Tuesday, 13 November 2012
It's been just over a month since a B.C. teenager's suicide shocked Canadians and sent a crusade of anti-bullying messages across the country, but policy-makers and local school officials haven't stopped working to keep bullying out of communities.
With National Bullying Awareness Week underway this week through until Saturday, the Lethbridge Herald asked school boards in and around Lethbridge what they are already doing to deal with bullying in their schools.
Port Coquitlam teen Amanda Todd was 15 when she killed herself on Oct. 10 after years of bullying from an online sexual predator and her peers. Her death prompted an MP in the House of Commons to file a motion calling for a national bullying strategy - a motion that must undergo further debate. Meanwhile, the Alberta government has tabled a proposed new Education Act, Bill 3, which would clearly define bullying and set out student punishments including suspensions and expulsion. The new legislation could change the way school boards in the province draft their anti-bullying policies.
The proposed act, which has yet to pass a third reading, defines 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 to one or more other individuals in the school community, including psychological harm or harm to an individual's reputation."
The legislation would require all school boards in the province to develop anti-bullying policies in their student codes of conduct and would hold students responsible not only for bullying, but for not reporting bullying behaviour, "whether or not it occurs within the school building, during the school day or by electronic
Representatives from Lethbridge School District 51, Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Separate Regional Division No. 4, Palliser Regional Schools and Westwind School Division, which together represent a majority of schools in southern Alberta, all have "zero tolerance" policies that prohibit bullying in schools and provide codes of conduct for students, all of which are already publicly available.
And all of the school boards cited prevention as a priority. But when bullying does happen - and it's clear that zero tolerance policies don't completely stop it - it's up to each school to decide how it will deal with a particular case, based on over-arching student discipline guidelines.
"Typically, the teachers will try to work through the situation on their own, but if they need extra support then they'll go to either the counsellor or the administration," said Wendy Fox, associate superintendent for instructional services at Lethbridge School District 51.
"We strongly encourage students and parents to contact our schools if they have any concerns at all and we take the situations seriously and we work hard to work with parents and students to alleviate any concerns they have," she added.
"We know that it is a concern, but our role is to educate students and to give them strategies so that they can work through any issues they might have with (other) students. That's our philosophy, is taking a real, proactive approach."
Palliser Regional Schools superintendent Kevin Gietz said he would welcome a standardized definition of bullying - a sentiment echoed by many of the other superintendents.
"(That's) the piece of the Education Act that we're waiting to see. What we've been told is that once that legislation's in place, there will be documents (coming) after that as far as regulations and those might define more distinctly what we have to do," he said.
"I get frustrated when I hear comments like 'zero tolerance' and those kinds of things. I understand what they mean, but if we think we're going to eliminate it, I think we're fooling ourselves. It's a matter of us trying to educate and manage, but we have to respond appropriately when we see it happen," Gietz added. "As the kids change and as technology evolves, it's just something we've got to keep working at, keep adapting."
One of the biggest challenges schools face is the explosion of social media sites that give students an outlet to bully other students any time, anywhere.
About 19 per cent of rural Alberta students have been bullied online or through text messages, 37 per cent know someone who has been bullied and 17 per cent admit they've been cyberbullies themselves, according to a survey of more than 1,750 students between 12 and 15 years old from 16 different Alberta schools.
The survey results were compiled by University of Lethbridge professors Mary Dyck and Robin Bright for their research paper "It Hurt Big Time: Understanding the Impact of Rural Adolescents' Experiences with Cyberbullying," which was published in the fall 2011 Northwest Passage: Journal of Educational Practices.
Police, too, are on the lookout for the effects of cyberbullying among students.
Lethbridge regional police Sgt. Dan Walton is in charge of the community resource unit, which assigns seven local police officers, known as school resource officers, to work in Lethbridge schools.
"You get that bombardment that you wouldn't get on a regular basis. In the old days, if you were being bullied in school, on Friday night you would finally get to go home and you wouldn't have to see that person until Monday morning. Nowadays they can use social media . . . to continue saying comments or mean things to them," Walton said.
"Those are the issues that our school resource officers have identified inside our schools locally and they do continually work on that to try to improve that so kids and youth don't have that stress hanging over them."
If school resource officers are called to investigate a bullying case, they'd talk to teachers, counsellors and the students involved to resolve the conflict, Walton said.
"We don't necessarily always have to jump in there and say we're going to lay criminal charges. We try to mediate and resolve that issue to help those kids."
Not all bullying happens within school hours, and parents have a responsibility too, but part of the key to getting rid of bullying in schools means giving teachers tools to recognize the early warning signs.
"There's no doubt, we won't see all the bullying. But there's two ways of thought on that. One is, if we see it, deal with it. But the other one is also look for it. Be aware of the signs of it," said Holy Spirit superintendent Chris Smeaton, who said he encourages school staff to spot "lost" students before they fall through the cracks.
"Some schools will do it formally, some will do it informally. But (we're) ensuring that children who seem to be lost without a lot of peer connections, (that) those schools have to really pay attention to them."
The promise of safe learning environments is a promise school districts across Alberta are working hard to keep, even as they recognize bullying as a continuing problem, said Westwind superintendent Ken Sommerfeldt.
"I think that schools have long been engaged in this process, and of course we're never going to completely eliminate bullying from our society, but I think we're getting pretty sophisticated in our approaches in dealing with these challenges, whether it be in having supports in place, bringing in outside presenters and experts to help educate our students and our public and our parents," he said.
"All of these things work together (toward) increasing the capacity for a safe and caring environment for all students."
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