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Archive for the ‘Cyberbullying’ Category

“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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The Rehteah Parsons Case has drawn global attention to the twin horrors of teen sexual assault and re-victimization in cyberspace.  Since the 17-year-old Dartmouth teen’s death by suicide on Sunday April 7, 2013, a torrent of outrage and widespread public anger has dominated the media and left Nova Scotian and federal policy-makers scrambling for explanations and policy fixes  It is indeed a cruel irony that Rehteah was a Nova Scotian, born and raised in the Canadian province that has blazed the trail in the recent  counter-offensive against cyberbullying.

RehteahParsonsProtestThe depth of public outrage left Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter and his Education Minister Ramona Jennex  completely reeling.  It was bad enough that the Cole Harbour High School teen had been sexually-assaulted by four boys , 17 months before , at age 15, without charges being laid.  The fact that photos of her alleged rape were posted online and widely circulated were shocking.  Hearing that the Cole Harbour HS administration knew of the rape allegation and left it all to the police compounded the problem. To make matters even worse, no one representing the school claimed to have seen or heard anything about the photo posted all over the Internet.

Over the first few days, the Nova Scotia Government expressed its heart-felt sorrow, but then attempted to contain the issue using its standard methods. The Justice Minister Ross Landry, at first, hesitated before calling for a fuller investigation of the whole matter.  Education Minister Jennex was caught so much off-guard that she had to summon the Halifax Regional School Board Chair Gin Yee and Superintendent Judy White in for a briefing on what had actually happened.  None of the lame explanations offered would survive the maelstrom of intense public scrutiny exerted by glare of the North American media and the pesky Halifax Chronicle Herald newspaper.

The Canadian public demanded action and Nova Scotian authorities reacted with uncharacteristic haste.  Spurred by Prime Minister Stephen Harper ‘s public reaction, the threats of Anonymous to go public with the names of the boys, and signs of vigilanteism, the RCMP re-opened the case, investigations were launched, and new laws materialized almost over the weekend.

The provincial response, when it came, was head-spinning.  The Education Minister appointed two Ontario consultants, Penny Milton, and Debra Pepler, to conduct an independent review of the HRSB and its response to the case. Premier Dexter accompanied Rehteah Parson’s parents on a pilgrimage to Ottawa seeking changes to the Criminal Code to better combat cyberbullying.  After dragging its feet for a year, the N.S. Government introduced a proposed Cyber-Safety Act creating a new police investigation unit and toughening rules, including seizing devices and holding parents responsible for the online conduct of their children.

What does all of this reactive decision-making amount to?  A Halifax Chronicle Herald Editorial put it this way: The demand for change is overwhelming. “Whether that change comes from tweaking laws, procedures, responsibilities or other areas — or some combination of the above — what’s important to the public is that whatever measures are taken, they must be effective in helping to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.”

Winning over a skeptical public will not be an easy task.   After a spate of  recent teen suicides, including the Californian 15-year old Audrie Pott, precipitated by persistent, horrific cyberbullying, the public will wait to judge those efforts by what actually gets accomplished.  Closing loopholes in the  laws may help, but what about enforcing the laws and discipline codes?

The independent reviews will be judged by what actually gets fixed as a result of them.  If Rehtaeh’s case was mishandled  by the Halifax police, that needs to be identified and fixed.  School officials do have to be held to account for their actions — or rather, lack of action — while one of their own students was allegedly being ceaselessly tormented by her peers. Parents in Nova Scotia and elsewhere affected by such incidents are simply tired of excuses for why cyberbullying is so difficult to stop and do expect tangible results.

One concrete action would be to implement all 85 recommendations of the Nova Scotia Bullying and Cyberbullying task force that reported a year ago.  Chair Wayne MacKay has made no secret of his disappointment with the lack of action, until now, on a number of effective, immediate measures, including tougher enforcement, more guidance counsellors, and teaching digital citizenship in schools.  Mental health services must also have the resources they need to effectively help teens cope with personal crises and the stresses of life.

Combating the posting of sexually explicit photos and cyberbullying will require the schools to step up to the challenge and get involved rather than shying away from anything with a hint of controversy. Parents also have a responsibility to teach their children right from wrong.  Everyone has a personal responsibility to call out bullying and to take a moral stand when the situation warrants a response.

Will the flurry of new Cyber-Safety laws and school regulations succeed where previous measures have failed?   With teen culture saturated with sex, can civility and propriety be restored by laws, rules, and curriculum alone?  Why do school officials, in particular, come up so short in stamping out outrageous student conduct and insidious cyberbullying in, around, and after school?  Are we simply expecting too much when it’s an ingrained societal problem?  

