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Today’s public school teachers are expected to serve a number of masters — provincial education authorities, regional school boards, students and parents, and teachers’ federations. Traditionally, under Canadian education law,they have been seen to stand in loco parentisto have within the area of their responsibility the same authority over students as would a reasonable, kind and judicious (careful) parent and to be expected to act, at a minimum, in that manner.  Today, Canadian education law expert Dawn C. Wallin has noted that teachers act more and more as “educational state agents.”

The initial expectation of teachers acting in loco parentis has been substantially supplemented and, in some cases supplanted, by legal duties and requirements of teachers acting as agents of the state. The role of parents has also changed, as governments have come to play a more active role in shaping the framework and terms of engagement in family-school relations. The raging controversy over Ontario sex education curriculum reform in June and July of 2018 has, once again, brought the struggle for dominance in this “contested terrain” to a head.

Fundamental questions supposedly laid to rest with the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum have resurfaced, much to the chagrin of former Queen’s Park education insiders, politically-active teachers, and allied health professionals.  Who speaks for the majority of today’s parents? For which parents, in urban school settings –and rural/small town school settings?  And in which of Ontario’s diverse range of etho-cultural communities?  Do “teachers know best” what today’s children and teens need to know about sex, gender identities, and leading healthy lives? 

The Doug Ford PC Government, judging from Education Minister Lisa Thompson‘s latest statement, is preparing to review the 2015 health curriculum and to maintain the 2014 status quo until the Ministry of Education has conducted a new round of parent consultations. That’s a watering down of its 2018 “For the People” election promise to revert back to the 1998 curriculum, but still honours a commitment made to the public. The revised policy position makes considerable sense, since only some 10 per cent of the curriculum deals specifically with sex education and is really in contention.

Much of the populist opposition to the 2015 Ontario sex education curriculum is rooted in the deep distrust engendered by the final term Kathleen Wynne Liberal Government. For those swept up in Ford Nation, it was a glaring example of Ms Wynne’s ideological adherence to costly progressive solutions, close connections with well-healed downtown Toronto do-gooders, condescending manner in telling parents what was good for their children, and preference for moving forward without listening enough to everyday concerns. 

Ontario’s 2015 sex education curriculum was always based upon what might accurately be termed a ‘forged consensus,” patched-together after Premier Dalton McGuinty ditched the proposed 2010 reforms in the face of fierce opposition from Catholic parents and boards as well as vocal social conservatives. Current claims that the Wynne round of consultation was all-inclusive does not stand up to close scrutiny. Her government relied heavily upon the usual OISE-Toronto insiders and appendages, well-known progressive education experts, 2,400 teachers, and some 4,000 parents drawn from the notably friendly confines of elementary school PACs.

Manufacturing consent can work to block populist educational ventures, as it did in staving-off British Columbia traditional schools, but it relies upon marginalizing opposing forces and can unravel after achieving the target objective. Shaming old-fashioned “moral traditionalists” and labelling “Christian fundamentalists,” and hidden “homophobes” might have worked again. It was the groundswell of new Canadians, mainly Asian, Middle Eastern, and East Indian, families with more conservative values in Toronto’s suburbs like Thorncliffe Park and the GTA, that upset the best-laid plans of the Liberal-dominated Ministry of Education.

‘Common sense’ seems to be is short supply, possibly because the term bears the stigma of the earlier incarnation of Ontario conservatism during the wrenching and divisive Mike Harris years. That’s a shame because it’s exactly what Ontario needs right now to resolve the sex education conundrum.

With respect to sex education, finding a more stable, common sense resolution starts with a different assumption – that parents are every child’s first educators and have to be meaningfully engaged because they are sill primary responsible for raising and rearing children, albeit in close partnership their child’s teachers. Acknowledging the critical role of parents and families is the first step to winning over skeptical traditional and ethnic minority parents and setting Ontario on the road to a more satisfactory resolution.  It’s also a good reminder that the teacher is, after all, still expected to act in loco parentis and, where possible, with the consent of parents and families.

Any new Sex Education task force should be composed of a new set of players, as much as possible independent of the ideologues and activists on both sides. It should be carefully constructed so as to achieve a legitimate balance, involving liberal and conservative-minded parents, recognized scientific authorities, and respected members of religious communities. Sorting out the differences will not be easy, but will only happen if proponents of more conservative views, rooted in character education, morality, and modesty in sexual matters have a legitimate place at the table.

Reforming the sex education curriculum now means listening harder and working to resolve the fundamental objections over a few critical pieces of the sex education program and applying an more nuanced “age-appropriate” lens to the contentious components.  Imposing a state-mandated curriculum without further consultation is out-of-the question. That’s why there’s so little consistency in what is taught and when, from province-to-province across Canada.

Without a consistent federal presence in education, assessing the state of sex education province-to-province can be quite a challenge.  The best we have is a fairly reliable survey conducted in 2015 for Global TVNews , illustrating the full spectrum of variations in ages when the key topics are introduced:

Proper Names of Body Parts: British Columbia and Manitoba required children know in kindergarten, while PEI and New Brunswick wait until Grade 6.

