Teen was bullied to death
IN MID-JULY 2008, schoolboy Alex Wildman was beaten up twice and one of his attackers wrote online, ‘I'm only gonna keep bashing him til he learns'.
By the end of that month, the 14-year-old had taken his own life. Alex was no stranger to bullying, having endured physical attacks and threats at Ingleburn High School in Sydney throughout 2007, before moving to live with his mother in Lismore for a ‘fresh start'.
An inquest into his death heard the bullying started again at Kadina High School in Goonellabah, including several physical assaults, as well as taunts and threats posted by students on the social networking site MySpace.
Handing down his findings yesterday, Deputy State Coroner Malcolm MacPherson said he could not pinpoint any single factor that led to his suicide, but that bullying had contributed.
“Whilst I have no doubt it played a significant role in his decision to take his own life ... there were other factors at play,” Mr MacPherson said in Sydney's Glebe Coroner's Court.
In April 2008, Alex became the subject of a series of taunts posted on students' MySpace pages.
The online attacks appeared to escalate and he was beaten up at the local shops on July 18.
Mr MacPherson said he could not be certain if Alex had seen the online threats as he did not have a MySpace page, but if so his distress must have been ‘overwhelming'.
On July 23 he was hit on the face and head during an attack at the school which was filmed on a mobile phone.
On the morning of July 25, Alex's mother found him dead in the garage of the family home at Goonellabah.
Mr MacPherson found Alex died as a result of suicide at his home after being subject to ongoing physical and verbal bullying, including cyber-bullying.
The Coroner handed down his findings from the inquest into the teenager's death yesterday in the Glebe Coroner's Court, with a video link-up to the Lismore Courthouse.
Listening to his findings in the Lismore courtroom were Kadina High students and representatives of the NSW Department of Education, including Peter Haigh, the North Coast Regional Director of Education; and John Lynch, the School Education Director for the Wilson Region.
Alex's parents were present for the findings, but did not comment outside the Glebe court as it is believed they have an exclusive media deal.
New Kadina High principal Ian Davies was unable to attend because he was in Illawarra at the State principal's conference.
Mr MacPherson ruled out involvement by any other person in the death of the 14-year-old at his Ballina Road, Goonellabah, home on the night of July 24, 2008, stating it had been the intention of Alex to take his own life.
He said the school's anti-bullying policies had failed Alex, who he described as a complex young man.
The inquest findings revealed how when Alex moved north from Sydney his problems of being a victim of bullying and violence came with him.
The Coroner found that when Alex moved to Lismore, his Sydney school did not forward on important relevant information to Kadina High in his personal file that he suffered bullying, or tried to cut himself with a blade in a maths class.
Alex confided to his mother, Justine Kelly, while still in Sydney that he had been having trouble with a gang of Samoans and a knife had been put to his stomach.
The Coroner said that while at Kadina, Alex was again subjected to bullying, with some of it arising from his friendships with girls and a failure to respond to the bullying.
Mr MacPherson said Alex's tormenters appeared to be incensed that he got along well with girls.
“Without excusing the bullying behaviour, it appears that some of the bullying arose because of Alex's relationships with girls and because of his failure to respond to physical violence,” he said.
Alex had been filmed two days before his death by a student during an assault in order to humiliate him on the internet.
The Coroner said a decision by then deputy principal Bradd Farrell to delete the mobile footage was probably ‘not the right call' if Alex's mother had decided to report it to police.
He said the assault would have reinforced in Alex's mind ‘his powerlessness' and that the bullying was unlikely to stop.
Mr MacPherson criticised the Department of Education's 400 pages of policy documents, including its anti-bullying policies, as bewildering and ‘information overload', when what was needed were ‘clear guidelines'.
He made a series of recommendations the NSW Education Department should consider to deal with school bullying, violence and issues affecting student welfare.
Mr MacPherson acknowledged the student welfare policies at Kadina High School and the ‘committed, dedicated, hardworking' teachers.
“Nevertheless, whatever the policies were to protect students from bullying, they failed in Alex's case.”
Mr MacPherson said Alex's teachers were unaware of the bullying until two days before his death and he never saw the school counsellor, who only worked part-time and was not at Kadina on July 23 or 24.
He said the NSW Parliament should consider introducing legislation (as in South Australia) to ensure a school's responsibility to deal with bullying issues included cyber-bullying. It should extend beyond school hours and beyond incidents that took place on school grounds.
Among the Coroner'srecommendations were:
The NSW Department of Education and Training should revise its policies on the placement of sufficient school counsellors at schools with more than 500 students. These larger schools should have a full-time counsellor;
The department should ensure every high school creates a dedicated email address, text message/or chat room account where students and their parents can report incidents of bullying or harassment;
When a student, who has previously been seen by a school counsellor, transfers to another high school the department should ensure there was a compulsory meeting between the deputy principal (or principal), the school counsellor, the head teacher and the year advisor to discuss whether anything in the student's files suggests that the student may benefit from counselling at the new school.
Mr MacPherson said the department should revise its policies so as to provide practical and clear guidance to senior school staff on when the police should be called to deal with incidents of physical assaults, threats or harassment by students over telephones or via the internet.
An Education Department spokesman said the death of Alex ‘was a tragedy and our sympathy remains with his family and friends'.
He said the Education Department would carefully examine the Coroner's findings and recommendations and give a full response once the report had been considered.
The spokesman said the department had policies in place relevant to a number of areas referred to by the Coroner, and had also made changes in some areas since Alex's death.
“No form of bullying is tolerated in public schools and all public schools are expected to take action in every reported case of bullying,” he said.