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The prevalence and use of electronic cigarettes has increased rapidly over the past decade, particularly among youth.  The extraordinary growth of e-cigarettes has also raised significant public health concerns about the emergence of a new generation of teens with nicotine dependency.  Changes in the design and marketing of vaporizers with the introduction in 2015 of more stylish, sleekly-designed, discreet high-tech devices, known as JUUL, have proven irresistible to teens and become the latest ‘nightmare’ for today’s high school principals and teachers.

School authorities in Canada as well as the United States are coming rather late to the challenge of combating vaping and its associated health risks.  Advance promotion of e-cigarettes as a smoking cessation device may have contributed to the initial ambivalent, almost helter-skelter, response.  A May 2019 Ontario Tobacco Research Unit report confirms that schools were caught off-guard by the surge of vaping among never-smokers and responded with interventions once used to combat smoking or imported from the United States, where the craze is far more advanced among youth.

Five years after the arrival of JUUL, public concern has reached a panic stage with the spread of fear over a recent spate of lung-disease cases involving teen users of e-cigarettes. Breathing in flavoured aerosol that contains nicotine was already a worry of doctors, parents and schools.  Over the past few months, some 380 people in 36 different American states have been struck by a mysterious lung infection linked to chemicals inhaled through e-cigarettes, and seven of those affected died.  Shortly after Health Canada issued a September 6, 2019 advisory, a London, Ontario, hospital disclosed that a local high school student suffering from vaping-related illness had been placed on life support before recovering and being sent home. It could become worse in mid-December 2019 when the sale of vaping liquids containing cannabis compounds becomes legal in Canada.

Schools are on the front lines of the current teen health scare. Since entering the Canadian retail market in 2009, e-cigarettes have morphed from a smoking-cessation aid to a full-blown health concern among today’s youth. Ten years ago, Health Canada greeted e-cigarettes with an advisory warning of the dangers of the new nicotine delivery devices, expressing concern over the lack of scientific research to support claims that they were safe for adults and teens. More recently, Canadian health authorities monitoring the spread of e-cigarette use have been echoing the U.S. National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine research finding that ” e-cigarettes are not without biological effects on humans” and, rather than aiding in cessation, can lead to further dependency.

Vaping devices and products containing nicotine are now flooding the Canadian market and readily available in local convenience stores and gas stations. Since September 1918, JUUL, the San Francisco-based company that controls over 50 per cent of the market, has been selling its sleek devices that look like a computer flash drive and are re-chargable at a USB port. They have proven more popular that the Imperial Tobacco brand Vype, released Canada in the Spring of 2018, and Japan Tobacco‘s Logic brand released in early 2019.

First introduced by Juul Labs in mid-2015 as a smoking-cessation device, JUUL became the so-called “iPhone of e-cigarettes.” The extraordinary sales growth of the product was driven by a variety of effective, wide-ranging and engaging campaigns reaching youth through social media, particularly on You Tube, Twitter, and Instagram. Five million Canadians, mostly aged 15 to 34, had tried e-cigarettes by 2017 and 300,000 reported using it every day. One more recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, reported that the proportion of Canadian teens (aged 16 to 19) vaping rose from 8.4 per cent in 2017 to 14.8 per cent in 2018, a 74 per cent increase. 

The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit conducted an environmental scan of current harm reduction programs and quickly recognized that there were, as of the Spring of 2019, no studies of the effectiveness of such interventions. Most intervention programs were public education and school-based efforts, typically aimed at teaching children and youth about the dangers of vaping in the hope of reducing or eliminating the practice. Three of the programs reviewed were E-Cigarettes: What You Need to Know (Grades 6 -12, Scholastic), CATCH My Breath (Ages 11-18, CATCH), and School E-Cigarette Toolkit (Grades 6-12, Minnesota Department of Health).  The report also examined interventions outside of schools, including community-based initiatives, public health efforts, health-care programs, and public policy strategies such as advertising and promotion restrictions, age restrictions, labelling and health warnings, flavouring restrictions, and safety requirements.

