngest child," she remembers.
"I used to come and pick my son up from school and I would put the baby down on the mat, he'd just crawl around the kids and sit with the kids on the mat.
"These kids started saying to him, 'Next time your mum brings your brother in, I'm going to make an excuse to go out to the cloak bay and go into my bag and get a knife, and I'm going to stab him on the mat'," she said.
"They kept saying that to him. Even when he wasn't at school, they would say to my son's best friend.
"This is six-year-old boys; it's a pretty full-on thing for them to be saying."
Toby's mum, who has asked for anonymity to protect her son's identity, said there were multiple incidents which her son would tell her about when he got home.
She went to the school numerous times "through the right channels" - first the classroom teacher, then the junior team leader, before escalating her approach.
Toby's mum went to the Roslyn School Deputy Principal, Maryanne Ferris, with a formal complaint on November 9, 2016. It was then she realised Ms Ferris had not yet been made aware of the situation.
"I also contacted the Board of Trustees and got no reply from them," she added.
Following an eight-day investigation in November 2016, Ms Ferris acknowledged in a Summary of Findings Report a number of incidents in the lead-up to the formal complaint, including "highly inappropriate" behaviour talking about "killing Toby's younger brother".
In the report provided to Newshub, Ms Ferris wrote: "The content/context is very concerning as these boy are only 6-year-olds, and creating these types of narratives is alarming."
It states Jordan and his friend had been spoken to more than once, before "things were put in place and additional support put in place with the boys regarding the incident".
The report discusses an incident with a pair of scissors. While the details are disputed, it is accepted scissors were waved at Toby while another boy shouted "I'll cut ya head off".
The incidents Toby says he experienced in swimming lessons are not acknowledged in the report, but did disclose "a history of events between the two boys".
Toby's mum says the final straw came during cross country, when the bully's caregiver is alleged to have physically assaulted Toby and called him a "f**king little c***". Toby's mum subsequently laid a complaint with the Palmerston North Police.
In the Summary of Findings Report, Ms Ferris wrote the alleged verbal and physical assault was "quite difficult to investigate", and found there was "no evidence that this alleged incident happened or did not happen".
Despite that, "two years later, it's still on his mind," Toby's mum said. She says that today he is not the same kid he used to be, and now has trust issues when it comes to adults.
"He doesn't like talking to the teachers about things, because the teachers all just thought he was a liar," she said.
"He will still say, 'The teachers just thought I was a liar and they just believed the other kid'."
Now Toby tries to stand up to kids when he sees them being targeted, and is happier at his new school.
"Some people be mean to my friends, so I say, 'Don't be mean' and then they just say 'shut up' to me," Toby said.
"There's a bit of mean people, but there's usually mean people at school."
She explained that now Toby tends to get himself into trouble because he sees something that he doesn't think is right, and he wants to stand up for other kids.
"He's seen as causing trouble, but when I talk to him at home he will say 'Oh but they were being really mean to him and I just wanted them to stop'.
"I think that all stems from what he went through."
Toby says it's annoying that he had to leave the school instead of Jordan. When asked if he would like an apology from Jordan about what happened, he said: "Sorry is not enough for that".
"I wanted to be at school, but didn't want to be around him," he said.
His mum said it did get to a point though where Toby was refusing to go to back to school following the alleged assault.
"I thought I was going to have to home-school him for the rest of the year," she said.
As recently as Halloween this year, while out trick or treating, Toby said he was "a little bit scared" when he went by a house he thought looked like Jordan's.
The Chair of the Roslyn School of Trustees told Newshub there are remedies in place which are offered to a child who is being targeted and each used where appropriate.
These include outside agencies, the flexibility of changing rooms, senior management working with children individually, as well as an onsite social worker.
The spokesperson said a number of remedies were offered and utilised in Toby's case.
"The school prides itself on being a Positive Behaviour 4 Learning (PB4L) school, which does not agree with or support any form of bullying," she said.
"The school has a very in depth 'No Bullying' policy which has been written using the Ministry of Education guidelines.
"The school does not take any instances of reported bullying lightly and investigates any report fully. The school policies are always followed and were done so in Toby's case.
"In depth investigation, work with the boys and guardians was fully completed with on-going remedies and actions in place.
"The school is always sad to see any child move school and interrupt their schooling, but especially in the case where the situation has been resolved."
Toby's mum was disheartened when Newshub shared the school's comments, calling its stance "a load of crap".
"Nothing was resolved. The kid was still actively bullying Toby. Never once was the social worker involved or offered.
"The kids were separated at lunchtime, and that was the only remedy offered. There were no other options offered.
"Of course the school is going to say things were resolved, but I would never have moved him to another school if things were resolved.
"I was actively involved in the school with fundraising and really enjoyed the community. We had lots of friends and families children at the school.
"It would have made sense to keep him at the school."
The Ministry of Education told Newshub they didn't receive a complaint about this matter in 2016, however state that from the report, it appears the school took action to address each of the incidents at the time they occurred.
"Bullying is a complex issue with multiple causes. A 'one-size-fits-all' model does not work for all schools," Katrina Casey, Deputy Secretary Sector Enablement and Support, said.
"The best way to prevent bullying is to adopt a whole-school approach that emphasises student wellbeing and inclusiveness, and values diversity.
"We will follow up with the school to ensure they are confident the correct processes are in place and effective resources are available to support the safety and wellbeing of all their students."
New Zealand Police have been approached for comment.
*The names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of minors.
Where to find help and support:
- Need to Talk? - Call or text 1737
- Lifeline - 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
- Youthline - 0800 376 633, text 234, email firstname.lastname@example.org or online chat
- Samaritans - 0800 726 666
- Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
- Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Stand Strong NZ is a series exploring the issues around bullying and what's being done to reduce the harm. Use #StandStrongNZ on social media.