Sexual Orientation:  It was taught in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia in Grade 3, but Newfoundland only taught LGBT awareness in grade 9 (Manitoba had no clear agenda.)

. Sexual Consent: Nova Scotia introduced the topic in 2011, in advance of Ontario. It is also part of the Quebec curriculum, but it makes only a passing reference to reproductive rights, described as the risk of “going through an unwanted pregnancy.”

Sexually Transmitted infections (STis) and Prevention: Taught in Nova Scotia starting in Grade 5 but New Brunswick avoided the topic until Grade 10.

Birth Control:  Taught in Grade 6 in BC and in Grade 9 in Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan. While N.S. taught STI prevention in Grade 5, it waits until high school to introduce birth control.

When Ontario introduced Gender Identities and LGBT concerns in 2015, they were in the vanguard with Nova Scotia and Quebec, but  in some provinces like Saskatchewan it was still not mentioned at all. Alberta followed Ontario with sex ed curriculum changes that included sexual consent, sexual orientation, and cyberbullying/ sexting.

Love and Intimacy: The only province to teach love, attraction and intimacy is Quebec. Its curriculum is closely aligned with teaching human biology and makes a clear distinction between love and the purely physical aspects of puberty and reproduction.

Central to the newly-announced Ford sex education curriculum review will be a careful study of the readiness of children to learn certain topics in the early grades, Children can and should be taught the biological facts in the early grades, but it’s hard to justify teaching sexual preferences before children understand the nature of sexual desire. Warning young children about sexual pornography, internet porn, and sexting cannot be postponed, nor can teaching about same-sex couples when children see that for themselves among parents in their own school.

A Ford Government sex education curriculum will, in all likelihood, leave teaching more contentious and contested topics until the later elementary and junior high years. Exploring the full range of sexual desire in all its diversity is still best left to adolescence. Newly created teaching resources such as the “Genderbread Person Charts” fall into that category and should not be employed when students are simply too young to fully understand the complexities of gender identity, sexual preference, and biological sex types.

Teaching about sexual fluidity remains a radioactive topic, especially when the biological science is so contested and there is still a risk of doing harm by exposing young children to unproven, possibly harmful theories. In the case of one Sacramento, California, charter school kindergarten, a teacher’s well-intended strategy to demonstrate transgenderism backfired badly when children came home in distress, with some five-year-old boys left “afraid they were turning into girls.” Children can be taught to accept and respect peers who are different without applying labels at such an early age.

Parent knowledge, wisdom and counsel are critical in finding a better way forward and one, as Calgary professor Yan Guo reminds us, that respects the very real diversity among families in contemporary Canadian society. It presents a fresh opportunity to find a more flexible approach, making reasonable accommodations consistent with differing community and family values. State-mandated sex education without accommodating differences does not accord so well with the time-tested “Canadian way” of finding a workable consensus.

Should sex education curriculum be essentially family-centred or state-mandated on the basis of changing child rearing theories and practices? What’s wrong with an “age-appropriate revision” postponing certain topics to the later grades? Is it still possible for Ontario to proceed with most of the 2015 curriculum revision, with the exception of a few hotly-contested topics? How prepared are we to take the time to get it right by accommodating more of the unresolved concerns, and especially those expressed by new Canadian families from other religious, cultural and family traditions? 

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One of the Doug Ford Ontario education reform proposals that’s attracted relatively little attention is the June 2018 election pledge to ban cellphones in class. In the immediate aftermath of Ford’s election, education observers would be wise to take a serious look at the sweeping promise to “ban cell phones in all primary and secondary school classrooms, in order to maximize learning time.” While it is tempting to dismiss it as just another example of “back-to-basics” thinking, that would be most unwise. That is because it is inspired by openly expressed teacher concerns and policies now being implemented and debated in France, the United Kingdom, and a number of North American school districts.

French Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer is the latest to take action in the form of a National Assembly bill to ban cellphones at school before school resumes in September 2018. Deeply concerned about the phenomenon of “phone-addicted children,” he claims that the bill is a “detox measure” to combat classroom distractions and cyberbullying. More than 90 per cent of French children aged 12 years or older posess a mobile phone and teachers are finding it increasingly difficult to capture and hold the attention of their students.

“Mobile phones are a technological advance but they cannot monopolize our lives, ” Blanquer told LCI TV News. “You can’t find your way in a world of technology if you can’t read, write, count, respect others and work in a team.” Supporters of the French legislation say smartphone usage among children of junior and middle-school age has also aggravated cyberbullying, made it easier to access pornography, and interfered with social interactions in schools. Teachers, caught up in the proposed blanket ban, succeeded in being exempted from the cellphone prohibition.

Since the French cellphone ban was first proposed in December of 2017, school authorities in Britain and Ireland have been debating taking similar measures. The founder of London-based researchED, Tom Bennett, claimed, back in September 2015, that children should not be allowed smartphones until they were 16-years-of-age.  Teachers, he advised, should not allow them unless absolutely necessary, given the many challenges of managing modern classrooms.