Most of the actual school-based interventions were embedded in existing tobacco control programs and sought to counter the marketing messages of companies claiming it is a safe, smoking cessation activity. The Ontario Tobacco Research Unit recognized the scattered approach being taken and recommended considering interventions that proved successful at reducing rates of regular cigarette smoking among youth. They also identified the need for a more coordinated and planned anti-vaping strategy.

Vaping has overtaken smoking as the favoured health-risk behaviour of high school students.  Some 15.8 per cent of Ontario Grade 9 students vaped in 2017, and only 6.2 per cent smoked cigarettes. As many as one out of every three high schoolers may now be regular users of vaporizers with nicotine-laced fluids. The recent health scares may have jolted users and curbed the growth in usage, but it remains the biggest, mostly unaddressed health issue in our high schools.

Why have health agencies and school authorities been so slow off-the-mark in combating the spread of vaping among adolescents? What more can be done to regulate and curtail the marketing of e-cigarettes among the youth market segment?  Where are the research initiatives aimed at identifying the real health risks for teens of vaping nicotine and cannabis products?  Should vaping cessation programs simply mimic smoking control strategies and programs?  What can be done to develop more effective student-centered vaping cessation programs? 

 

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Smoking in and around high schools has become ‘cool, once again. Over the past year, vaping has overtaken cigarette smoking as the surreptitious habit of choice among teens as well as undergraduate university students. While smoking e-cigarettes is officially outlawed on school property, that has not stopped a dramatic rise in the popularity of vaping among high schoolers. In the case of Ontario, a 2017 provincial survey revealed that more students in Grades 7 to 12 self-reported vaping (18 per cent) than smoking tobacco cigarettes (12 per cent).

The latest vape innovation, the Juul, now dominates the United States teen market and is beginning to spread into Canada. Inhaling multi-flavoured vapors with nicotine is now much harder for school administrators and teachers to detect. The small, sleek device, or juul, which can be easily mistaken for a portable USB drive has cornered the market for e-cigarettes and vaping products, particularly in affluent school districts where students can afford the latest gadgets and stimulants. Concealing bulging vaporizers was tough, but these low-profile, sleek designs allow students to easily conceal their habit and to escape detection not only in in the usual spots (bathrooms, back hallways, and under stairwells), but even in classrooms.

Like most teen crazes, vaping and ‘julling’ caught on far faster than school officials realized and became well established before authorities saw the scale of the problem. School principals are scrambling to contain the practice and trying to stamp it out.  “I think it’s everywhere, and my school is no different, ” Connecticut principal Francis Thompson recently told Education Week. Then he added, “I think it’s the next health epidemic..”

Vaping with the stealth devices, while less prevalent, is reportedly rising in and around Canadian high schools. “Everybody’s doing it, ” a Grade 9 student in Windsor-Essex County told Windsor CBC News in early April 2018.  Teens in Ottawa high schools featured in a May 2018 Canadian Press news story confirmed that it was now “cool” to smoke again, albeit with vaporizers and in well-known hiding spots. In Sydney, Cape Breton, students at Sydney Academy were well-aware of students vaping in class undetected, and fellow students suspended for smoking who were actually vaping on school grounds.

The new federal legislation, the Tobacco and Vaping Products Act, passed in May 2015, may help to clarify the legal position of school principals trying to cope with the latest craze. Bill S-5 (2018) may improve the quality and regulation of  vaping products and it does restrict use to adults. Federal regulations, expected within six months, will reduce the number of flavours used in e-cigarettes, banning those designed to mimic ‘confectionary,’ cannabis, or energy drinks, and designed to hook young people on these devices.

Defenders of e-cigarettes continue to maintain that they are a safer alternative to tar-producing tobacco cigarettes. Tobacco experts at Public Health England tend to support such claims, as confirmed in a February 2018 UK government report. Whether vaping is effective in promoting smoking cessation is far from clear in studies to date.

