MONTREAL, March 28, 2012 /CNW Telbec/ -
Brief presented to the
Commission de la culture et de l'éducation
On Bill 56
An Act to prevent and deal with bullying
and violence in schools
Quebec English School Boards Association
The Quebec English School Boards Association (QESBA) welcomes the opportunity to offer its comments to the Commission de de la culture et de l'éducation on Bill 56, An Act to prevent and deal with bullying and violence in schools. QESBA commends Minister Line Beauchamp and her government for having focused public attention on this troubling and complex phenomenon. There can be no more pressing priority than the safety and security of our children. It is a matter of utmost importance for all partners in our society to be engaged and accountable for the success of our actions on this priority. It is in that spirit that QESBA has considered and analyzed the draft law.
QESBA and its nine member school boards have long recognized the need for education, prevention and engagement in addressing issues of bullying and violence in the 340 elementary and high schools, adult education and vocational centres we operate. The 100,000 students we serve each have the right and the responsibility to be part of a safe and secure school community. Recent tragedies have accentuated public awareness and concern about bullying and violence, and the devastating impact that they can have on the health and well-being of students. While the challenges are evolving, the positive approaches of our teachers, professionals, administrators and Councils of Commissioners have also evolved. This is not an idle observation that QESBA offers; it is an important reminder that reflects our surprise and disappointment, frankly, with a draft law that (a) defines bullying (b) diagnoses its root causes (c) prescribes remedies (d) imposes punitive sanctions - all from what appears to be a clear presumption that the current administration of Quebec's public schools is failing in each of those important areas.
Let us be clear: the comments that follow are predicated on how to best address bullying and violence in schools. Our school boards have a responsibility to do so, and to account for their performance to the public and to the Minister. We have no intention of proposing a narrow defense of current practices, or the school boards that deliver them. That said, QESBA believes that the eventual legislation adopted must build on current best practices, resources and expertise to better protect our students. That legislation cannot simply respond precipitously to this challenge with targets, sanctions and untested protocols.
QESBA proposes to address the definition of bullying and violence, diagnosis of the current challenge, the proposed remedies and punitive sanctions in the draft law. We will review and validate some best practices already in place, and propose some ideas on how to improve upon the draft law before us.
QESBA, like many of the constituent associations from our English public school network, wishes to express its concerns regarding the definition of bullying in the draft legislation (Section 13 1.1). First, it fails to identify elements that most experts in the field would identify as pertinent in shaping the problem to be addressed: bullying is more than a simple or random act of aggression; it is persistent, discriminatory and targeted behavior characterized by an imbalance and abuse of power. Second, the definition should identify the perpetrator as a student if we have correctly understood that to be the presumption, for the purposes of this Act (if that is not the intention, then there is a recurring problem of coherence in ensuing sections of the law). Third, the definition conflicts with that in the government's current Plan d'action pour traiter la violence. Fourth, there is a notion of intent, present in the English version of the draft law that is absent from the French version. Fifth, the proposed definition offers no guidance on how to address a student with special needs whose symptoms might prompt an impulsively aggressive act towards another. Intention and frequency must be considered core criteria in determining whether an aggressive behavior is truly an act of bullying. Finally, there is no concurrent definition of the term "violence". Credible arguments can be made for refraining from a legal definition, but given the identification of the term and the inclusion of a definition of bullying, the omission will likely create confusion.
With a view to focusing action, resources, education and prevention on the situations that truly demand attention, QESBA joins a number of other groups who will appear before this Commission in endorsing the following definition:
"… that bullying describes intentionally harmful, aggressive behavior that is repetitive in nature and in which there is a power differential between the aggressor and victim".1
Diagnosis of the problem
There is a rather vague requirement that the school principal "…support any group of students who wish to conduct activities the principal considers conducive to preventing and dealing with bullying and violence" (Section 96.8). Apart from this reference, there appears to be little recognition in the rest of the draft law of the essential role of education programs themselves in the prevention of bullying and violence. Nor is there much recognition of the multitude of factors contributing to the problem that surely goes beyond the purview of the local school and school board. On the complex question of cyber-bullying, are school boards responsible for instances of abuse outside of school hours? Is there not a shared responsibility with parents in dealing with their children who perpetrate acts of bullying and violence?
While QESBA recognizes that draft legislation cannot address every distinct school situation, it is important that individualized and tailored strategies be supported. The roots of the problem and its prevention are not identical at a rural school of 150 students in Arundel and an urban high school of 2,000 in Greenfield Park.
The draft bill does not take into account a number of other circumstances that are generally unique to our English public school network. For example, there is often limited availability of important social services in English to treat victims and perpetrators of serious cases of bullying and violence, in regional communities as well as in East-end Montreal, and the "couronne nord et sud". (It will not be easy for English school boards to comply with the requirement to enter into service agreements with such social services agencies, at Section 214.2, until this problem is resolved.) Furthermore, documentation on the issue is not always issued bilingually. The preponderance of small and geographically isolated schools in the English public school network will also impose obstacles to the implementation of many requirements in the draft law, for extensive and frequent reports and expanded interaction with police officials, to name just two.
