Teachers, Books, Dirty Looks

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<b>For some kids, back-to-school means back to relentless bullying. What are we doing about it? And is it actually helping?</b>

As kids across the country went back to school yesterday, you could almost feel that first-day knot in the stomach, experienced by children and parents alike.

Aside from worries about finding your class and meeting your teacher, many students, from first-timers to those in high school, faced returning to what’s become the most written about “new” phenomenon among youth — bullying.

Their anxiety is hardly surprising.

The last few school years have seen headlines scream “Teen violence out of control” and warn against “Violent Girls.” Cases of extreme violence from abroad — like the school shooting in Columbine, Colorado — have no doubt had an impact as well. In response, parents and politicians have called for more punitive young offender legislation; school boards have instituted “zero tolerance” policies.

The school-yard bully now faces immediate suspension or expulsion from school, or time in a youth detention centre or “boot camp.” In some cases, they also face a permanent criminal record, if tried as an adult.

While some applaud this hard-line approach, others continue to question whether it is in fact an effective solution to bullying or just a knee-jerk reaction to a mythical crisis.

Well, not entirely mythical. The bullying incidents we’ve witnessed across the country have been numerous and shocking. Seven students from an Ontario high school are currently facing charges for allegedly extorting children for pocket change. An Ontario brother and sister are suing their school board because of what they call “merciless bullying” throughout their school years.

Some incidents have been even more serious. In March of 2000, British Columbia student Hamed Nastoh, fourteen, jumped off a bridge to his death after repeated anti-gay taunts from fellow students. In April of this year, Emmet Fralick, a fourteen-year-old from Halifax, committed suicide; police have charged a fifteen-year-old girl with extortion and assault in connection with the incident.

The cases that have garnered the most media attention have been those involving girls.

A teen girl in B.C. was convicted earlier this year for criminally harassing fourteen-year-old Dawn-Marie Wesley, who also committed suicide. The public is still coping with the tragic, 1997 beating death of Reena Virk, fourteen, by a group of mostly female classmates.

Many illogical analyses — and a few books — have resulted from the incidents, with theories about the wicked behaviour of girls as some sort of consequence of women’s liberation.

The truth is, it’s hard to say why it’s happening or even if it’s all that new. The issue has only recently been seen as worthy of study, making it impossible to determine definitively whether there is an increase in incidents at all, let alone a significant one.

Police, politicians and pundits have used these sad cases, though, to illustrate that youth violence, particularly amongst girls, is on the rise and to further a law-and-order agenda. The attention on the issue has helped support increased police budgets and new, more punitive legislation to control youth behaviour, resulting in a crackdown on young offenders despite a drop in the youth crime rate. But we don’t understand any better what’s happening, nor do we have any evidence that the fairly drastic actions being taken to curb the trend will actually help.

York University psychology professor Debra Pepler addresses the popular belief in a new crisis of school violence tactfully: “There is certainly a heightened awareness of the systemic problems associated with bullying.”

A leading Canadian expert, Pepler has studied playground bullying extensively. She would rather see society prioritize gaining a better understand bullying than focussing on how to punish it.

Pepler defines bullying as “a form of aggression in which there is an imbalance of power between the bully and victim.” The upshot? Without intervention, victims, their peers and the bullies themselves all learn that power and aggression lead to dominance and status. Not a great lesson.

Studies have identified bullying behaviour as a potential precursor of perpetrating violence and abuse later in life; victimization is associated with a wide variety of problems including depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and avoidance of school.

Mark, Shandra and Peter (not their real names) are all in grade three at the same Toronto school. Nine-year-old Mark admits to picking on the younger kids “pretty much everyday.” He has been suspended from school a number of times for his behaviour.

The older kids used to chase me home from school,” he told me. “Now that I’m bigger and faster, I go after the geeks.” He notes that the suspensions were a “joke.”

Shandra and Peter are both ten and recent immigrants. The girls often exclude Shandra from activities and control her by threatening to spread gossip. The kids wait until Peter is off school property before they begin their bullying rituals. All three children expressed frustration with the school’s handling of the problem.

The kids’ school is governed by Ontario’s Safe Schools Act and its zero tolerance policy, which came into effect in 2000. Students caught bullying other children, no matter how young, are expelled or otherwise punished, like Mark has been.

But Pepler explains that, while this might sound like effective action, bullying behaviour is difficult to define. Mistakes can be made. “It’s difficult to distinguish [bullying from] playful childhood teasing,” she warns. “Punitive approaches do not always correct behaviour or deal with the consequences."

So what’s another option?

Pepler is shamelessly passionate about helping the child who bullies. “Assign the bully a mentor,” she suggests. Or redirect his or her energy through positive action like tutoring younger children or helping with coaching.

According to Pepler, bullies often make great mediators and can learn compassion at the same time they are helping others.

Some children who bully may require professional help or need to be removed temporarily from the classroom or from school. But, Pepler is adamant that calling police or expulsion from school be the last, not first, resort when attempting to solve the problem.

Bullying can and should be addressed from a systemic approach, drawing in teachers, students and parents, she says. Innovative programs that deal with bullying, like Together We Light the Way run out of the Durham District School Board in Ontario, recognize offenders should be held accountable and respect must be fostered within schools, hallways and playgrounds.

“Since implementation three years ago, our academic achievement has increased and we have found a significant decrease in bullying, fighting and suspensions,” says program director Sandra Dean.

Shandra hopes that someone will intervene and stop the bullying because it makes her feel “sad, scared and stupid.” And, of course, we should intervene, in mild or extreme cases, whether this is a new phenomenon or one as old as school itself. The question is how to do so effectively, without teaching kids that there are just bigger bullies outside the school-yard.

Sensationalized bullying incidents might sell papers and garner support for local politicians, but if we let go of the drama, we have a much better chance of actually helping some kids.

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