School policies banning smoking have been updated to include vaping, but the new stealth devices are making it harder than ever to enforce, especially when the juul looks so much like a USB stick and can be easily concealed by student users. The latest fear expressed by school principals and teachers is the prospect of vaporizers being used to deliver cannabis, circumventing school detection and regulations. When cannabis is legalized across Canada, October 17, 2018, we shall see whether it further complicates the job of policing and eliminating vaping on school grounds.

Why is vaping replacing tobacco smoking as the nicotine product of choice in and around schools?  Will the American juul craze become more widely accepted and entrenched among teens here in Canada? Should we be focusing so much on stamping out vaping or on convincing students to stop smoking, whatever the substance? Will the legalization of marijuana only compound this problem for teachers and school administrators? 

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Teachers are talking and raising alarm bells about the impact of marijuana legalization on students and our high schools – and the real daily challenges that lie ahead. This is a head’s up – we should all be listening to those on the front lines of education.

Seven American states and the District of Columbia have followed the early adopter, Colorado, in legalizing the recreational use of cannabis and the movement is spreading to other states. Four of the seven states legalized its use in November 2016, and the Canadian government has established its implementation date later this year.

Looking across Canada, province after province has been announcing its implementation policy, focusing almost exclusively on the control and regulation of the previously illegal substance, provoking fierce debates over who will reap most of the the exise tax windfall and  whether cannabis will be sold in government stores or delegated to heavily regulated private vendors. All of the provincial policy pronouncements claim that the policy will be designed to protect “public health and safety” and safeguard “children and youth”  from the “harmful effects.”

Marijuana legalization policy across Canada is a top-down federal initiative driven largely by changing public attitudes and conditioned by the current realities of widespread use of marijuana, purchased though illicit means. Setting the age of restriction, guided by the proposed federal policy framework, has turned out to be an exercise in reaching a “compromise” rather than heeding the advice of leading medical experts and the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). The CMA proposed age 25 and then accepted age 21 as more “realistic.” It’s going to be 18 year-of-age in Alberta and Quebec, and 19 years-of-age in most other provinces. Getting it “out of high schools” was a critical factor in bumping it up to age 19 in most provinces.

Every Canadian province is complying with the federal legislation, but — in our federal system – it’s “customized” for each jurisdiction. The Canadian Western provinces, Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan have opted for regulating private retail stores, while Ontario and the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I.), are expanding their liquor control commissions to accommodate retail sales of cannabis.

My home province, Nova Scotia, tends to find the “middle ground” in public policy and has done so once again. That’s why Nova Scotia provides perhaps the best point of entry into the Canadian situation.

On top of chronic absenteeism, ‘accept all excuses’ policies, and bureaucratic paperwork, most of Nova Scotia’s high school teachers will soon, as of September 2018, be battling a spike in marijuana use and greater peer pressure to smoke pot on the mistaken assumption that it is “harmless” at any age.

In the scramble to meet the federal July 1, 2018 implementation date, provincial authorities, in Nova Scotia and elsewhere, are grossly underestimating the potential harm to student health, safety, and life outcomes. That much is clear after carefully examining the best background research, the October 6 to 31 survey consultation, and the December 7 policy pronouncement.

The Nova Scotia government, guided by the steady hand of Minister Mark Furey, has done a reasonably good job in responding, under tight timelines, to the immediate challenge of establishing a strict control and distribution regime, albeit dependent upon the traditional public sector apparatus and the NSLC stores.

The essential problem is that control and regulation is only half of the challenge – and it sends out implicit signals that, after the failure of the ‘war on drugs,’ softened public attitudes will now dictate policy, irrespective of the health harms inflicted on children and youth.

One in five young people between 15 and 24 years of age, according to a recent national study, report daily or almost daily use of cannabis. They also see marijuana as “much safer than alcohol and tobacco” and “not as dangerous as drunk driving.” Few either know about or seem concerned over the clear linkage between heavy use and early onset psychosis.

