Ian Thorpe tackles school bullying with hidden cameras in new documentary.

Kelsey was beaten, abused and threatened at school on a daily basis, and he was reaching breaking point.

“I’m sensitive and aggressive … it’s like mixing dangerous chemicals together. It’s just going to explode,” the 14-year-old Queensland student said.

“Since early primary school I’ve been picked on, and after a while you just grow tired of it.”

In desperation, Kelsey’s parents reached out to an ABC production team that proposed a controversial idea: give bullied kids hidden cameras in bags so they could film their tormentors and then prove to the school hierarchy what was going on.

The results have been turned into a new documentary, Bullied, which is presented by swimming champion Ian Thorpe and is about to air on the ABC.

Kelsey’s footage showed a string of abuses, physical threats and violence. One student tried to head-butt him and another hit him over the head.

Kelsey also received abusive texts even when he wasn’t at school, including one that read: “Why don’t u go kill/harm ur self.”

The two-part documentary raises the question of just how aware schools are of the bullying that’s taking place, and how equipped they are to respond.

‘The school didn’t know what to do.’

Kelsey’s dad Rick told the Bullied program he had raised his concerns with the school, but they were out of ideas for how to stop the cycle of abuse.

The first response had been to radically reduce Kelsey’s class time to just a couple of classes a day, but the bullying continued.


“I met with the head of year, for Year 9, who sat in front of me and told me that he’s at a loss and doesn’t know how to deal with it and doesn’t know how to fix the problem and doesn’t know where to go to from here,” he told the program.

For Kelsey, things were getting dire and he did not know who to turn to.

“I don’t really trust anyone, because I know trust just gets you stabbed in the back,” he said.

“Even though I ignore it, it does hit deep down, really.

“If you continuously poke a bear with a stick, at first it won’t care but in the end it’s just going to end up hurting. Either it hurts you, or you hurt it.”

So what did the Bullied program learn?

In filming the documentary, Thorpe said he discovered not only how widespread the issue of bullying was, but also how varied the school responses could be.

“Some schools are handling this better than others,” Thorpe told ABC News Breakfast.

“When we go to the schools and we explain to them this is what we’re doing, the reaction is either, ‘Why is it at my school that you’re doing this?’ [or] the other one is, ‘If a student had to go to this length to try and get a problem resolved, obviously we’re not getting it right.’

“I like the latter. That’s something that you can work on.”

Professor Marilyn Campbell from Queensland University of Technology’s faculty of education told ABC News Breakfast school responses could including anything from a disciplinary approach (suspending bullies), to a counselling approach (to learn why bullies acted out), to mediation between bullies and victims.


In Kelsey’s case, the school watched the footage taken from the hidden cameras and allowed Thorpe and Professor Campbell to run a workshop with students.

The goal was to make the kids themselves aware of the problem and hopefully instigate a cultural change in the school. In Kelsey’s case, the approach showed positive results.

How aware of bullying are schools?

Professor Campbell said it varied from school to school, but she “constantly” heard from people involved that they weren’t aware of how widespread the bullying was.

“It’s one of the reasons we did the undercover camera stuff. Because people don’t realise from that person’s point of view,” she told ABC News Breakfast.

Research completed by mental health service Reach Out in December found about one in four people aged 14 to 25 experienced bullying, with the school grounds being the most common place it happened.

Yet of those, only half sought help to stop it.

Professor Campbell said some schools simply handled the situation poorly, and she was critical of one-on-one mediation between bullies and victims, saying it simply did not work.

“We just tell kids don’t do it. Well that’s not enough, because what happens is the bullying goes really secret,” she said.

“What schools often do is they take, for example in Kelsey’s school, they take the child who is being victimised and in the guise of protecting them don’t let them come to school, reduce their hours at school.


“Which means that they are, one: not being able to form good friendships at school because they’re not there; and two: their education suffers.”

So what do they suggest?

Both Thorpe and Professor Campbell advocate getting all students involved and changing the culture in the playground to make bullying uncool.

“We know the top-down approach doesn’t really work,” Thorpe said.

“But what does work is when students come up with solutions for what they think should happen in their schools.

“Those students take their responsibility of those decisions, and usually they can actually fix this problem in the playground and it doesn’t need to get to a teacher.”

Professor Campbell agreed with the whole-of-school approach.

She said schools that taught kids about not being a silent bystander to bullying could achieve a shift where it wasn’t “cool” to take part.

“[That] actually ostracises the kid who is bullying so they change their behaviour, rather than ostracise the kid who is different and being bullied,” Professor Campbell said.

For Kelsey, he found that once his classmates were aware of the bullying he did not feel so alone, and the support that came afterwards helped him to feel happier and more at ease in class.

Episode one of Bullied airs on Tuesday, March 14 at 8:30pm on ABC & ABC iview.

This post originally appeared on ABC News.

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