Ontario political parties move to stamp out bullying

After a recent string of teen suicides, the Ontario Liberals and Conservatives have introduced new legislation to tackle the issue, writes Chris Hunt.

It was a cool November night in 1997, and the teenaged girl was bleeding. The singed skin where the lit cigarette had been pressed against her forehead stung and her entire body throbbed from the savage beating she’d just received from a group of teens she had tried so hard to befriend.

When one of her attackers finally called an end to the beating, she staggered away from the mob, not noticing the boy and girl who began to follow her.

Humiliated, bruised and weeping, she made her way through the cold night toward a nearby bus stop, wanting only to go home.

She would never get there.

The brutal drowning of 14-year-old Reena Virk that night in British Columbia brought a flurry of international media attention, shining a spotlight on bullying.

But 15 years later, bullying remains an all-too-painful reality.

According to federal government research, between 10 and 15 per cent of children between the ages of 11 and 15 reported being victims of weekly physical bullying while 10 to 15 per cent of all students reported being verbally bullied.

And on the heels of a recent string of teen suicides, Ontario’s Liberal government and the Conservative opposition proposed anti-bullying legislation in November 2011.

Bill 13, or the Accepting Schools Act, is the Liberal offering.

“It’s one of Canada’s toughest bullying prevention laws ever proposed,” says Laurel Broten, Ontario’s education minister. “It creates legal obligations for school boards to address bullying prevention and early intervention, follow progressive discipline for those who engage in bullying and foster equity and inclusive education in our school community.”

In addition to legally defining bullying, Bill 13 would also increase the disciplinary powers of school boards to allow for the expulsion of students who repeatedly bully, which they currently can’t do.

Schools would be required to survey students concerning the school climate and bullying at least bi-annually.

Bill 13 also mandates that school boards must support students who want to organize activities or groups that promote equity among students, including gay-straight alliances.

And Bill 14, a private member’s bill proposed by Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer, also includes a definition of bullying, including cyberbullying.

It calls for counselling to be provided for victims of bullying and bullies. Statistics on bullying would need to be included in the minister’s annual report.

The minister would have to create a bullying prevention plan. School boards must also create a prevention plan and principals would be required to make a report on bullying in their school to the board at the end of every school year.

Given the minority Liberal government, support from the other parties is needed for any bill to pass.

Last December, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty promised to incorporate elements from Witmer’s bill. “We’re going to stand together,” he said at the time.

However, during her interview with Ottawa Parenting Times, Broten didn’t conclusively say elements from Witmer’s bill would be incorporated into a government bill.

“Certainly I’m taking an opportunity to look at what she’s proposed in her private member’s bill and to see if there are ideas in there we should incorporate into a government bill,” she said.

MPP Lisa MacLeod, Progressive Conservative education critic, says partisan politics needs to be set aside so all parties can work together to create a perfect bill.

“The stakes are too high,” she says.

However, everyone agrees on one thing: something must be done.

Fifteen-year-old Jamie Hubley of Kanata was a handsome young man. Crowned with a mop of wavy red hair and a wide, boyish smile, Jamie was an openly gay student and the target of bullying over many years. In Grade 7, his preference for figure skating over hockey resulted in bullies trying to force batteries down his throat.

In high school, Jamie carefully hung posters in an effort to start a Rainbow Club, a club where any students who identified as outsiders could find refuge. The posters were immediately torn down.

Even at home, he wasn’t free of torment.

“There’s no escape,” says Jamie’s father, Allan Hubley, Ottawa city councillor for Kanata South. “Even in my own house, he couldn’t feel safe.”

Thanks to technology, children are increasingly at the mercy of bullies. Assaults can be easily volleyed by text messages or social networking sites. Even at home, in what should be a sanctuary, Jamie’s bullies could get to him.

“And they did,” Hubley says. “They attacked him relentlessly.”

The abuse contributed to Jamie’s deep depression. On Oct. 15, 2011, he took his own life.

Hubley says the Accepting Schools

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Act is an excellent start, but it’s not perfect. He says some amendments should be added.

A major problem, he says, is that there are no records kept of the number of bullying cases, nor what’s done with the bullies.

“Bureaucrats will tell you that once you start measuring something, that’s when it becomes important to them.”

He says a follow-up system is needed, such as having the Children’s Aid Society or police investigate children who repeatedly bully others.

He thinks the student-centred initiative is a great addition, but wants the language changed to something everybody can accept, possibly to Rainbow Club, a term Jamie used because he wanted the club to be accessible to everybody under the rainbow.

However, the inclusion of “gay-straight alliances” has caused protests from some religious organizations.

MacLeod says the language is “inflammatory” and “divisive” and takes focus away from the point of the legislation, adding that as long as the name is inclusive, students should be allowed to name clubs themselves.

But Broten says the importance lies in the statistics.

“You need to have the facts in front of you to understand why that is so important,” she says, pointing to a recent climate survey by Egale Canada, which reports that 64 per cent of students who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) felt unsafe at school, as do 61 per cent of students with parents who identified as LGBTQ.

“Those are pretty big numbers and it demonstrates why we need to take action on that form of bullying, as all others,” she says.

And action must be taken soon, says Hubley.

“This year it was my son. Next year it’s going to be someone else’s son or daughter. There will be more kids if these politicians don’t act on this bill quickly.”