The Government'S drive to reduce the number of pupils expelled from school has led teachers to keep bullies in class and allow them to continue to torment their victims, headteachers said yesterday.
Schools that kept bullies in lessons could be open to prosecution under the Human Rights Act for allowing pupils to be subjected to degrading treatment, they said.
The warning comes after the suicides in the past fortnight of two teenagers who had complained of being bullied.
Last week, Elaine Swift, aged 15, from Hartlepool, died from an overdose of pills. She was bullied for four years over the publicity she received from donating bone marrow to save her sister from leukaemia in 1997. Days earlier, Morgan Musson, aged 13, killed herself in Nottingham after being bullied because of she was tall.
Headteachers say government targets have put pressure on them to reduce the number of expulsions, even though the goal to cut expulsions by one-third to 8,400 by 2002 has been achieved a year early.
David Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said: "I am certain that the government targets and the pressure by local authorities to keep exclusions low has resulted in more bullies remaining in school. The targets have now been abandoned not before time ... But although the targets are gone, local authorities are still putting pressure on schools to keep expulsion numbers down."
New government guidance makes clear that bullying is punishable by expulsion. A schools information pack called Don't Suffer in Silence says: "It should be clear what the sanctions are for bullying and in what circumstances they will apply. Strong sanctions such as exclusion may be necessary in cases of severe bullying."
John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the targets had created "the wrong atmosphere". He said: "The situation has now begun to change but there are still some local education authorities and some appeals panels which are putting pressure on schools not to exclude in cases where it is clear that exclusion is the only reasonable option."
Mr Hart said: "The NAHT is clear that its members must ensure bullying is tackled. If, under the school's anti-bullying policy, that means exclusion, that is what the school should do."
Ben Swift, the father of Elaine, who was at Dyke House Comprehensive in Hartlepool, said: "We feel it is the school's poor bullying policy that has put her where she is now. She wasn't getting listened to at school, so we think [the overdose] was a cry for help."
The mother of Morgan Musson, who also took an overdose, said that her daughter was tormented by fellow pupils at Ellis Guildford School in Nottingham. The school's anti-bullying policy was singled out for praise by Ofsted inspectors only last month.
* Most parents do not want children with Down's syndrome or mental health problems to share a classroom with their children, a survey published today reveals.
Nearly two-thirds of adults said they were in favour of integration in principle, the survey for the Disability Rights Commission found. But a minority agreed that pupils with learning difficulties such as Down's syndrome or autism, or with mental health problems, should be in a mainstream school.Reuse content