In brief - Overview of anti-bullying initiatives and legislation implemented by the government of Ontario, Canada

Legislation enacted in Ontario, Canada, places accountability for the prevention of bullying in schools on a broad range of entities, including government, educators, school staff, parents and the broader community. (This article is a continuation of our earlier article, Could regulatory reform reduce bullying in Australian schools?)

Legislation to combat bullying in schools enacted in a number of jurisdictions

A number of jurisdictions have enacted legislation either generally, or specifically in the education sector, to combat bullying in schools. Most legislation in the education sector puts a positive obligation on school boards to implement anti-bullying policies and requires schools to take proactive steps to prevent bullying from occurring and to respond effectively to incidents of bullying when they occur.

Ontario's action plan to address bullying in schools

In Canada, the most recent legislative response to the prevention of bullying has often followed on the heels of the implementation of governmental anti-bullying initiatives in the Province of Ontario. In November 2005, the Ontario government introduced the Shaping Safer Schools: A Bullying Prevention Action Plan.1

Similar to the National Safe Schools Framework (NSSF) in Australia, the broad purpose of the Ontario government's plan was to address bullying in schools. The stated aim of the plan was to provide students with an opportunity to learn and develop in a safe and respsectful community through schools implementing bullying prevention and intervention strategies.2

Funding for anti-bullying resources and telephone help line

In total, over a five year period spanning 2005 to 2010, the Ontario government spent approximately $150 million in implementing its Shaping Safer Schools: A Bullying Prevention Action Plan.3

As part of phase 1 of the plan, the Ontario government provided $8 million of funding to school boards to purchase anti-bullying materials and a further $1 million in funding annually to establish and fund a telephone help line for students.4 This phase mirrors the initiatives undertaken by the Australian government as part of the NSSF.

Funding for psychologists and social workers

As part of phase 2 of the plan, the Ontario government pledged $34 million annually to school boards to hire psychologists and social workers to assist high risk students and those who were expelled or suspended.5 In addition, as part of phase 3 of the plan, it was recommended that the Education Act, 2007 (Ontario) be amended to define bullying behaviours and to take proactive steps to eliminate bullying in schools.

Ontario's Accepting Schools Act, 2012 proclaimed in July 2012

Phase 3 of the Ontario government's plan was introduced by way of Bill 13 (the Accepting Schools Act, 2011) in 2011. The Ontario government's proposed legislation, Bill 13, passed first reading on 30 November 2011. It passed second reading on 3 May 2012 and then passed third reading on 5 June 2012. Bill 13 received Royal assent on 19 June 2012 and Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, 2012 was proclaimed on 18 July 2012.

In July 2012, the Province of Ontario enacted the Accepting Schools Act, 2012, which amends the Education Act, 2007 (Ontario).6 The broad goals of the Accepting Schools Act, 2012 are to prevent bullying and to respond to incidents of bullying effectively when they do occur within the school system. These goals are to be achieved through requiring the Minister of Education and school boards to take a proactive approach to combating bullying in schools.

Accepting Schools Act requires consistent approach to bullying

The Accepting Schools Act, 2012 requires school boards across the Province of Ontario to take a consistent approach to bullying. School boards must develop guidelines for bullying prevention and must implement disciplinary measures and provide support to students when bullying incidents do occur.

In addition, accountability for the prevention of bullying in schools is placed on a broad range of entities including government, educators, school staff, parents and the broader community in the prevention and management of bullying.

Definition of bullying now contained in Education Act

A definition of the term "bullying" is now contained in the Education Act, 2007 (Ontario) where bullying is defined as:

Aggressive and typically repeated behaviour by a pupil (defined to include any physical, verbal, electronic, written or other means) where:

(a) the behaviour is intended by the pupil to have the effect of, or the pupil ought to know that the behaviour would be likely to have the effect of,

(i) causing harm, fear or distress to another individual, including physical, psychological social or academic harm, harm to the individual's reputation or property; or

(ii) creating a negative environment at a school for an individual, and

(b) the behaviour occurs in the context where there is a real or perceived power imbalance between the pupil and the individual based on factors such as size, strength, age, intelligence, peer group power, economic status, social status, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, family circumstances, gender, race, disability or the receipt of special education.

Requirements for school principals under the Ontario Education Act

  • The Act requires that principals ensure the promotion of a positive, inclusive and accepting school climate and promote the prevention of bullying.
  • The Act requires principals to suspend students, with the possibility of expulsion, when they engage in bullying if they have been previously suspended for bullying and their continued presence in the school creates an unacceptable risk for another person.

Requirements for school boards under the Ontario Education Act

  • The Act requires school boards to develop policies and a multi year plan promoting a positive school climate that is inclusive and accepting of all pupils and which promotes prevention of bullying.
  • The Act requires school boards to use surveys to collect information from its pupils concerning the school climate and bullying at least once every two years.
  • The Act requires school boards to create policies with respect to the discipline of students who engage in bullying as well as the implementation of bullying prevention measures, including early intervention measures.

Encouraging a positive school environment and promoting awareness of bullying

The Act introduces a purpose provision in the behaviour, discipline and safety part of the Education Act that includes encouraging a positive school climate and preventing "inappropriate behaviour including bullying, sexual assault, gender based violence and incidents based on homophobia".

The Act also proclaims the third week in November as "Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week".

Reporting and investigating bullying incidents in schools

Across the Province of Ontario school staff are positively required to report incidents of bullying, and the principal of a school now has an explicit duty to investigate all instances where bullying is reported. In addition, the principal will have to report back to the staff member who made the report and in doing so, the principal will have to ensure that he/she does not disclose any more personal information about students than is necessary in the circumstances.

Where a student has been harmed as a result of the bullying, both the parents/guardians of the student bullied and the bully are to be advised as soon as possible. In addition principals will be required to ensure that the school board's bullying prevention and intervention plan is available on the school website, or if the school does not have a website, then in another appropriate manner.

Would similar regulatory reform help to combat bullying in Australia?

Similar to the Canadian experience, in Australia there is nationwide interest in addressing bullying in schools. To date the commonwealth, state and territory governments have responded to the problem of bullying through the introduction of various anti-bullying initiatives, but none of these initiatives are mandatory.

In addition, there has not been a consistent definition of bullying applied, nor has there been consistency in terms of how to address the problem of bullying under the various anti-bullying initiatives underaken to date. Further, there is a gap in the existing regulatory framework in terms of a formal mechanism to prevent bullying in schools.

It is suggested that a co-ordinated regulatory response could address the shortcomings identified in the initiatives taken to date to combat bullying in schools.

It is submitted that the current regulatory framework in Australia does not contain a mechanism to prevent bullying from occurring at schools. Although it is unlikely that any legislative reform will prevent bullying from occurring in Australian schools, legislation is one tool which could be used to reduce the prevalence of bullying and could be used as a mechanism to provide support to individuals who have been victims of bullying at school.

However it is submitted that regulatory reform alone is not enough to combat bullying in schools. Rather, the combined efforts of families, parents, students and educators is required to prevent bullying in schools effectively.7

This article is based on a presentation given by Kristen Lopes at the Australia and New Zealand Education Law Association (ANZELA) conference in October 2012 in Rotorua, New Zealand.