Despite more and more high-profile bullying cases being reported in the media recently, in the last few days we’ve seen two anti-bullying policies defeated in Canada. The first was a motion brought forward by the Edmonton Public School District to the Alberta School Boards Association to protect LGBT students and staff from bullying through requiring schools to develop a zero-tolerance policy.
Disgracefully, 62% of trustees voted the measure down, including representatives from the Calgary Catholic and public school districts.
“Our concern was that if you are appearing to promote one group preferentially over the other, that it’s not appropriate,” Calgary Catholic chairwoman Mary Martin said in the Calgary Herald.
ABSA President Jacquie Hansen echoed Martin’s remarks, telling the Edmonton Journal that the ABSA didn’t want a policy that only protected LGBT kids. At least that was a nicer way of framing it than Pembina Hills trustee Dale Schaffrick, who was forced to apologize after telling the CBC that kids should act less gay to avoid bullying:
“If children with a gay tendency appear a certain way, we know that we have to be vigilant to make sure they are not discriminated against,” Schaffrick told CBC News.
When asked if those students should try to be less identifiable, he said, “I think for their own benefit… it would be helpful.”
The idea that LGBT kids somehow ask to be bullied by acting or appearing a certain way, and that their sexual orientation is nothing more than a “tendency”, is obviously ridiculous and offensive. But let’s take a step back again to look at what the more mainstream folks said about why they opposed this motion: because it singled out LGBT students and staff for protection from bullying.
This might make sense if bullying didn’t thrive on specific social inequalities, stigmas, and stereotypes. Just like sexist bullying or racist bullying, homophobic bullying requires tailored approaches – it doesn’t just disappear by telling kids they have to be nicer to each other. Maybe most importantly, a specific anti-homophobia policy tells LGBT kids that they are not alone, that they are not invisible, that no one has the right to harass, abuse, or hate them for who they are.
GLAAD Senior Media Field Strategist Daryl Hannah writes that in the United States comprehensive policies – ones that specifically mentioned sexual orientation and gender identity – worked better than general policies that didn’t specifically enumerate protected groups:
By 2007, thirty-five states had anti-bullying and antiharassment laws; however, none of these laws were comprehensive, meaning they did not include sexual orientation and gender identity as explicitly enumerated categories of protection alongside race, ethnicity, national origin, and religion. As a result, gay and transgender students in schools without comprehensive laws report hearing the terms “gay,” “faggot,” and “dyke” used in negative ways more frequently than those students in schools that do have comprehensive anti-bullying laws.
Besides, what did the Alberta trustees think was going to happen if they did pass a specific motion? The Vancouver School Board got a very similar motion passed by the BC Trustees Association a decade ago. BC’s schools haven’t imploded. Of course there’s still work to do and there’s a necessity for action by the provincial government as well in Alberta and BC. In Alberta the Education Minister thinks their provincial legislation is all fine and dandy to protect bullied kids, but kids are saying there are issues that still need to be addressed.
In BC after the tragic death of Amanda Todd Christy Clark announced new measures as part of a program called ERASE Bullying. There’s actually some good stuff in the plan, although I found the program’s website lacked analysis of social factors leading to bullying. It’s a little generic, but it’s a step in the right direction. The problem is they’re downloading the cost of much of the program onto the already cash-strapped school boards. Vancouver’s School Board estimates just covering off teachers taking the training will cost up to $30,000.
But next to the federal government this week, the BC Liberals are practically anti-bullying heroes. That’s because on Wednesday the Conservative government (with the exception of about a half dozen backbenchers) voted down NDP MP Dany Morin’s anti-bullying Private Member’s Motion 149 to 134, after months of debate. M-385 called for the creation of a Parliamentary committee to study and propose a national anti-bullying strategy.
“Yes, I was bullied as a teenager…But what struck me as really problematic is that since I got elected a year ago, I had to rise too many times in the House of Commons to note the suicide of a bullied youth,” Morin told the CBC.
The reason opponents gave for defeating it is that it may overlap with provincial jurisdiction and duplicate some work being done on MP Hedy Fry’s Private Member’s Bill to add cyberbullying to the Criminal Code.
The reason this doesn’t pass the smell test, as it were, is that Morin’s motion was aimed at creating strategies to prevent bullying rather than criminalizing it.
“I want to put the focus on prevention, rather than criminalization,” Morin told Xtra, “Criminalizing my bully would not have undone the harm done to me.”
Back to Darryl Hannah, who cites 2010 research by Kocsiw et. al. in the National School Climate Survey:
“Comprehensive anti-bullying and antiharassment policies and laws must go beyond clearly outlining responsibilities for educators and firmly banning bullying practices; they must also work to stifle a culture conducive to bullying. They must work to prevent bullying in addition to prohibiting it. When researchers polled students who lived in the states with comprehensive laws, which in addition to naming gay and transgender students as enumerated groups also fostered a culture that worked to prevent bullying, students reported hearing homophobic remarks significantly less often than students in states with no laws or with a generic anti-bullying/antiharassment laws.”
I’m not against criminalizing the type of cyberbullying that happened to Amanda Todd per se, but bullying is a complex issue. Morin’s motion would not have solved it, and neither will Fry’s, but they are both pieces of the puzzle and it’s unfortunate that the Conservatives decided to turn a blind eye to the importance of prevention.
Ending bullying will require collective action, including aggressive action by all levels of government from school boards right on up to the federal government, with specific policies that address sexist, racist, and homophobic bullying. We need to try more things, new things, because most of what we have done hasn’t been good enough. There is no way that passing motions like these could make things worse for kids who are being targeted every day for who they are.
Note: In the past I’ve written saying that the term “bullying” doesn’t do the action justice. In this post I chose to use the term simply because it’s the one that was used in these motions and this was an article about policy, not about how the debate has been framed.