The new Chief Inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, reports that “pupil behaviour” is “the number one concern of parents” and that steps must be taken to reduce the “low-level disruption,” including the inappropriate use of mobile devices in class. ” I am yet to be convinced of the educational benefits of all day access to ‘Snapchat” and the like, and the place of mobile phones in the classroom seems to me dubious at best.”

One of the most influential studies, “Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction and Student Performance, produced in May 2015 by London School of Economics researchers Louis-Phillipe Beland and Richard Murphy, is usually cited by those favouring restrictions or bans on classroom cellphone use. Based upon a study of moblile phone use in high schools in four English cities (Birmingham, London, Leicester and Manchester) in the Spring of 2013, the researchers found that banning mobile phones produced an improvement in student performance of 6.41% of a standard deviation, and rising to 14.23% among low-achieving students. The net effect of banning mobile phones, according to the researchers, added up to the equivalent of an extra week of school each academic year.

The critical question of whether mobile phones are a necessity or a distraction had resurfaced here in Canada long before an outright ban ended up as a key plank in the Ford Nation education agenda. One very active and informed Ontario elementary school teacher, Andrew Campbell, presented a very thorough review of Ontario cellphone policy and practice on April 14, 2018, at researchED Ontario.  Since the arrival of the Apple iPhone in January 2007, mobile phones have proliferated among children and teens, necessitating changes in school policies. Canada’s largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, reacted by introducing a system wide ban in April 2007, only to reverse it four years later.

Much  of the mobile phone proliferation was sparked by the adoption of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies, formally recognizing their acceptance as tools for learning. While BYOD proved to be bad policy, school systems were simply unable to curtain the technological tide or properly regulate the use of such devices.  In 2013, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) passed a resolution proposing that cellphones be “turned-off and stored during school hours,” unless authorized for use by a teacher. By 2014, some 60 per cent of Ontario schools had adopted BYOD policies and allowed students to use their own devices, in most cases, for cost-efficiency reasons. One Quebec English school board, in the Eastern Townships, went even further, distributing tablets to all students in Grade 5 and up while maintaining a rather open and permissive smartphone policy.

Mobile phone policies have tended to be reactions to technological innovations. Thierry Karsenti, Canada Research Chair on Technologies in Education and professor at the University of Montreal, told Maclean’s Magazine students will find a way to bring phones into the classroom regardless of the rules. A survey of more than 4,000 high school students showed that while 79.3 per cent of respondents owned a cellphone, they did not figure prominently in day-to-day teaching and learning. Cellphones were widely used in and around schools, even though some 88.4 per cent of student respondents claimed that the devices were banned either in class or at school altogether.

Defenders of cellphone use in class tend to cite research based more upon student attitudes than on the perceptions of their teachers. One online survey conducted for Verizon with 1,000 students in grades 6-8 claimed to show its positive effect on student learning.  Students who used smartphones in the classroom were more likely to ‘feel smart,’ be happier, and show interested in pursuing STEM subjects. More affluent students were more likely to be allowed to use smartphones in the classroom.   “Our research supports the fact that mobile technology can inspire and engage students today. We need to meet children where they are and leverage their use of mobile devices to increase their interest in STEM” claimed Rose Stuckey Kirk, President of Verizon

Another September 2014 Stanford University study focussed on “at risk’ students and purported to demonstrate how technology aids in learning when there is at least one device per student and the devices are readily available for multiple uses by the student throughout the school day. A 2017 study conducted by Dr. James Derounian at the University of Gloucestershire found that 45% of students in a small-scale 100 student group believed that the use of phones in classrooms aided in their education, making it easier to access online text resources.

Clearly defined class expectations and procedures are essential if teachers are to see benefits from cellphone use in class. Strict rules, established at the outset, work best and, without them, student attention is hard to establish and maintain. Many of the most effective teachers now use some form of check-in and check-out system for devices. The “Stoplight System, ” developed by two Halton DSB teachers, Troy Tennant and Cindy Cosentino, shows potential and is being mimicked elsewhere in Ontario.

Maintaining good student behaviour is becoming more of a priority and that explains the renewed popularity of restricting mobile phone use by students in schools and classrooms. Tom Bennett’s School Report blog post, June 23, 2018, again identified mobile phones as a major contributor to the discipline challeges teachers face in today’s classrooms. “Low level disruption sounds cute,” he wrote, “but it’s kryptonite for any lesson. It normalises rudeness, laziness, and grinds teachers down over weeks and months. It is no small issue. It is the most common reason for classroom behaviour to disintegrate.”  The Guardian concurs with the stance taken by Bennett and Ofsted boss Spielman.  A recent  editorial argued that schools would be better places for learning without the constant and distracting presence of the devices.

Should schools continue to welcome mobile phones in class? Why has France taken the lead in banning mobile phones at school? Who is promoting and supporting the continued and expanded use of cellphones in the classroom?  Is it possible to enforce a ban on the use of such devices in schools? Where is the evidence-based research supporting the widespread use of mobile phones in class? 

