On March 22, 2012, Nova Scotia declared provincial war on cyberbullying and bullying in and around the schools. Education Minister Ramona Jennex released a meticulously detailed 100-page report, written by Halifax law professor Wayne MacKay and based upon a full year of study and public consultation. With great fanfare, she used the opportunity to launch an initiative to curb “an insidious and serious problem facing not only schools but today’s society.”
MacKay, a renowned constitutional law specialist, delivered a far-reaching report with 85 different recommendations, http://cyberbullying.novascotia.ca/covering the challenges of fostering community dialogue, defining the problem, closing the data collection gap, reforming human rights law, initiating preventive programs, the limits of deterrent discipline, and educating a diverse public in “digital literacy.”
The Cyberbulling Task Force report is entitled There’s No App for That, but, for all the public input, it reflects the outlook and perspectives of its principal author. Professor MacKay is a strong proponent of “restorative justice” and one of Canada’s staunchest defenders of “inclusion policy” in schools. That explains why he flatly rejects “zero tolerance” approaches to curbing bullying and cyberbullying. It also explains why “anti-bullying” strategies will now be grafted onto “inclusive education” programming and to be included in Faculty of Education teacher training degree programs.
“Cyberbullying adds a new dimension to bullying,” MacKay contends. ” Zero-tolerance policies, such as those attempted in the Toronto school boards in the 1990s, do not work.”
Even though over 85% of Canadians, in a recent opinion poll, favoured making cyberbullying a criminal offense, MacKay begs to differ. He recommends beefing-up provincial human rights codes and school board policies rather than going the criminal law route. “In the courts, “ he said, it’s difficult to ‘prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.’”
MacKay was heavily influenced by Toronto lawyer Eric Roher’s research and a recent British Columbia test case where a school board was found negligent for failing “to exercise the duty to provide preventive education.” http://www.ctf-fce.ca/Documents/Priorities/EN/cyberbullying/CyberFacebook.pdf “School boards, “ he told Open File Halifax, “get excited when I talk about this.” That’s what is behind his proposed amendments to the Education Act and regulations.
While MacKay’s report was greeted with celebratory responses, it will spark much debate over some of its more contentious recommendations. Banning cell phones and digital devices in classrooms, even on a short-term basis, proved to be “dead on arrival” with high school students. Seventeen-year-old Allison Taylor of Sir John A. Macdonald High School, featured on the cover of the report, reacted swiftly, saying that banning them “simply won’t work.” http://halifax.openfile.ca/halifax/text/cyberbullying-report-calls-p-12-pilot-ban-cell-phones-and-digital-divices
MacKay’s report does provide some shocking evidence of how widespread teen bullying is, in all its forms. He cites Alberta teacher Bill Belsey’s figures from data gathered at http://www.bullying.org. In December 2011, Bill testified before a Senate Committee that there are 252,000 cases of bullying per month in Canadian high schools. Doing some quick calculations, that would amount to some 6,000 incidents each month in a rather thinly populated province like Nova Scotia.
The report unmasks how unprepared Nova Scotia was to respond to cyberbullying in schools or anywhere else. His first six recommendations all speak to the urgent need to take –off the blinkers by identifying, documenting and addressing bullying as well as cyberbullying. For an Education Department looking to reduce paperwork, this will not necessarily be welcomed by teachers.
Hiring an Anti-Bullying Co-ordinator (ABC) and setting-up a new ABC Office is pro-active, but – whatever its intentions — adds another layer to the education bureaucracy. If the focus is on prevention, it’s hard to see why so much of the report deals with identifying, documenting, reporting, and assessing complaints – and overseeing the new and extensive school board compliance requirements.
Nova Scotia’s Cyberbullying commissioner has identified “the insidious problem” and succeeds in clarifying that “cyberbullying is simply a new dimension of bullying.” His report also makes a valiant effort, using the public education platform, to promote a “whole of government” approach to a serious societal problem.
What can be done in Canadian provincial education systems to curb the spread of cyberbullying? Should a ban on cellphones and digital devices in the classroom be part of that strategy? What are the limits of preventative education in schools? In attempting to deter cyberbullying, are we creating another layer of legislation, regulations, and bureaucracy? Most importantly, should the chronic perpetrators be subject to criminal action or treated to another round of restorative justice?