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Being “anti-this” and “anti-that” is the political fashion in the 21st century world of social reform, educational politics, and state policy-making.  Since the tragic suicide of British Columbia teen and bullying victim Amanda Todd in the fall of 2012, provincial premiers, education and health ministers, school boards, and even federal politicians have been falling over each other calling for a nation-wide crackdown and championing tougher “anti-cyberbullying” laws aimed at curbing bullying, cyber harassment, and criminalizing  repeated acts of cyberbullying.

AmandaToddProvincial and state policies, new laws, and incident reporting regulations are growing like mushrooms from Nova Scotia to BC and beginning to resemble crusades in “anti-bullying” states like North Carolina.  Most of this frenzied state intervention activity aimed specifically at combating cyberbullying and its horrible cousins, homophobia and racism, flies in the face of educational research and accumulating evidence that state policy and regulations attack the branches rather than the roots of the problem –teenage anger, pent-up frustration, and the breakdown in family relations.

Bullying and cyberbullying in and around schools has prompted quite a range of new laws, regulations and guidelines. Canada’s first province to declare “war on cyberbullying,” Nova Scotia, has now moved to require school staff and bus drivers to report all incidents of bullying and cyberbullying, as recommended in Wayne MacKay’s ground-breaking early 2012 report, Bullying and Cyberbullying: There’s No App for That.   In the fall of 2012, the Alberta Government amended its Education Act to hold students accountable for not reporting online incidents of bullying.  Down in Raleigh, the North Carolina state legislature expanded its 2009 cyberbullying law to outlaw cyber-harassment of teachers and other school employees.

Will any of these prohibitive and deterrent laws and regulations actually work to reduce the incidence of bullying and cyberbullying?  Most importantly, are laws targeting cyberbullying attacking the right end of the problem?

WearPinkDayThe first wave of the anti-bullying campaign , “Wear Pink” School Days, and so-called community “flash mobs,” did little more than raise awareness. A year ago at an Edmonton mall “flash mob” dance performance, Alberta’s then Minister of Education Tom Lukaszuk made this statement: “It’s an in-your-face campaign. We’re waging a war on bullying and making Albertans aware that bullying happens everywhere.”

A new Dalhousie University study conducted by Dr. John Leblanc and his research team provides the facts. Of 41 cases of bullying-related teen suicides from 2003 until April 2012, in the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia, 78% involved both bullying and cyberbullying (face-to-face and online harassment), and in only 7 cases (17%) was it cyberbullying alone.

That key finding supports a 2012 Norwegian research report by Dan Olweus, based upon two large-scale studies covering 2006 to 2010, that identified traditional bullying as the core problem, suggesting that cyberbullying was “an overrated phenomenon.”  American researcher Danah Boyd told Education Week in March 2012 that the Internet doesn’t necessarily increase bullying but it has heightened what she described as “a youth culture of fear.”

The root of the problem, according to Dalhousie University pediatrician LeBlanc, is likely to be found in family dysfunction and its toll on today’s teens. “for the most part,” LeBlanc says, “the vast majority of children and youth are not psychopaths. They’re not out to get you.; they’re not callous. They are reacting themselves to what’s happening to them.”  It also manifests itself in many forms from physical assaults to social exclusion, name calling, and gossiping.

A November 2012 report, Family responses to bullying,  produced by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, gets to the real nub of the problem.  Anti-bullying laws and regulations are limited and insufficient in their reach and potential effectiveness. “Families are an important part of the solution to bullying,” the IMFC report points out, and “a solution that has been overlooked for too long.”

Wayne MacKay’s 2012 Nova Scotia report is identified as a positive exception to the rule.  His approach, the IMFC notes, recognizes that “parents are the most influential role model in communicating appropriate behaviour” and takes a “less coercive” more preventative stance, attempting the admittedly difficult task of “engaging parents” in the effort.

The IMFC’s senior researcher, Peter Jon Mitchell, commenting on Alberta’s tough new anti-bullying law, was blunt in his assessment, telling  Postmedia News that “government makes a lousy parent.”  Instead of imposing more punitive legal measures and refereeing in family matters, he called for “more emphasis” on building “positive relationships between kids and adults.”

The IMFC is not alone in raising a red flag.  Even Canadian anti-bullying experts like Simon Fraser University’s Brenda Morrison agree that threatening teens with punishment for not reporting bullying is most likely to drive the problem further underground.

Will tough anti-bullying laws and further punitive state measures actually reduce the incidence of bullying and cyberbullying in and around schools?  What’s missing in the current array of “silver bullet” solutions proposed by provincial and state governments?  Will we eventually come to realize that rebuilding family life and fostering positive, mutually respectful parent-child relationships might be the best longer-term approach?

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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?

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