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An eye-catching satirical cartoon, “7 Sins in the Digital World,” is now making the rounds on Twitter feeds and it packs quite a punch aimed squarely at today’s somewhat unhealthy social media habits. Seven digital platforms are identified with one of the “sins” or vices.  Facebook is associated with Envy, Instagram with Pride, LinkedIn with Greed, Tinder with Lust, Yelp with Gluttony, Netflix with Sloth, and, last but not least, Twitter with Wrath.

That trenchant cartoon might well have been produced by the Halifax-based Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs, the sponsors of Dr. Justin Tosi’s April 26 Public Talk on one of the biblical “Seven Deadly Sins,” Wrath. His actual theme, “Moral Grandstanding and Self-Righteous Anger,” also ties in nicely with one of its greatest contemporary sources – the Twitterverse. “Moral grandstanding is the use of moral talk for self-promotion,” Tosi told the CCEPA audience. “ It’s people using moral conversation, making moral claims, to present an impressive image of themselves to others.”

Moral grandstanding is getting easier to spot with so much of our lives spent online. Chest-thumping Facebook posts and pontificating Tweets fill today’s social media. Posts presented as personal observations or short political statements tend to be laden with a much different underlying message: “I’ve got something important to say, worth paying attention to, here on the Internet.”

Joining in on social media seems to feed our innate narcissism. Hours are consumed burnishing an image and seeking approval from our online “friends” or registering our “likes” and favourites, piling on with a certain “tribal abandon.” It’s become a substitute for real-time engagement in morally useful projects and community activities. The allure of social media is hard to resist and, if we are honest, almost everyone has fallen prey to using social media as a platform for moral grandstanding, often to express our moral outrage about one issue or another. Some of us, the real zealots, are more frequent offenders than others.

Moral grandstanding seems to be particularly rampant in the Twitter world of academia. One of North America’s most engaged philosophers, Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago Law School, hit a nerve when he quipped in a blog post that Twitter is revealing in that “otherwise intelligent people” tend to “stake out careers on preposterous-but-shocking arguments.”

Most troubling to Tosi is the way moral grandstanding is foreclosing on free, open and meaningful public discussion. Whether it’s the crisis in health care, the state of public education, or the threat of climate change, the critical issues cannot be reduced to GIFs or 140-character declarations.

Moral grandstanding may provide some outlet for moral outrage or a safety-valve, but it encourages people to stake out radical positions to impress their friends, instead of engaging in civil dialogue and a mutual sharing of ideas. Nuances tend to dissolve when factions are formed and people gravitate to echo chambers, likened to “bizarre partisan camps,” often divided along “progressive” or “neo-traditional” lines. Extreme partisanship, formerly the preserve of card-carrying political party activists, spreads to social action committees, teachers’ unions, and education twitter groups.

When normally intelligent people resort to posting very foolish things on Facebook and Twitter, it is often a prime example of a very real psychological phenomenon, group polarization. Before adding to the pile of “likes,” contributing to the blather, or retweeting an insulting comment, it might be advisable to think first, and decide whether it helps anyone trying to grasp an issue in all its complexity.

The threat to civil discourse posed by the Internet’s most diabolical sub-species, the troll, needs to be confronted. Partisan groups seem to breed trolls and serial re-tweeters (or parakeets) who spew mostly nonsense interspersed with insults or slurs directed against those targeted or marginalized by the faction.

Five common fallacious arguments employed by trolls were ‘outed’ in a recent British Channel 4 News “Fact Check” feature, How to Defeat the Troll (online).  All of them are regularly employed by moral grandstanders on social media  Keep your eye open for examples of these false arguments, aptly described as “rubbish”:

The Straw Man (Person) Attack – Exaggerating or twisting your opponent’s point to make it easier to knock down. Response: You are putting words in my mouth

The Ad Hominem Argument – Attacking the person rather than addressing the point they are making.  Response: That’s an insult, not a counter-argument.

Anecdotal Evidence – Assuming your personal experience trumps more reliable sources of information. Response: That’s one example, can you cite any more?

Whataboutery – Using someone else’s bad behaviour to deflect from your own.  Response: Two wrongs do not make a right.

Shifting the Burden of Proof – Because no one can prove your claim is false… does not mean it’s automatically true. Response: Extraordinary claims need solid supporting evidence.

WrathCCEPATosiCivil dialogue and discourse is under threat in today’s mainstream politics, and especially so on social media. Grandstanding is a major factor and it takes many forms. In their quest to solidify their reputation or impress their in-group, grandstanders tend to trump up moral charges, attempt to silence or marginalize ‘outliers,’ and to pile on in cases of public shaming. Small mistakes or poor choices of words can attract swarms of partisans vilifying the supposed perpetrator. Swarming on social media can also have a chilling effect on others.

Most disturbing of all, grandstanders denounce people who hold contrary views, exaggerate emotional displays, and ramp up discussion until it degenerates into what Toshi calls “a moral arms race.” Today, everyone seems to have their own platform: It’s time to take a hard look in the mirror and to re-assess why and how we engage with one another over political and moral issues.

Whatever happened to civic discourse in the education world? How and why has EduTwitter become such a wild frontier? How prevalent is moral grandstanding?  Is there an alternative to  ‘Echo Chamber Happy Talk” or spectacles of “Twitter Warfare”?  Is there still hope for EduTwitter?