The provision in the law for the transfer of a repeat offender to another school cannot properly be exercised within the territory of many English school boards, where schools are separated by large distances. Another section, imposing an obligation on transportation companies to train their bus drivers to intervene in situations of violence and bullying will be difficult, given that many drivers are unilingual French and thus, unable to communicate effectively with the English students on the bus. While not a problem unique to the English sector, many small schools with only part-time office staff will face difficulties in complying with the unduly short delays within which reports must be prepared and submitted.
The key issues QESBA has identified with respect to the remedial actions prescribed in the draft law relate to the role and obligations of school boards, school principals, Governing Boards and the Student Ombudsman. With regards to a prescribed or meaningful role for school boards, we are most struck by the virtual absence thereof. Each of our English school boards has a policy on student conduct; they have specific and proactive objectives on student behavior set out in their mission statements and operationalized in locally adapted school programs. QESBA, more than four years ago, completed a ground-breaking enquiry on the emerging and pervasive dimension of the problem: namely, cyber-bullying. Its recommendations were developed with the guidance of Dr. Shaheen Shariff, one of the world's recognized experts on the subject, and Sgt. Det. Frédéric Gaudreau, head of the cyber-criminalité unit of the Sureté du Québec. The report was publicly praised by the Minister of Education, Recreation and Sports at the time. Among its recommendations was the following:
"The task force supports the need for appropriate discipline or consequences along a trajectory of minor to serious cyber-bullying offences. For instance, in cases where a law has clearly been broken, the Task Force fully understands that law enforcement authorities must become involved. That said, overwhelming research evidence indicates the need for a mind-set and policy shift away from reactive responses that fail to address the root causes of negative discourses (both in school and cyber-space). Responses will fail if they do not recognize that cyber incidents happen within a complex social framework that is not limited to the instance of abuse. Discipline without context is not the answer. A lack of attention to root causes of student behavior and expression, or sensitivity to levels of student participation (from perpetrator, to supporter, to victim) can compromise the overall school environment because it models lack of interest and intolerance to students' needs and learning."
Our English public school network has made a point of investing in preventative actions to ensure a safe and respectful environment in schools. Student "Codes of Conduct" have been developed and are most often included in the student agenda and reviewed in general assemblies at the beginning of each school year. With the support of the Ministère de l'Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport, the English sector has established a "Centre of Excellence" for student behavior. It provides consultative and professional development services to schools. The "Method of Shared Concern" is just one of the models being shared with English school boards in Quebec by the Centre.
This intervention technique is employed after a bullying incident and involves interviews with close student witnesses to a bullying event, sometimes including the leader, sometimes not. In the first meeting, teachers and professionals try to tap into the witnesses' feelings of distaste for the event and their often-expressed guilt that they did nothing to prevent it. This is easily possible in the great majority of cases. From there the school 'contracts' with the student to do at least one thing differently next time they see such an incident. This is a very powerful intervention, one that has an impact on those interviewed, obviously, but quickly on others around the school as well.
Research and anecdotal evidence reported by our own teachers and principals point persuasively to the pivotal impact of school day-care experiences on the level of social readiness of youngsters for elementary schooling. The draft legislation is silent on this issue. Much as the MELS has, to its credit, identified and supported a series of early childhood measures aimed at the objective of la persévérance scolaire, is there not a need for similar attention to ensuring positive and structured learning environments in school daycares in order to decrease the later incidence of bullying and violence?
All of these examples illustrate a public school system that is engaged in and expert at addressing issues of bullying and violence. There is surely need for continuous improvement, and the MELS has the prerogative, in fact, the obligation to provide leadership and support to produce that improvement. The prescription in this draft legislation, however, largely limits school boards to reporting and oversight functions. Among them, yet another annual report (Section 210.1) for submission to the Minister, quantifying the number of recorded acts of bullying or violence in every school. The already-stated intention of the Minister to share these results with the public does not auger well, in our estimation, for true improvement in school safety. QESBA is looking for Ministry support in the creation and maintenance of harmonious school environments, a climate of confidence and inclusion that will truly empower and render accountable our students, our staffs and our Councils of Commissioners. The promise of a "palmarès" of offending schools seems hardly the most effective prescription!
Our English school boards, in all their diversity, share a vision of our Principals as pedagogical leaders. That fundamental role allows them to best deploy their skills and experience in the service of our students. Our Principals are already over-burdened with administrative and bureaucratic responsibilities. We regret that this draft legislation proposes to add further such burdens. Of course, Principals must be at the front line of our acknowledged duty to provide safe school environments. Still, QESBA is not entirely convinced that the path to safe schools is best set by a Principal's summary report "…for each complaint received" (Section 96.12) nor by the creation of an anti-bullying team with a staff coordinator in every single school. We also have questions, at this most challenging time for school board budgeting, regarding who and how to finance this new coordination responsibility. Under Section 96.27, Principals will now have the power to suspend students for an indefinite period of time without needing the approval of the Director General or Assistant Director General. This is not a necessary modification, in our view, nor have our Principals indicated their wish to assume this role. It removes the current authority of the Councils of Commissioners to deliver such decisions, as they currently do in a manner that is equitable and consistent across the schools of a board's territory.
