The broad reach of modern electronic technology has made bullying easier, faster, more prevalent and crueller than ever before.

In Respectful and Responsible Relationships: There’s No App for That, Professor A. Wayne MacKay, on behalf of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying, proposes an innovative legal, administrative, and educational framework to combat bullying among Nova Scotian youth. Prof. MacKay bases his recommendations on the principles of restorative justice and community responsibility. However, to date, the Nova Scotia Legislature has declined to implement the key elements of the Task Force’s framework. At present, Nova Scotia still lacks a comprehensive strategy to address bullying and cyberbullying involving youths.

A recent series of youth suicides in Nova Scotia led to the creation of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying, chaired by Prof. MacKay, in May 2011. The Task Force gathered information, consulted with concerned parties, and made recommendations for legal, administrative, and educational measures to combat bullying. Educators who are interested in creating a healthy and respectful learning environment for their students will find the Task Force’s Report to be timely, thoughtful and insightful.

NEW DEFINITION OF BULLYING

The report, which was released on February 29, 2012, proposes a new legal definition of "bullying," recommends that such behaviour be treated as serious student misconduct, and argues that parents, educators, and other authority figures should be subject to legal duties to monitor and/or report bullying.

The Task Force observed that bullying is a significant, if still largely unreported, problem that dramatically impacts the lives of many individuals and burdens society with its enormous consequences. The Task Force stated that the problem of bullying seems to be growing. It indicated that the immediacy and broad reach of modern electronic technology has made bullying easier, faster, more prevalent and crueller than ever before. It stated:

"Technology has forever changed the nature and scope of bullying, making it more insidious that ever before and exposing everyone to potential vulnerability."

Dr. Wendy Craig explained in her Task Force presentation that cyberbullying is particularly insidious because it invades the home where children normally feel safe, and it is constant and inescapable because victims can be reached at all times and in all places.

Among other things, the Task Force proposed a new legal definition of "bullying":

Bullying is typically a repeated behaviour that is intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person’s body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property.

Bullying can be direct or indirect, and can take place by written, verbal, physical or electronic means, or any other form of expression.

Cyberbullying (also referred to as electronic bullying) is a form of bullying, and occurs through the use of technology. This can include the use of a computer or other electronic devices, using social networks, text messaging, instant messaging, websites, e-mail or other electronic means.

A person participates in bullying if he or she directly carries out the behaviour or assists or encourages the behaviour in any way.

The proposed definition includes the role of bystanders and others who may encourage such behaviour. Such encouragement by others in a peer group is often the key and extremely harmful component of bullying.

The importance of including bystanders is emphasized by the extensive research that identifies the vital role of the bystander. The Task Force stated that it is the reaction and/or silence of the bystander that clearly tips the power balance in favour of the bully; it is also this reaction that supports the position that bullying is acceptable and even “cool” behaviour. According to the Task Force, “changing this attitude and value system is at the heart of reducing the problem.”

85 RECOMMENDATIONS

The Task Force recognized that bullying and cyberbullying is a “large problem” which demands a multifaceted community response and one that is informed by the perspectives and insights of young people. The Task Force set out 85 recommendations which include preventative interventions, education to change the school climate and sweeping legislative and policy changes.

With respect to intervention programs and strategies, the Task Force recommended that interventions:

  • be evidence based;
  • engage the whole community;
  • provide and allow for more individual supports;
  • promote social and emotional learning;
  • be age and circumstances appropriate;
  • have a means of formal evaluation;
  • be cost effective and sustainable; and
  • be sensitive to adapt to the Nova Scotia context.

The Task Force noted that bullying is fundamentally a problem of “negative relationships where aggression is used to dominate a victim.” The Task Force asserted that interventions should teach children and youth how to protect themselves against negative bullying interactions and how to come to the aid of others being bullied. The Task Force stated, “such interventions should start early, providing a foundation for relationships throughout childhood and beyond.”

The Task Force also proposed to give school administrators the ability to combat bullying and cyberbullying that occurs while at school, at a school-related activity or in other circumstances where engaging in the activity will have a “detrimental impact on the school climate.”

In addition, the Task Force recommended imposing certain duties on parents, guardians, educators, and support staff with regards to monitoring and reporting bullying. Since it is virtually impossible for educators to control students’ online communications outside school, the Task Force would hold parents responsible for monitoring and reporting “cyberbullying.” The Task Force suggested that parents be subject to a legal duty to:

“take reasonable steps to be aware of their children’s online activities, at least to the extent that such activities may detrimentally affect the school climate, and to report relevant information to the school principal or other relevant staff.”

Furthermore, the Task Force recommended that all school board employees should be obligated by law to report serious student misconduct to the school principal, including incidents of bullying and cyberbullying.

The proposed definition of bullying includes the role of bystanders.

LEGISLATIVE CHANGE: A TEPID RESPONSE

The Nova Scotia Minister of Education, the Honourable Ramona Jennex, introduced the Promotion of Respectful and Responsible Relationships Act (Bill 30) in April 2012. Bill 30 set out a number of amendments to the Education Act in response to the Report as well as public concern about the role played by bullying in recent adolescent suicides. Although Progressive Conservative Members of the Legislature introduced competing bills, Bill 30 was passed and came into force in May 2012.

The Nova Scotia government has delayed the appointment of an Anti-Bullying Co-ordinator, which was a critical recommendation of the report.

Bill 30 made few substantive changes to the Nova Scotia Education Act. It mandates school boards to "collect and monitor data on severely disruptive behaviour of students, as required by the Minister." It also permits teachers and principals to impose discipline on students who engage in "disruptive" or "severely disruptive" behaviour, whereas the previous version of the Education Act referred to "disobedience" and "defiance." If this change is meant to explicitly authorize educators to discipline students for bullying others, it does so by generally broadening the definition of the type of student misconduct that merits discipline. It does not appear to target bullying or cyberbullying specifically.

In addition, the Nova Scotia government has delayed the appointment of an Anti-Bullying Co-ordinator, which was one of the critical recommendations of the report.

Bill 30 also gives certain powers to the Minister of Education that could be used to combat bullying between youth. Under Bill 30, the Minister can establish a provincial "school code of conduct" establishing "consequences for disruptive behaviour and severely disruptive behaviour, including incidents of bullying and cyberbullying." The Minister may also make regulations establishing a provincial student discipline policy and defining the terms "bullying", "cyberbullying", "disruptive behaviour", and "severely disruptive behaviour." As of August 2012, the Minister had not yet made such regulations.

To date, the Nova Scotia Government has declined to adopt the substantive recommendations of the Report of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying. However, this comprehensive and insightful report will be invaluable to educators and administrators as a source of information for schools and school boards across Canada and will provide clarity and direction for future government policy and legislation.

By Meagan Jemmett, Student-at-Law