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“Don’t Stand By, Stand Up!,” is the popular rallying cry. “Don’t be part of the problem. Be part of the solution!”  Taken together, these two popular exhortations are also the main slogans of StopCyberbullying, the first prevention program in North America. Founded in the 1990s by Parry Aftab, an American lawyer from suburban Wyckoff, NJ, it spread from New Jersey throughout the United States and, since a recent rash of cyberbullying-related teen suicides in Nova Scotia, has popped up in the Maritimes, Alberta, and the Northwest Territories.

BullyParryAftabThe feisty New Jersey crusader, married to Canadian child advocate, Allan McCullough, is widely known as the “kids Internet lawyer,” especially after TV appearances on Dr. Phil and being honoured as the 2010 New Jersey recipient of the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award. Her charitable organization

StopCyberbullying aims to mobilize a so-called “cyber-army” of students and teachers to rid the schools of what Aftab calls the “pandemic” of cyberbullying. The program also promotes the adoption of prevention toolkits and resources developed by her online child safety operation, WiredSafety.com

While Parry Aftab’s campaign is gaining traction in the Maritimes, it has stalled in the United States like most of the anti-bullying initiatives south of the border. “I’ve been doing this for over the past 16 years and I’m losing this battle,” she confessed in April 2014. Ineffective or poorly worded laws, misunderstandings over the law’s intent, fear of legal reprisals from parents, and avoidance of negative publicity for the school or town are all key reasons why cyberbullying laws and regulations don’t seem to be working to deter perpetrators.

BullySchoolSignAn entire industry, known as the “Bully Business,” has emerged to combat both bullying and cyberbullying.  Filmmakers, politicians, lobbyists, and corporations that sell in-school programs have joined pioneers like Aftab and Alberta teacher Bill Belsey in the ‘War on Bullying’ in schools and to hawk their latest anti-bullying classroom resources.

In Aftab’s home state, New Jersey, some $2 million was invested in 2012 in state-wide anti-bullying initiatives, including some $1 million to put an anti-bullying coordinator and teacher in every school.  School surveillance was increased and the numbers of reported incidents rose accordingly, but the results proved disappointing.

The New Jersey initiative may well have backfired on anti-bullying activists. As Richard Bozza, Ed.D., executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, observed in November 2011: “The anti-bullying law also may not be appropriate for our youngest students, such as kindergartners who are just learning how to socialize with their peers. Previously, name-calling or shoving on the playground could be handled on the spot as a teachable moment, with the teacher reinforcing the appropriate behavior. That’s no longer the case. Now it has to be documented, reviewed and resolved by everyone from the teacher to the anti-bullying specialist, principal, superintendent and local board of education.”

Whatever happened in New Jersey is passe for Aftab and her anti-cyberbullying supporters because Canada is now the new northern frontier. After the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying report and the tragic death of Rehteah Parsons, Aftab focused her energies on “little Nova Scotia,” the world’s most important cyberbullying battleground with “more suicides per capita connected to cyber issues.” Flush from headlining the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying Conference in May 3013, she took the campaign to Prince Edward Island, of all places, where she maintained a seasonal residence.

The International Stop Cyberbullying Youth Summit held in Charlottetown on Nov. 9, 2013 was quite an extravaganza.  A handpicked delegation of Prince Edward Island students formed the core of the 400 students in total from grades 4 to 12 and the 200 adults at the youth summit.  While the focus was on mobilizing students, Aftab rolled out the high profile heavy hitters. Industry leaders, including high-level representatives from Facebook, Microsoft and Google, attended the summit as well as the world renowned champion of anti-bullying, Barbara Coloroso, and the creator of Victims of Violence, Sharon Rosenfeld.

Anti-bullying activists like Aftab now have to contend with vocal critics, questioning the deterrent strategies and the effectiveness of school policies and laws. Former editor of Parenting magazine, Deborah Skolnik, raised hackles in March 2013 by speaking out about the “Bully Backlash” and arguing that “teasing, name-calling or taunting” were not necessarily acts of bullying but rather a natural, if unpleasant, part of growing up from childhood to adolescence.

More recently, New York writer Cevin Soling took to the pages of The Atlantic to address what he deemed the “elephant in the room” – the root cause of bullying. ” Children are confined in schools, often against their will, and deprived of the capacity to make choices that affect their lives, yet policymakers ignore these conditions,” he claimed. The most widespread catalyst for bullying, according to the author, was a school environment much like captivity “rendering children powerless” and from which there seemed to be “no escape.”

The somewhat  contradictory disciplinary philosophies underlying popular anti-bullying campaign are also coming under closer scrutiny. State and provincial legislators, including Nova Scotia, typically favor creating a no tolerance for bullying climate, pushing for formal incident reports and clamping down on any sign of  “hurt feelings” and even incidents resulting from “playful derogatory banter among friends.”  School administrators may revert to  a “snitch culture” in which everyone is encouraged to report incidents they witness.  Educational progressives gravitate to The Bully Project approach seeking to engage students in finding “peaceful solutions” and promoting a rather unnatural, warm-and-fuzzy climate where “nobody should be mean to others.”

