Sylvan Lake high school teacher Kelsey Wilson says she establishes the ground rules on bullying in her classroom on Day 1. Taking the dread out of school is important to Wilson, but she also fears the implications of legislating bullying behaviour, as Alberta’s proposed new Education Act does.
“I like to think of my class as a safe and caring learning environment. If I witness bullying or I have an inkling that it is taking place, I treat it very seriously…. I realize that they are teenagers, but I try very hard to show them what is acceptable behaviour or not.
That being said, so much goes on in a classroom that a teacher cannot possibly notice everything. “There have been instances where a student calls another student a name, and because I’m working in a class of 30, I don’t always catch it,” Wilson says. “If the government becomes involved in disciplinary action against bullying, I’m afraid that the [Youth Criminal Justice Act] will be overrun with ‘is this bullying or not?’ questions.”
Education Minister Jeff Johnson tabled the new Education Act on October 23 as Bill 3. If passed, it will require all school boards to write a policy on bullying and the consequences for those who engage in it. It is mum on what the consequences should be, but does define bullying as “repeated and hostile or demeaning behaviour by an individual in the school community where the behaviour is intended to cause harm, fear or distress.”
The bill puts the onus of responsibility on students as much as teachers and school administration, stating that a student, as a partner in education, has the responsibility to: ensure that the student’s conduct contributes to a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment that respects diversity and fosters a sense of belonging; respect the rights of others in the school; and refrain from, report and not tolerate bullying or bullying behaviour directed toward others in the school, whether or not it occurs within the school.
Johnson touted the bill in the legislature and press conferences following its release as the first in Canada to take the issue this seriously.
“This legislation is about putting kids first and making our schools safe, welcoming places where diversity is celebrated and bullying is simply not tolerated,” he said, adding the bill contains some of the most stringent anti-bullying language in the country.
Yet two Calgary education experts are arguing that no legislation can reduce bullying; it may even make it worse. Jack Toth heads Impact Society, a non-profit organization focused on teen development. He and psychologist Dr. Wayne Hammond began speaking out after the introduction of Bill 3 to convince schools, parents and students that bullying won’t be fixed merely by putting parameters around acceptable behaviour.
“One of the assumptions here is that we’re going to be able to end bullying. If that’s your goal it’s so narrow in a larger picture. Bullying is actually fairly sophisticated, because bullying itself is only a symptom of something else,” explains Hammond.
Both men believe bullying must be dealt with by changing the way a person empathizes, values themselves and values their relationships. That is a much more arduous, long-term task than measuring a student’s conduct against a list of thou-shalt-nots.
“Kids actually don’t learn respectfulness or a concept of valuing in a void. They experience those things through relationships,” Hammond says. “They don’t learn through somebody lecturing them, or telling them ‘don’t do that or else.’ …They can go to a class and learn things about bullying, but then they need teachers in the hallway, parents in the home, community members solidifying that.”
Toth says that when people bully, “they’re responding to an internal emotional need, and it’s there for a reason, so how do we help them discover why it is there? ...If we’re just to focus on the dysfunction, we actually enhance that dysfunction.” He points to the recidivism rates for juvenile offenders as an example. It is roughly 80 per cent, and Toth believes that is not because the offenders are incurably bad, but because the process of punishing and applying tighter controls on kids only exacerbates the dysfunction they are already acting out, rather than teaching them the appropriate way to respond to stress.
Hammond notes Alberta’s culture tends to favour punishment, and convincing Albertans that doesn’t work is a challenge. However, Toth and Hammond say that with the increasing attention paid to the bullying issue after several high-profile suicides and cyberbullying cases, society must accept that preventing it will take a deeper commitment than telling bullies to smarten up.
“We’re used to judging, punishing. That’s the easiest response,” says Hammond. “Do we as a community want to commit to actually getting involved in the lives of children in a way that evolves into a different process? It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Alberta Education spokesperson Carolyn Stuparyk points out the ministry does provide a lot of online information on how schools can identify and prevent bullying. Yet printed instructions can only take the issue so far.
Johnson’s “heart and mind on this is absolutely in the right place. He’s very clear on saying it’s a community’s responsibility,” says Toth. However, he says neither the law nor the schools can be an end to it. Children’s relationships with their parents and other community members are also essential to their value systems and how they ultimately treat one another or face bullies when they are victimized. Changing that isn’t simple, though he says his organization is very busy lately meeting requests to counsel students and create character development programs for students and parents.
Wilson says “students were buzzing over Amanda Todd’s video,” and it’s done a lot to remind the entire community how serious the effects of bullying can be for the victim. But she doesn’t always know what the best way to handle it is, or whether the government has a role here.
“The philosophical debate I have with bullying is based on the bubble-wrapping North American society has decided is required to raise children today: Is bullying an experience that will cause a person to overcome adversity and become stronger later in life? Or is [it] a deplorable form of abuse that has been tolerated for much too long? In the end, I believe that in order to learn effectively, students must feel safe in their learning environment,” she says.