Three major education policy concerns are not being addressed, all of which are identified in the current research on the harmful effects of marijuana on children and youth up until age 25.  With the legalization of marijuana, evidence-based policy needs to recognize that:

  • Heavy marijuana use can, and does, damage age 13 to 18 brain development: A 2016 Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse study confirmed the direct link to loss of concentration and memory, jumbled thinking, and paranoid psychosis.
  • Marijuana users perform more poorly in quantitative subjects requiring precision, like mathematics and senior science: Clear evidence was presented in 2017 by Dutch researchers Olivier Marie and Ulf Zolitz that ‘liberalizing’ rules also led to decreased academic success among Maastricht University students, and particularly for struggling students.
  • Legalization of marijuana increases the number of teen users: Early initiators increase their use significantly and overall reported use rises by about 10 per cent to one out of three teens, including previously low-risk students (New York University 2014, Oregon Research Institute 2017).

Medical researchers and practitioners have warned us that legalization carries great dangers, particularly for vulnerable and at-risk youth between 15 and 24 years of age.

One of the leaders in the medical field, Dr. Phil Tiboo, initiator of Nova Scotia’s Weed Myths campaign targeting teens has seen the evidence, first hand, of what heavy use can do at the Halifax QE II Infirmary Early Psychosis clinic. We will pay a price for not heeding the warnings of Dr. Tiboo about popular and rather blasé notions that marijuana is “harmless” to teens and “recreational use” is somehow “fun” and “healthy.”

One glaring example of the mixed messages was the November 2017 CBC Nova Scotia televised debate, entitled “Joint Venture,” a media production that actually made matters worse. It was all framed as a “cool” public policy about to propel us into the “green frontier. Watching and listening to the four panelists must have been terribly upsetting for doctors and high school teachers. Ill-informed comments went unchallenged, and no one spoke for educators who have daily encounters with students “high” on drugs.

High school principals and staff are facing a real test with the legalization of marijuana.  The old line of defense that using marijuana is illegal will have disappeared. Recreational marijuana will be more socially acceptable. The cannabis industry will be openly marketing its products. High school students who drive to school will likely get caught under new laws prohibiting motor vehicle use while impaired by drugs or alcohol. Fewer students will be abstainers when it is perfectly legal to smoke pot when you reach university, college, or the workplace.

We have utterly failed, so far, in getting through to the current generation of teens, so a much more robust approach is in order.  “Be firm at the beginning” is the most common sage advice given to beginning teachers. Clamping down on teen marijuana use during and after school hours will require clarity and firm resolve in the year ahead – and the support of engaged and responsible parents.

Legalization of recreational marijuana is bound to complicate matters for Canadian high schools everywhere. Busting the “Weed Myths” should not be left to doctors and health practitioners. When it comes to meeting this serious challenge, let’s get behind those on the front lines.

What’s really driving the move to legalize the recreational use of marijuana?  Where does that leave education authorities, school principals and high school teachers?  What works, if anything, in deterring teens in the absence of a law prohibiting open public use? Is it possible that teaching in high schools is about to get far more challenging? 

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Establishing and maintaining a positive climate for learning poses challenges in many of today’s schools. Six years ago British Education Secretary Ed Balls reacted to an April 2009 report by Sir Alan Steer by announcing a “crackdown” on student discipline in U.K. schools. “Children can’t learn if classes are disrupted by bad behaviour,” said Ed Balls. ”That’s why parents tell me they want tough and fair discipline in every school.”

“More schools will also be encouraged to use traditional methods such as detentions, suspensions, isolation rooms and lunchtime curfews to punish badly behaved pupils,” London’s Daily Telegraph reported. ”They will be told to order pupils to remove caps and confiscate mobile phones. Guidance also calls on schools to punish rowdy behavior, bullying and fighting outside the school gates, including incidents on public transport, to stop poor behavior spilling onto the streets.”

FollowingtheRules

Britain’s crackdown on student discipline marked a significant shift and a break with the prevailing philosophy in most North American school districts. A preventive student management system, Positive Behaviour Intervention Supports (PBIS), developed by George Sugai and Robert Horner at the University of Oregon, held sway throughout the early 2000s. “Punishment, in and of itself,” according to PBIS research, ” generally does not have a long-term benefit for students and creates a false sense of security. Practices that focus on positive and proactive approaches are more consistent with with learning acceptable behaviour in schools.”

