Sunday, June 10, 2012

Bullying: an erosion of civility?

Maybe I was lucky enough to attend a school with an unusually nice group of kids because bullying, as we understand it today, did not seem to be a common problem. There was the occasional schoolyard punch up, which ended with the supervising teacher sending the culprits to the principal’s office with their tail between their legs. There was some name-calling, and there were some mean kids we called “bullies”. Unlike the bully of today who targets an individual, our bullies spread their nastiness around. Collectively, we avoided them when they were in a bad mood.

In my recollection, parents, teachers, and administrators simply did not tolerate nastiness. We were expected to treat others respectfully in the spirit of the golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  

Nor do I remember bullying being a common problem when I was teaching.  However, by the time my own children were in elementary school, bullying was emerging as a disturbing facet of school life.

When we speak about bullying today we are not talking about occasional ribbing. Bullying is
  • aggressive and repeated behavior that causes harm, fear or distress to another person. 
  • a targeted action against an individual 
  • creates a negative environment for that person
  • almost always involves some type of real or perceived power imbalance.

A serious and persistent problem in schools
Bullying is a serious and persistent problem in schools. Studies indicate that bullying occurs every 7 minutes on the playground, and every 25 minutes in the classroom. Twenty-five percent of students in Grades 4 through 6 have been the victims of bullying. One in 7 students between the ages of 11 through 16 have been bullied. The top two reasons students are bullied are appearance, and real or perceived sexual orientation. Bullying in schools is often subtle, and not easily detected.

Legislators and educators recognize that students must feel safe and secure in order to achieve their potential socially and academically. To this end, the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia recently announced measures to create safer, more accepting schools.

Action in Ontario 
With Bill 13, the “Accepting School Act”, Ontario will implement a number of anti-bullying measures. Schools will have to develop and implement an inclusive education policy, and provide professional development programs, intervention, and support for students. School boards must support students who wish to establish clubs that promote an inclusive learning environment, especially in the areas of gender equity, anti-racism, sexual minorities, and disabilities. This makes sense given the reasons for bullying.

The Catholic Bishops of Ontario had taken exception to the province's insistence that Catholic schools must allow students to use the  name "Gay-Straight Alliance" (GSA). At issue was the right of the Catholic school to handle bullying based on sexual orientation in a manner consistent with Gospel principles and Church teaching on homosexuality. The Bishops' statement placed the issue within the realm of religious freedom. 

A difficulty with the position of the Ontario Bishops regarding GSA is the research from EGALE Canada which shows that schools that have a GSA are more successful in reducing bullying because of sexual orientation than schools without GSA. There is a good argument that naming a problem helps to solve the problem.

With the passage of Bill 13 into law, Cardinal Collins, in a prepared statement for the bishops, said that the schools will "seek to foster safe and welcoming school communities".  Mario Gazzola, chair of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association, noted that although schools will continue to use their "Respecting Differences" guidelines, Bill 13 will take precedence as necessary. 

Action in British Columbia
British Columbia is introducing ERASE (Expect Respect and a Safe Education). ERASE Bullying is a 10-point plan that the government says will “help prevent, identify, and stop harmful behaviors by children and adults, whether online, at school, or in the community”.  ERASE will include a smart phone app for anonymous reporting, a five year training program for educators and community workers, a dedicated safe school coordinator in every district, and new online resources for parents. The plan will ensure consistent policies across the province.

Bullying a major challenge in the workplace
Students are not the only victims of bullying. An International Labour Organization report from 1999 described physical and emotional bullying at work as a major challenge for the 21st century.  Workplace bullying, which is usually gender based or racially motivated, takes its toll on the individual and the economy. People who are bullied at work spend 10 – 52% of their workday defending themselves, networking for support, and thinking about the situation; many end up taking mental health leaves.

Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Quebec already have some legislation in place to address bullying in the workplace. British Columbia is making changes to the Worker’s Compensation Act to address workplace violence; many employer groups within the province support this effort. 

It wasn't the age of niceness, but ...
I didn’t grow up in a golden age of tolerance, nor were people necessarily nicer, but civility was the order of the day.  We didn’t need written codes of conduct in schools or workplaces to teach us how to behave towards others. It was obvious in the world around us. Youngsters spent their free time playing outdoors, not creating avatars to viciously destroy others in video games. People were exposed to wholesome models on television, not to mindless shows where demeaning others passes for entertainment. Political leaders were forceful and respectful at the same time. When Pierre Elliot Trudeau said, “Fuddle duddle,” Canadians were upset. Nor were mean spirited attack ads part of the political gig. 

Bullying is a failure of one individual to recognize the common humanity that they share with another individual. Small children have no problem with the concept of common humanity; they naturally accept others as they are. Those who become bullies learn their behavior from somewhere. Is it possible that bullying is symptomatic of a general lack of respect for others and the gradual erosion of civility within society?

Kindness should always be fashionable. A little more of “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, might go a long way in reducing bullying in schools and the workplace. 

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