Kiwi mum's pain as son, 12, threatens to hurt himself amid schoolyard bullying

When Sarah Spencer's son was 12, he was found trying to self-harm at school. After two years of incessant torment and verbal abuse by his classmates, he had reached a breaking point.

Spencer received a phone call from her son's Kapiti Coast school saying he had a pair of scissors and was attempting to cut his wrists.

"I was away working in Wellington at the time... it was the worst hour's drive of my life," Spencer told The AM Show on Tuesday.

"We found out he was being bullied at school quite early on. We did approach the school, but they said they couldn't do anything because he wouldn't name the bullies. It got to the stage he was threatening to hurt himself at school. 

"They were tormenting him in the playground, picking on him - he is dyslexic - so calling him dumb, picking on him about his weight. They just hunted him down."

The latest statistics show that almost 50 percent of New Zealand primary students and a third of secondary students have experienced bullying in their schools. In 2018, the Mental Health Foundation revealed that 89,000 New Zealand students reported having anxiety or depression.

Among 36 countries in the OECD, New Zealand's bullying rate is one of the highest at 32 percent - nine percent above the OECD average - meaning one in three people have experienced bullying.

"We are performing poorly in New Zealand... this is something we need to look at as a nation," the Ministry of Education's national learning support director David Wales told The AM Show.

"We see it emerge through schools but it really is a reflection of what's happening among adults, parenting and families."

Spencer says the school, which Newshub has decided not to name, "didn't do very much at all" to support her son.

"Their answer was that my son might need a wee break away from school. He actually didn't attend for the whole fourth term of that year because he'd physically make himself sick," she explained.

Her son is now in his first year of college and is doing "okay".

"There are some rough days, days where kids will stay things that upset him... he is now medicated for anxiety and he's trying his best. I just have to be there for him."

Yet Spencer still struggles with the raw reality of her son's trauma, ensuring that his iPad, computer and phone are monitored on a daily basis.

"I check absolutely everything to make sure he's still okay," she said.

In a statement to The AM Show, the school assured that it follows all necessary protocols in instances of bullying, including speaking with the children, the parents or any health professionals involved. 

However, the school said that issues can be "far more complex than just bullying", citing pre-existing mental health issues and troubled homes as key factors. 

"There are things that can be done," Wales said.

"Some schools are not just hitting it case-by-case... they're taking an approach by looking at the school's culture, the behaviour of adults, the behaviour between students - creating a culture where diversity and differences are tolerated and celebrated, not attacked or challenged.

"It's a solvable problem but we have to want to address it... it's about changing people's behaviour and attitudes."

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