The Positive Behaviour Supports model was taught in education schools and integrated into teacher Professional Development programs. Whole school systems, such as the Halifax Regional School Board, adopted the approach, renamed PEBS, and trained a whole cohort of teachers to focus more on providing “carrots” for good behaviour in an attempt to promote “pro-active school-wide prevention and early intervention.” Under the Nova Scotia School Conduct Code, adopted in 2001 and renewed in 2006, developing student discipline practices was left up to teachers and principals. “The climate of each learning community,” the PBIS manual read, “therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach is less effective than interventions based upon the needs of each school.”

Public reports of student violence did heighten demands for improved school security. While Ontario had passed a Safe Schools Act in 2000, that clampdown was primarily aimed at bolstering school security by introducing security guards, electronic surveillance, visitor ID tags, and ‘zero tolerance’ for violence rules. Curbing violent acts did lead to the identification of a list of offenses that could trigger expulsion, suspension, and other disciplinary sanctions. Most of the safe school measures were explicitly aimed at reducing the incidence of violence in urban, inner-city schools and large regional high schools.

Growing teacher and parent concerns about flagrant student misbehaviour called into question the school-based disciplinary model and spelled trouble for the PBIS student behaviour modification system. Thirty per cent of respondents in a 2014 Nova Scotia Education Review survey reported feeling unsafe or uncomfortable in and around the province’s 400 public schools. Bullying remained “a persistent issue,” teachers cried out for help in managing “disruptive classroom behaviours,” the disciplinary consequences were not only “unclear” but varied greatly from one school to another.

The Education Review raised the issue of violence in the schools, but the leak of provincial statistics in February 2015 suggested it was more widespread than reported.  In 2013-14, principals and school staff reported 4,730 acts of physical violence in a provincial system with less than 120,000 students from P to 12. The President of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, Shelley Morse, expressed grave concern and provided a graphic illustration of her life as an elementary vice-principal. ” I’ve been kicked, punched, bitten. Had chairs and desks and rocks thrown at me. I’ve had students spit on me. Have been verbally abusive to me…and (students) destroyed my office….”

Like the United Kingdom and a host of American states, Nova Scotia responded by issuing a much stricter province-wide, top-down School Code of Conduct policy.  Announced on August 24, 2015, and implemented this September, all school boards and school principals will be expected to implement the policy designed to maintain “a positive and inclusive school climate.”  It sounded, at first glance, like a warmed over version of the old policy and it dropped previous references to maintaining “an orderly and safe learning environment.”

The Nova School School Conduct Code itself ran in a completely different direction, identifying a multitiude of student conduct offenses and spelling out the specific consequences. It was intended as a province-wide crackdown but there were some accommodations made to promote respect for diversity, including gender identity. Students arriving for the first day of school this year were presented with the new 9-page School Code of Conduct and it was part of the normal welcome back routine.  Hundreds of teachers trained to implement PEBS were left scrambling to master the new set of school conduct rules imposed, without much parent input, on each and every school.

Do top-down prescriptive Student and School Discipline Codes actually work?  What do students learn when they are confronted with a gowing list of “don’t dos” ? Is it possible to implement Positive Behaviour Supports under a regime that embraces deterrent measures that tend to obscure the previously emphasized positive values and behavioural expectations?  Is the policy aimed at teaching parents to raise more responsible, respectful kids as much as it’s intended to apply to students? 

 

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An alarming new documentary, Web Junkie, recently aired on  the PBS television network, and alerted North Americans to radical measures being taken to curb screen addiction among children and youth in China. It is a powerful little film exposing the alarming effects on teenagers who become hooked on video games, playing dozens of hours at a time without taking breaks to eat, sleep or even go to the bathroom. Doctors in China have responded by designating “screen addiction” as a clinical disorder and established boot camp-style rehabilitation centres to treat its victims.

