Schools' obligations in dealing with bullying complaints

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If a bullying complaint is received, what are a school’s obligations? From the outset, schools should have documented policies and processes that emphasise their commitment to preventing bullying, detailing the expectations of employees at work, how concerns should be raised and how complaints will be heard and investigated.

Once a complaint is received, in accordance with WorkSafe’s guidance, schools should be acting promptly, ensuring non-victimisation, providing support to all parties and remaining neutral. In terms of process, it is important to maintain confidentiality, keep thorough documentation, communicate the investigation process that will be followed and be clear about the outcomes.

The investigation process

Once the decision has been made to investigate a complaint, the first question that often arises is who should investigate.

A decision will need to be made early in the process about whether to investigate the complaint internally, or to engage an external investigator. Employment Partner Sarah Townsend recently published an article exploring the circumstances where an organisation might consider appointing an external investigator; which you can read here. 

The next issue to address is what should actually be investigated, and how the investigation will be carried out. This is where a Terms of Reference will need to be settled. This document identifies the allegations that are to be investigated (and in some cases the allegations that are not to be investigated).  It also sets out the process the investigator will follow, including who will have access to the information gathered and who will make decisions about the contents of the investigation report.

Once the investigation is complete and findings have been made, attention turns to what the next steps should be. Depending on the nature of the findings, the options could include a formal disciplinary process, taking steps to ensure no repeat behaviour occurs, providing training / education, counselling, and restorative practices like facilitation or mediation.

No one investigation is the same, and complexities can often arise which need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. These issues include victims being unwilling to come forward, competing interests and a dysfunctional environment within the school, having no witnesses to the behaviour, investigating issues which are difficult to identify, and managing relationship breakdowns or parental expectations.


While getting the response to bullying right is important, prevention should be the ultimate goal for boards and school staff. Change occurs when students, staff, parents, whanau and other members of the community share responsibility for making the school a respectful and inclusive environment.

To work towards this, schools can:

  • Regularly survey the school community;
  • Identify areas for improvement through survey findings and develop a bullying prevention action plan;
  • Regularly promote expectations and successes in fostering and developing a safe, positive physical and emotional environment;
  • Hold regular professional learning and development on understanding bullying prevention and response;
  • Establish a Bullying Prevention Team to take responsibility for bullying;
  • Promote digital citizenship throughout ICT and promote safe use of technology; and
  • Support the student-led peer to peer initiatives.

Thank you to Special Counsel Madeleine Hawkesby Solicitor Hamish Rossie for preparing this article. For any questions on this subject, please contact a member of our Education Law Team. 

Disclaimer: the content of this article is general in nature and not intended as a substitute for specific professional advice on any matter and should not be relied upon for that purpose.

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