In its preparations for this brief, QESBA learned of a Principal who recently addressed a problem with rules, regulations and bullying in the school yard, particularly with Grade 6 students. The Principal worked with her school team on a plan to give those students responsibilities throughout the school -- organizing team games in the yard, coordinating and scheduling activities in the reading rooms, planning and painting murals around the school, serving as student ambassadors to school visitors or at special events. Students were placed on committees dealing with the discipline procedures and policies that affected them. Once the plan was fully in place, cases of bullying went down substantially. The example of the Grade 6 students was soon emulated by the younger students, and the positive reinforcement further decreased the incidents of bullying. QESBA would hope to continue to encourage such ingenuity from school Principals rather than risk stifling it with additional and time-consuming reporting requirements. The prescriptive and hierarchical tone of sections 96.12 and 96.27 suggests that this law will not be helpful in that regard.
Governing Boards will also see their responsibilities increased under the draft law, though QESBA questions the advisability of this change as well. First, each Governing Board must adopt an anti-bullying and anti-violence plan (Section 75.1). QESBA is at a loss to understand the necessity for some 340 individual and perhaps conflicting school plans in our system. How will school boards then address potential requests for appeal from parents of decisions made under school-specific criteria? Where is the equitability or the benefit in devolving this responsibility to the Governing Board and thus having potentially different rules, sanctions and follow-up requirements from one school to the next? Membership on Governing Boards changes substantially with each school year. Will the plans similarly change, inviting confusion and insecurity amongst students, parents and staff?
The Student Ombudsman, for whom no additional funds are to be allocated, is also headed for an unsolicited and dubious expansion of his/her job description. Will the enhanced safety and security of our students necessarily be the result? The Student Ombudsman has no legal authority over Board employees yet is being now to be charged with receiving parental complaints at first instance. At present, the Principal is responsible for proceeding, until his recourse is challenged. At Section 220, the Student Ombudsman is now saddled with evaluating the schools and their performance on their anti-bullying/anti-violence plans. Why is this modification suddenly superior to the current oversight provided by the Director General, who is, in turn, evaluated by Council of Commissioners?
Section 75.3 proposes that, "Every school staff member shall collaborate in implementing the anti-bullying and anti-violence plan and shall see to it that no student in the school is a victim of bullying or violence." QESBA surely has no argument with the sentiment expressed here but its inclusion as draft legal language is nevertheless deeply troubling. Our best efforts will not, of course, eradicate every single act of bullying or violence in our schools across Quebec, today or ever. This section declares that every school staff member will hence be responsible for that inevitable "failure". Such a provision is as absurd as it is impossible to implement. There is a necessity to identify a measurable standard here. The current language of the section is not the answer. It becomes all the more important to solve this problem as one looks at the sanctions that come later in the draft law.
QESBA has already indicated its disappointment at the lack of emphasis on education and prevention in the provisions of the draft law. That disappointment turns to anger when we read of the wide-ranging and unsubstantiated proposals for sweeping Ministerial sanctions of school boards not deemed to be in conformity with the law. The Education Act already provides the Minister with the authority to ensure compliance with government legislation and the funding programs and action plans that stem from it. Specifically, those existing powers call for the withholding in whole or in part of the designated funds associated with any assessed lack of compliance. The proposed amendments (Section 477) would widen that power to include unspecified monetary penalties imposed on any portion of government-supplied funding on the basis of non-compliance with any section of the Education Act, not only those that would be amended by this draft law.
QESBA calls for the removal of Section 477, in its entirety. In order to maintain, improve and implement programs that will truly address the objectives of this draft law, school boards expect to count on collaboration, direction and support from the Minister and the MELS; we are angered by a proposed approach that smacks of coercion and punishment. This is a rather ironic message in proposed legislation designed to ensure greater harmony, confidence and security within our school communities.
Of greater significance and concern to us, the inclusion of this section does little to promote the safety and security of our children in schools and nothing to inspire the development of compassionate and innovative approaches to combatting bullying and violence. Instead, such a punitive approach sadly invites school boards, administrators, teachers and professionals to narrowly concentrate on delivering the requisite numbers, dates, names and details on every incidence of bullying and violence, and to do so on time, pending financial penalties. Evidently, quality, compassion and careful evaluation of real progress will have become secondary considerations.
Like the Minister, QESBA is seized of the crucially important nature of the problems set forth in this draft law, and the imperative to respond to those problems. The damage wrought by systematic bullying and violence upon the lives of innocent children is tragic. The talents, resources and, yes, authority of the state and its institutions must be brought to bear in order to achieve prompt improvements. The credible results of those efforts must be reported upon, evaluated and further improved.
Because of the severity of the problem and in recognition of the good will and expertise available to address it, QESBA respectfully calls upon the Minister to proceed to a substantial re-working of this draft law, towards a final version that will truly honor the objectives that she has set out for this exercise and to enhance the security and well-being of the students, parents and school communities who will thus benefit.
1 Swearer, Espelage, Vaillancourt & Hymel - What Can Be Done About School Bullying?: Linking Research to Educational Practice, Educational Researcher, 2010.
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