School-based anti-bullying programs have not fared well when assessed for their effectiveness. One of the best known research reports, published in the Criminal Justice Review (December 2007) and based upon a meta-analysis, showed that anti-bullying programs produce “little discernible effect on youth participants.” A University of Texas researcher Seokjin Jeong analyzed data from 7,000 students in 50 states and found that such programs “plant” bullying ideas in young children that likely increase the incidence of schoolyard or online bullying.  Much of the research showing short-term positive impact may well be measuring the extent to which the visible symptoms are suppressed as opposed to remedying the underlying problems.

Passing cyberbullying laws may not be the answer. In the United States, all but one state, Montana, has a cyberbullying law in place. Despite that remarkably extensive thicket of cyber-harrassment laws, an investigative report by Associated Press concluded that the laws in place are simply not effective.

In Nova Scotia, the first Canadian province to pass a Cyber Safety Act, the legislation remains contentious.  Halifax’s leading internet and privacy lawyer David Fraser has judged the provincial law to be “half-baked” because of its “broad definition” cyberbullying which infringes on the right to free expression and holds parents responsible for their children’s actions.  He also predicts that that the law will be ruled unconstitutional.   That explains, Fraser says, why other Canadian provinces have taken different approaches.  In a 2013 research report, “Cyberbullying and the Law,” Fraser and his research team asked “Are We Doing Enough?” and proposed taking a closer look at treating internet bullying as a form of “harassment.”

Whatever happened to the flurry of Anti-Bullying initiatives launched in the wake of the 2010 to 2013 spate of teen suicides? Who are the leaders in the “Bully Business” and to what extent are they addressing the symptoms as opposed to the real underlying problems? Why have American cyberbullying laws failed to make much of a difference in the lives of students?  What will come of the Canadian Cyberbullying Youth Summits in the next few years?

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School leaders responding to crises are subject to incredible scrutiny, not to mention second guessing.  The most recent example is the full-blown crisis that exploded at Dalhousie University in mid-December 2014 over the misogynistic Facebook posts of the infamous “DDS 2015 Gentlemen.”  That group of 13 fourth-year dentistry students, on a Facebook page established in 2011, degraded women, in post after disgusting post, including the male students’ female peers.

DalDentalCartoonWhat began as a Dalhousie Student Discipline case grew into a monster threatening the university’s cherished reputation.  Since a fateful Media Conference on December 18, 2014, the school’s handling of the scandal became the radioactive issue. Dalhousie University’s president, Richard Florizone, first proposed “Restorative Justice” as the answer, then backtracked in the face of a petition calling for expulsion signed by over 50,000 concerned citizens.

The Dental School Crisis dragged on for weeks and attracted widespread public concern. Three weeks after the initial announcement, the President announced that the 13 students would have their clinical privileges suspended. When the Restorative Justice process began to unravel, the President began to sound tougher, insisting that there would be “consequences” for the alleged miscreants. How it will end is anyone’s guess, but the issue still festers and the damage has been done.

Veteran school leaders all have “war stories” like this to tell and yet they remain silent in observing crises like this spinning out-of-control.  For most  battle tested leaders, the inner voice says, “There but for the grace of God.”  For others, it’s just a reminder that being “tested by fire” is the rite of passage for all school leaders, at some point in their career.  One of Canada’s wisest law professors, former university president Wayne MacKay, did venture some gentle early advice, tempered by his trademark sensitivity. Surviving a few crises of my own has rendered me more cerebral, less definitive, and more conflicted than usual.

At times like this, where might a school leader turn? My personal experiences, in two decades of senior education leadership roles, taught me three things — take charge, seek professional advice, and keep the lawyers at bay. Crises are extraordinary events and they call for some decisiveness as well as roll-up-the sleeves, informed, effective decision-making. What you say and do matters –and mistakes are rarely forgiven. You are also foolhardy if you simply take matters into your own hands and do not seek the advice of so-called “crisis management” professionals.

My “crisis management” confidante was Dr. Allan Bonner and he saved me from disaster more than once. After being trained by Allan in Toronto in the Spring of 1997, my eyes were opened and I was much more attuned to the potential for “incidents” to become “crises.”

“A crisis is a turning point for better or worse,” says Bonner.  “A crisis is a rapidly moving and changing event that taxes your response capabilities to their limits. You will need all the assets, people and skills you have and will need to procure new assets and skills very quickly.”

“Crisis management” is critical to solving school problems, and also to protecting your most valuable asset – the institution’s reputation.  If you fumble the ball, the media, board members, faculty, students and all stakeholders start to “question whether the underpinnings of ‘the system’ work. In a crisis, the system includes your approaches, policies and procedures, laws, ethics, codes of conduct and more.”

“Take the panic out of a crisis!” is one of Bonner’s favourite statements. Sexual harrassment, criminal charges, wrongful dismissal and media investigations are issues that can generate crises in schools.  If you do not know what a SOCKO is, be prepared to answer the same questions over and over again.  You also learn to re-gain control of the situation, buy some time, get to the bottom of the matter, and anticipate the unexpected.  Most importantly, take effective action in hours to nip a crisis in the bud before it expands.

