By Shannon Porcellini
(WINDSOR, ON) – Let’s talk bullying. In my opinion, it is the number one concern of parents, and there seems to be a disconnect between the boards, staff, and parents on the issue.
There were significant changes made to the Safe Schools Act in 2010. There is no longer a ‘zero tolerance’ policy in effect. Progressive discipline is the name of the game. All school board employees, including school bus drivers, are now required to report – in writing – certain incidents or behaviours to the principal. They’re also required to respond to particular incidents. What are those incidents/behaviours? Any behaviour that must be considered for suspension or expulsion, including: making threats to harm another person; possessing, using, or selling alcohol or drugs; swearing at staff; vandalism (including graffiti); bullying; possessing, selling or using weapons; sexual assault; robbery; or anything else that the board has identified in their policies. The incidents can happen at school, on a school bus, at school-related activities, or even off school property if the incident can negatively impact the “climate” of the school. Boards are tracking incidents and behaviours using various software programs. Our local boards use a program called Discipline Tracker. The tracking of incidents is being used to help provide consistency, identify students requiring support to stop antisocial behaviour, and to provide quantifiable evidence to support progressively severe consequences. Parents of both the victim and the aggressor must be notified, unless the student is over 18, or notifying the parents could cause further harm to the student. Mitigating circumstances like age-appropriateness of the behaviour must be taken into account when documenting the incident and when developing the consequences.○
Boards seem to be working hard to create school cultures that are welcoming for all students – bringing in speakers, implementing programs, etc. Last week was Anti-Bullying Week and Mike Neuts, the father of Miles Neuts who died as a result of a bullying incident more than 10 years ago, came to Essex County to talk about bullying. I got to hear him describe his personal experience and was moved to tears. What echoed through his description was the hollow void of his loss. Losing a child is every parent’s greatest fear. And this man relives that experience so that we, other parents, don’t have to. Parenting expert Barbara Coloroso has linked bullying to genocide – as micro and macro versions of each other. Both dehumanize the “other” in a community, both require a kind of ‘pack’ mentality. And both ultimately lead to violence. What she also points out, though, is that both are not intrinsic behaviours – they are taught, they are learned.
Can you imagine teaching a child to hate another? Can you imagine sitting a child down and explaining that others are worth less than they are? But it happens every day, and not just by parents who tattoo nazi symbols and slogans on their children. It happens when a parent laughs when a child gets hurt, when a parent comments about the skin colour of a neighbour, when a parent denigrates the gender of another driver, when a parent watches a “harmless” program like primetime wrestling with their children. The ability to be a bully, the need to be a bully, the comprehension that bullying is an appropriate behaviour doesn’t develop by accident. It is taught, it is learned.
So, staff or parents report bullying, parents are notified, kids are disciplined, and the incident is documented. Easy peasy, right? I wish. Boards have been using Discipline Tracker for a year now, and what seems to happen is that bullying is reported, documented, parents notified, and … there’s no real change in behaviour. The cycle still continues, although it’s now documented, and consequences are supposed to increase with each incident.
Parents still don’t have a right to know what discipline is meted out to the bully. Many parents still feel that it could harm their child’s experience at school to complain to either the teacher or the principal. Parents of the bully have no support programs they could access immediately to assist them if their child is over 6 years old. Some schools have Back on Track or in-school suspension classrooms, but those almost never exist in secondary schools. And what Discipline Tracker misses is that bullied children often lash out and cause harm to others themselves. So the bullied now becomes classified as a bully, and faces progressive discipline. If a child has special needs and is bullied or is the bully, it gets even more confusing.
If you’re the parent of the bullied child, you want it to stop and you want something in place to help repair any damage done. If you’re the parent of a bully, you want it to stop and you want something in place to help develop more socially acceptable behaviour in your child. Privacy laws make it nearly impossible to sit down, parent to parent, and discuss what’s happening – and this is also very dangerous if the other parents aren’t on the same page.
Parents of bullied children deeply feel that schools are not doing enough to keep their kids safe. On the flip side, parents of children who are identified as bullies often feel that their kids are labeled. As a trustee, I heard from both sides. I felt then, as I do now, that it shouldn’t be this difficult or so complicated. Students need to be safe, need to feel safe. Parents need to believe that schools are doing all they can. And yet it breaks down. We have all the plans in place, all the programs, all the training, all the posters. And ten years on, Mike Neuts is still making the rounds of the schools, telling his story and reliving the nightmare of what bullying does to a family. It seems to me that building a culture without bullying doesn’t come naturally, either. It’s taught, and with any luck, it is learned.
○ The details of the new legislation come from a Ministry of Education document called “Keeping Our Kids Safe at School: Reporting and Responding to Incidents”. It’s available on the Ministry’s website @ www.ontario.ca/safeschools