ScreenAddictedTeens

Internet addiction among teens may not be a diagnosed clinical disorder here, but it is now quite prevalent nearly everywhere you look—in homes, public spaces, and schools. Most North American physicians and psychologists are concerned about the screen fixation when youths are plugged in and tuned out of “live” interaction for so many hours a day that it imperils their normal, healthy development. More shockingly, it starts in early childhood with toddlers being handed cellphones or tablets to entertain themselves. By the time kids enter school, they are already hooked on the latest devices.

The PBS documentary spurred Jane Brody, Personal Health columnist for The New York Times, to take a closer look at this subterranean issue. She unearthed a 2013 policy statement on Children, Adolescents, and the Media” approved by the the American Academy of Pediatrics. In it, the American pediatricians cited these shocking statistics from a Kaiser Family Foundation study in 2010: “The average 8- to 10-year-old spends nearly eight hours a day with a variety of different media, and older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours per day.” Television, long a popular “babysitter,” remains the dominant medium, but the study showed that computers, tablets and cellphones were gradually taking over.

Limiting and controlling children’s screen time was identified as a new and unfamiliar responsibility for today’s parents.  “Many parents seem to have few rules about use of media by their children and adolescents,” the academy stated, and two-thirds of those questioned in the Kaiser study said their parents had no rules about how much time the youngsters spent with media. Busy and stressed out parents, it appears, see the devices as handy ‘electronic passifiers’ to calm perpetually active kids and to free up young adults themselves for screen activities, including ongoing social media interactions.

Recognized experts like Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard affiliated psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, are full of advice for parents, but less so when it comes to schools. Before age 2, children should not be exposed to any electronic media, the pediatrics academy maintains, because “a child’s brain develops rapidly during these first years, and young children learn best by interacting with people, not screens.” Older children and teenagers, according to the experts, should spend no more than one or two hours a day with entertainment media, preferably with high-quality content, and spend more free time playing outdoors, reading, doing hobbies and “using their imaginations in free play.”

Heavy use of electronic media can have significant negative effects on children’s behavior, health and school performance. Recent studies have linked “simulated violence” in video games to tendencies to act violently or to become desensitized to violence around them. Habitual users may become more adept at multitasking, but, over time, lose the capacity to focus or concentrate on what is important, affecting their problem-solving abilities.

Texting is the real electronic epidemic confronting most middle schools and high schools. About one-half of American teens send and receive 60 or more text messages a day  — before, in between, during and after school classes. Teenagers from 12 to 17, according to a 2012 Pew Research Center study averaged 3,364 texts a month. An earlier JFK Medical Center study found that teens sent an average of 34 text messages a night after they went to bed, contributing to the problem of sleep deprivation. One University of Rhode Island researcher, Kristina Hatch, sees a direct connection between heavy use of electronic media and social withdrawal and isolation, leaving kids “lonely and depressed.”

This is not just an American social phenomenon. A 2014 report conducted by WeAreSocial revealed that every day Canadians spend 4.9 hours online on laptop or desktop computers and, in addition, 1.9 hours on mobile devices. Just over two hours a day are now spent on social media, with some 91 % on Facebook and 46% on Twitter. It would be much higher for children and teens being raised in an electronic media saturated culture.

Canadian psychologists and psychiatrists are beginning to take action to address the incidence of Internet addiction. The Canada Life Chair of Teen Mental Health at Dalhousie University, Dr. Stanley Kutcher, is keenly aware of the problem and attempting to promote preventative programs. In a few cities, such as Windsor, Ontario hospitals are responding by establishing services to offer clinical treatment to children, teens and adults struggling with video game and Internet dependency.

How widespread is the problem of Internet and screen addiction among today’s children and teens?  What can parents do to limit and control children’s screen time? Where do the responsibilities of parents end and the interests of schools begin?  Is there a place for Internet addiction education the emerging mental health curriculum? Should we be looking at a public education program involving students, parents and schools?

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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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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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