A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of addressing all the principals of a major Quebec school board on the subject of bullying. It’s a subject everyone is concerned about these days, particularly given the recent high-profile bullycides in Quebec, Ontario and around North America.
Parents are worried about it. Kids are hyper-aware of it. The courts are trying to figure out legal guidelines for it. Teachers and school administrators are unsure how to handle the blurry link between cyberbullying that may occur off-campus after school hours but cross over into the school yard and classroom.
It isn’t just that high-profile bullycides have placed the issue front and centre in the media, nor is it merely an issue of bullying becoming the scarlet letter of the moment. The truth is that the issue itself has morphed from a fairly standard of bullying has changed mostly because of the uncertainties over how to handle the harassment that can occur online. Schools are unsure of their liability and accountability for those kinds of events. Parents are either unaware of what’s going on. Kids still don’t tend to trust adults to handle these issues, and are uncomfortable with the implications of powerlessness that comes with the term “victim,” so they are unlikely to speak up. And everyone is much more sensitive about these terms than they used to be in the bad old days when bullying was mostly seen as normal (if unpleasant) kid behaviour.
My presentation to these principals covered the emerging legal landscape of cyberbullying, the current best practices for handling bullying incidents, suggestions for policy templates and engaging all stakeholders in awareness and prevention: parents, students, teachers and staff. In the course of our discussion, I heard some recurring points that are worth sharing.
What happens outside of school affects what’s going on inside. And vice versa. Why do principals and teachers care about what kids are doing on their Facebook pages, cellphones, email and Formspring accounts? Because all that energy (positive or negative) gets carried over into the hallways and classroom. Snarky or cruel comments online can mean depressed, anxious or agitated students in school. It can lead to physical confrontations. And when the rumour mill gets whipped up into high gear, nobody is paying attention to geography or math.
Stay connected. School administrators need parents to keep up their supervision and guidance. Their students — your children — need consistent supervision, clear guidelines, consequences for misdeeds and open dialogue about the challenges of growing up in a wired world. The school cannot control what goes on at home, but it relies on you playing your part. At minimum, you should know what accounts your child has, keep track of their passwords, regularly review texts and comments made online.
Support school initiatives for bullying prevention and digital awareness. Schools, like governments, rely on the participation, engagement and support of their stakeholders. That includes you. Take an active role in committees and initiatives that aim to educate and prevent. At very least, show up to meetings and information sessions geared to getting these programs going. If you don’t speak up now, you are relinquishing your right to complain later.
When the school calls to discuss an issue, take a deep breath and really listen. The call home to a parent to discuss a bullying incident is one of the hardest tasks a principal, guidance counsellor or teacher has to make. Whether your child was the aggressor or the target, you will serve their best interests if you can briefly put your emotional reaction aside and really listen to what they are trying to communicate. This is hard to do. But if you leap up to question, defend, make excuses or accuse, you are not being your child’s best advocate. You are only complicating the issue.
Get the story. Discuss the next steps. Remain open to suggestions. There will be time later to get the other sides of the story and investigate. Right now your school needs you to listen with an open mind.
Be honest with yourself. Have you noticed a pattern of bullying behaviour with your child over the years? This doesn’t have to be physical – it can also be taunts, excluding friends, creating a lot of social “drama.” Don’t write it off as “kid stuff” or typical of boys or girls, or being particularly spirited. Don’t make excuses, saying the school doesn’t “get” your kid like you do. If other kids are being hurt or tormented, it’s time to take action. And a parent can do much more than anyone else to stop this cycle.