Crises are, by their very nature, challenging to resolve, but they can be made worse by leadership lapses and mis-steps. While crises do not repeat themselves, you can learn from others tested by fire and those who make a profession of extricating school leaders out of periodic hot water. Just when you think you have it mastered, another crocodile in the education lagoon takes a snap at you.

Why do School Incidents become full-blown crises?  What can be learned from the handling of the Dalhousie Dental School crisis, the Saint Mary’s University ‘Rape Chant’ scandal, and the fumbling of the Rehteah Parsons case? What’s the best place to turn for guidance — your personal conscience, past experience, or the wisdom of others?

 

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The Rehteah Parsons case has made us all far more aware of the contemporary spectre of cyberbullying and teen sexual assault. Coming on the heels of recent teen suicides and prescription drug tragedies, Rehteah’s death prompted a flurry of immediate — and delayed — responses from Nova Scotia’s education, child and youth services, hospital, police and judicial systems. Every Canadian province far too many Rehteah Parsons-like stories of lost teens who fell through the cracks in the system.

RehtaehMemorialAfter all of this frenzied activity, Rehtaeh’s own province  still has a a gaping hole in its child and youth service system. Simply reacting to the regular and ongoing “youth crisis” eruptions is not good enough.  Nova Scotia desperately needs the visible and active presence of an empowered Child and Youth Advocate, independent of the Government and separate from the provincial Ombudsman’s Office.

The current provincial ombudsman, Dwight Bishop, has, to his credit, raised the alarm bells in late June and again in his latest annual report. Sadly, both of those sincere and impeccably diplomatic appeals fell mostly upon deaf ears.
Provincial bureaucrats like Bishop, unlike those heavyweight auditor generals, often appeal for bigger budgets to expand their reach, but – in this case – the cry for a more robust presence is not only justified, but long overdue.

The 2007 Nova Scotia Child and Youth Strategy established a better policy framework and the situation now cries out for real action. Many teen suicides are preventable, child poverty is growing, financially-pressed families are stressed out, domestic violence exists in too many children’s lives, and abuses still happen in child welfare and educational institutions.

The N.S. Ombudsman Office, founded in response to allegations of institutional abuse in the 1960s, labours on with a very limited mandate and an annual budget of only $1.7 million, a fraction of what is invested elsewhere.  Last year, Nova Scotia spent only $400,000 investigating child and youth complaints, less than one-quarter of the amount expended in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The mandate of Nova Scotia’s ombudsman is far too narrow, limiting Bishop to investigating cases of abuse in provincial child and youth care facilities. His latest recommendation to establish a “child death review committee” was well intended, but is woefully inadequate because we cannot be satisfied with simply providing justice at the tail end of the process.

It’s time Nova Scotia joined Canada’s eight other provinces with Child and Youth Advocates in taking a more robust approach with a full mandate to investigate a wider range of individual cases, to recommend changes in child, youth and education service systems, and to take the lead in advocating changes in child and youth policy.

When Nova Scotia adopted the Child and Youth Strategy, the key initiatives were entrusted to the Community Services Department and, to a lesser extent, the Education Department. Some progress has been made in promoting juvenile justice reform, restorative justice practices and integrated service delivery, including the SchoolsPlus program aimed at supporting the 10 to 15 per cent of children and youth at highest risk.

The time is ripe for an independent agency to assess recent reforms and to attack child and youth problems at the source .It is not enough to simply focus on individual cases of abuse and death when an open, accessible complaints office and comprehensive reviews yield so much more for policy-makers. Such independent provincial reviews are also much more affordable for taxpayers.

An August 2009 review of Canadian provincial child and youth advocacy offices, conducted by Robin MacLean and R. Brian Howe at Cape Breton University, found that Saskatchewan, Ontario and Manitoba had the most effective operations.  Those jurisdictions were reportedly “more active and successful in advising government and influencing systemic reform,”  leading to policy and legislative changes.  Nova Scotia lagged behind other provinces, particularly in its scope of operations and public advocacy role.

The Saskatchewan Child and Youth advocacy system has proven itself capable of effecting positive change. Since 2007, that office has sparked the province-wide adoption of eight Child and Youth First Principles, based upon the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), establishing child rights and provisions for “the greater protection from harm.”  That led to a prohibition of corporal punishment in public schools, youth detention centre detox programs, teen health information clinics, and bullying prevention policies.

Child poverty reduction now tops the agenda in BC and Saskatchewan where the provincial offices have issued Child Poverty Report Cards. More than one in eight Nova Scotia children live in poverty, the fourth highest percentage in Canada, after BC, Manitoba and Ontario. A provincial Child and Youth Advocate here would ensure that we look “upstream” at the root causes of child poverty, child abuse, juvenile delinquency, and later criminal activity.

