FIFTEEN-year-old Daniel Alford is described as a wonderful, shy, and sensitive kid who was doing it tough. He was doing it tough because he was being hassled at school.
In the end, it took his life, says his father Michael Alford who is adamant bullying is to blame.
It has taken just over a year for Dr Alford to feel the time was right to speak publicly about the bullying behind his son’s death.
Daniel was enrolled as a year 6 student at Newcastle Grammar School in 2008.
Immediately before that he had enjoyed a ‘‘wonderful two years’’ at St Joseph’s Primary School, Merewether, with lots of friends, despite difficulties he experienced while at the Newcastle Waldorf School, a Rudolf Steiner school, where he had been a student.
Daniel spent three years at Newcastle Grammar School, before moving to Newcastle High School, in May 2011.
That move was sparked by the ongoing bullying Daniel experienced at the elite private school, Dr Alford said.
‘‘It’s because of bullying at Newcastle Grammar that he was on the top of that cliff,’’ Dr Alford said.
‘‘He’d been feeling depressed, he was [self-harming], and he was struggling just to talk to friends because of how depressed he felt.’’
Daniel had self-harmed, and made an attempt on his life, in March, 2011, some months before he died on September 6.
Shortly after the overdose he was described by a psychiatrist as having a major depressive disorder in the context of ‘‘multiple stressors, especially related to bullying at school’’.
He had finally spoken out about what was happening to him, but that was years after the bullying had begun.
Dr Alford said after the issue was raised by the family with Newcastle Grammar School, the school’s inquiries revealed Dan had been repeatedly bullied from the time he started at the school in 2008.
‘‘I understand that about 60 of the 80 students in Dan’s year had told [a staff member upon inquiries being made] that Dan had been bullied,’’ he said.
‘‘It was obviously common knowledge in the student body and I have difficulty in understanding why the [school] did not know,’’’ Dr Alford said.
Dan eventually identified the students involved to school staff, but the bullying did not end, Dr Alford said.
‘‘Dan told me after he tried to kill himself that he had done so because one of the boys at school had continued to taunt him,’’ Dr Alford said.
‘‘Ultimately my wife and I removed him from the school towards the end of May 2011.’’
Dr Alford said the school failed to take appropriate, direct action against the students named by Dan, which went against its claims to place pastoral care as its highest priority.
‘‘They promise in all of their literature a safe and secure environment, and that’s what you are paying for, and that’s what you would expect,’’ he said.
‘‘We were told that bullying was not an issue at the school and I know from first-hand experience other parents have been told the same thing. Dan’s experience demonstrates that it was a very real issue at [Newcastle Grammar School].’’
Newcastle Grammar School headmaster Alan Green said Daniel’s death was, and continues to be, a very tragic time and event for his family, his friends, the school and the wider community.
‘‘It is disturbing and distressing that unfortunately bullying occurs in schools and in facets of society,’’ he said in a statement to the Newcastle Herald.
‘‘When bullying and relationship issues come to our attention, we work extremely hard to resolve them. Despite our vigilance, we do not always find out the information immediately and at times it happens outside the school gate.
‘‘The school does and will continue to work at reducing bullying and relationship issues in all aspects of the school. Issues brought to our attention are and will be dealt with in a fair and equitable manner, working closely with our professional counsellors.
‘‘The school continues to monitor and review policies and procedures relating to bullying. [Newcastle Grammar School] is committed to working with the community to reduce the incidence of bullying.’’
A spokeswoman for Headspace, the National Youth Mental Health Foundation, said it was important for young people experiencing bullying to seek help.
‘‘We know that bullying can have serious impacts on a young person’s mental health,’’ she said..
‘‘As a community we need to be vigilant and not dismiss bullying as a part of growing up.
‘‘If you’re a young person being bullied, remember that you are not alone. Talk to someone you trust, get in touch with headspace Hunter or log onto eheadspace for confidential online support. ‘‘
Facebook tributes flow for dead teen
FRIENDS and family of 15-year-old Daniel Alford have flooded a Facebook page dedicated to his life with messages marking the one-year anniversary of his death.
‘‘It was a beautiful thing to know that despite our differences, we can come together and be there for each other in hard times,’’ one friend posted on the site.
‘‘Dan, despite the sadness, you have definitely reached out to many hearts and taught us all a lesson: life’s fragile’’ posted another.
The page, titled ‘‘R.I.P Dan Alford 9/6/1996 - 6/9/2011. you will be missed by all’’ was created the day he died, and nearly 3500 people have since joined with comments and support.
It features photlographs of the ‘‘Paddle out for Dan’’ held at Bar Beach and attended by his family, friends and classmates from Newcastle High.
Daniel attended Newcastle High School for a few months after leaving Newcastle Grammar where he was schooled for three years during which he was repeatedly bullied.
One Facebook message on the anniversary of his death last month says ‘‘A whole 12 months has gone, it just proves how fast life goes and we should never take it for granted.’’
A relative left this message: ‘‘You’ve left us with an enormous hole in our lives Danny Boy and we all miss you like you wouldn’t believe.’’
Help at hand
For further information about mental illness and bullying, visit the Reachout! website reachout.com
You can also turn to Headspace, which offers online and phone counselling for 12-25-year-olds via headspace.org.au or 1800 650 890.
For immediate assistance, call the Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline 13 11 14.
Psychologist urges vigilance
BULLYING is an extremely powerful issue that can have severe consequences for a child’s social functioning as well as their mental health, NewPsych forensic psychologist Calinda Payne says.
It is not uncommon for children or teenagers who experience bullying to have anxiety, depression, and in some cases, when it is ‘‘quite extreme’’, post-traumatic stress disorder, Dr Payne said.
‘‘Kids who come from fantastic families, have great upbringings and have no other mental health issues or concerns can go through all this simply as a result of bullying,’’ she said.
‘‘Depending on the degree of the bullying and the resilience of the child before that experience, the symptoms could be quite severe and require diagnosis or they may be less severe ... but will affect the child’s functioning in certain areas.’’
Parents need to be vigilant and aware of any scars, bruises, or physical signs of assault but also of changes in behaviour, she said.
The signs may include a child isolating or withdrawing themselves from social situations or peer groups, changing sleeping patterns or appetite, or losing interest in activities or things that would normally bring them pleasure.
Fatigue may also be a sign of anxiety or depression.
The key to determining the difference between normal teenager behaviour and something more serious was consistency over time, she said. In the case of a naturally moody teenager, their moods may be up and down but they come and go quite quickly.
‘‘If a teenager was down for most days for two weeks, for example, that may suggest it is more than just teenaged angst,’’ Dr Payne said.
In that case a parent needed to identify what was going on, investigate and provide support.
‘‘When the child is reporting bullying it is important for the parent to believe and validate their experience, rather than minimising it or giving the child the impression that it is not that big of a deal or that they are meant to cope with it,’’ she said.
It might become necessary to make changes in the child’s environment to try to change the bullying phenomenon, she said, and help reconnect them with friends and support networks, often in conjunction with help and co-operation from the child’s school.