The N.S. ombudsman’s proposal for a “child death committee” falls far short of what Nova Scotia children, youth, and families need in a time of financial stress and high anxiety complete with new threats like serial sexting and cyber harassment.   Taking action now may be just what saves us from a succession of Rehteah Parsons cases in the years ahead.

Who speaks up for Children and Youth who go off track at a critical point in their lives?  Which Canadian province has the best record in Child and Youth advocacy? What will it take to convince governments to address the problems of troubled children and youth at the source rather than a the tail end?

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Leah Parsons, mother of teen suicide victim Rehteah, was withering in her initial response to the latest report on her daughter’s tragic odyssey. ” I read it over quickly and I had to walk away from it because it was just so fluffy,” she told The Chronicle Herald. ” A lot of talk about nothing.”  That comment, more than anything else, laid bare one of the  biggest challenges facing Canadian education reformers: external reports generated by ‘in-house’ consultants operating under narrow mandates. In this case, the initiators of the Nova Scotia Government review badly misjudged the public mood and demand for concrete action instead of more soothing words.

RehteahParsonsReportThe two authors of the report, Debra Pepler and Penny Milton, are seasoned educators and nice enough people.  The scope of the mandate they were assigned, likely by former Halifax School Board chief Carole Olsen, now Deputy Minister of Education, was so narrowly circumscribed that little should have been expected. When the two consultants were appointed, they signaled as much by saying that the mandate was not to probe into the causes nor to assign responsibility for Rehteah spiralling downward while she was enrolled as a student in the Halifax Regional School Board system.  It’s also relevant to note that Milton is the ultimate “insider” and was CEO of the Canadian Education Association when Olsen served as its President a few years ago.

The Milton-Pepler report got a rough ride at the Media Conference announcement on June 14, 2013, at One Government Place in Halifax.  The incredibly thin, 31-page report, entitled “External Review of the Halifax Regional School Board’s Support of Rehteah Parsons,” may signal a new low in public accountability for educational decision-making.  With the eyes of the world on them, the two authors served up an incredible menu of mush. ” The educators responsible did the right things,” Milton said, somewhat hesitantly. Then Dr. Pepler added: “This was a problem with systems.”

Close observers of the Nova Scotia scene were quick to trash the entire report.  The highly respected Chair of Nova Scotia’s 2011-12 Bullying and Cyberbullying Task Force, Dr. Wayne MacKay, described it as “disappointing’ when the public has been demanding “concrete actions” not more studies.  News columnist Marilla Stephenson of The Chronicle Herald summed up the response, dismissing it as “a lightweight, highly frustrating reinforcement of how a high-functioning public school board might work best under idea circumstances.” Surveying the report and its skimpy 6-page list of mostly generalized recommendations, she wondered why the government paid as much ass $70,000 to secure such a fluffy report.

The Milton-Pepler report documents, in clinical fashion, just how Rehteah fell apart after the “rape” and posting of the horrible picture of her in an intoxicated state.  It’s clear that her tragic story involves far more than wild partying and cyberbullying and cuts to the root of today’s teen culture and life withing that “tribe” ouside the scrutiny of responsible adults.

Where the report completely fails, however, is in explaining how a Cole Harbour teen with such problems could be missed by school officials while transferring from one high school to another for almost two years. From the fateful house party in the November 2011 until June 2012, she attended four different HRSB high schools, a period of 7 months. She was then refused re-admission to her home school, Cole Harbour District High School, and ended up back at Prince Arthur HS for a second time, shortly before taking her own life.  Her downward spiral was marked by heavy drug and alcohol use, frequent school absenteeism, and encounters with the Halifax IWK teen mental health clinic and the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre.

The Milton-Pepler review proposed 13 rather vague recommendationsi that satisfied few. News media unfamiliar with edu-babble were dumfounded by the airy tone and weak kneed approach to such an urgent matter.  After Wayne Mackay’s authoritative bullying report, it was hard to stomach the recommendations including addressing the school system’s bullying issues, better sharing of student information among schools, more social issues-based curriculum, and reducing the “silos” preventing branches of government from working together. While averse to casting blame in the education system, the two educators pointed the finger at the IWK for its role in providing teen mental health services.

The report’s authors, based in Toronto, completely missed the significance of a previous Nova Scotia teen tragedy, namely that of Archie Billard, a delinquent teen who underwent a similar downward spiral nine years earlier. It was shocking that external experts seemed unaware of the 2006 Justice Merlin Nunn report and the provincial Child and Youth Strategy establish ed to prevent such cases from happening again.  One of the Child and Youth Strategy programs, SchoolsPlus, was ripped out-of-context and presented as a “potential solution.” No one could explain why Rehteah was allowed to spin “out of control” like Archie with 16 SchoolsPlus sites in operation in the local school system.

What are the lessons to be learned from this sad example of educational policy research and advocacy?  How could the Nova Scotia Government completely misread the public mood and sense of urgency, especially after Wayne MacKay’s repeated appeals for less talk for more action?  Should senior educational administrators and their cronies be entrusted to investigate the system that sustains them?  When, in heaven’s name, will we begin to see real action to minimize the chances of this happening over and over again?  Is it time to clean house and get to the bottom of what’s really going on inside the system?

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