On November 30, 2011, the Ontario Government introduced Bill 13, the Accepting Schools Act, 2011 for First Reading. The widely published suicides of Jamie Hubley from Ottawa and Mitchell Wilson from Pickering, among other recent suicides involving Canadian youth, provided a catalyst for the new legislation. It is recognized that bullying is an underestimated and pervasive problem in Ontario schools and in its communities.
A 2009 survey of grade 7 to 12 students by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health found that almost one in three students has been bullied in school. A 2011 survey by Egale Canada found that 64% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer students felt unsafe at school.
In introducing the new legislation, Laurel C. Broten, the Minister of Education, said that "It is incumbent on each and every one of us – government, teachers, parents, peers, the whole community – to find the pathway forward that allow each student to feel safe, included and welcome in Ontario schools."
Jamie Hubley, the 15 year-old son of Ottawa city counsellor Alan Hubley, took his life after being targeted for his sexual orientation. Mitchell Wilson, an 11 year-old Pickering boy with muscular dystrophy, committed suicide on Labour Day after being tormented at school by friends of a boy accused of mugging him.
Under the proposed bill, which is scheduled to come into force on September 1, 2012, students who bully could face expulsion and school boards will be encouraged to ensure there is early intervention to stop aggressive behaviour.
The highlights of the proposed legislation include the following:
- Bullying will be defined in the Education Act, with a more expansive definition.
- School boards will be required to use surveys to monitor the effectiveness of board policies.
- The third week of November will be designated as Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week.
- School boards will be required to establish revised policies and guidelines with respect to bullying prevention and intervention in schools.
- School boards will be required to support students who want to establish and lead activities or organizations that promote gender equity, anti-racism, the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people with disabilities and people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
- Subsection 310(1) of the Education Act, which sets out the circumstances in which a student must be suspended and considered for possible expulsion, will be amended to include certain circumstances related to bullying and to activities that are motivated by bias, prejudice or hate.
As discussed above, Bill 13 includes a new definition of bullying that would replace the definition set out in Policy/Program Memorandum No. 144 entitled "Bullying Prevention and Intervention" ("PPM 144"). For the first time ever, the proposed definition would be included in the provisions of the Education Act. The proposed definition is as follows:
"Bullying" means repeated and aggressive behaviour by a pupil where,
- the behaviour is intended by the pupil to cause, or the pupil ought to know that the behaviour would be likely to cause, harm, fear or distress to another individual, including psychological harm or harm to the individual's reputation, and
- the behaviour occurs in a 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,
For the purposes of the definition, bullying behaviour includes the use of any physical, verbal, electronic, written or other means.
This is the first time the definition of bullying includes reference to "psychological harm" or "harm to an individual's reputation". These terms are not defined in the proposed legislation. The new definition appears more expansive than the current definition set out in PPM 144.
Moving the new definition of bullying from Ministry policy into the Education Act will give it enhanced legal authority. In this regard, it is hoped that there will be a greater awareness among all stakeholders, including students, teachers, school administration and parents, as to what constitutes bullying and confirming that such behaviour is not acceptable in Ontario schools.
This definition of bullying pertains to repeated and aggressive behaviour "by a pupil". The current definition in PPM 144 appears to apply where bullying behaviour is initiated by any member of the school community. In this regard, the proposed definition only applies to bullying behaviour that is initiated by a student.
In addition, under the provisions of Bill 13, students involved in bullying could face possible expulsion. Bill 13 proposes an amendment to subsection 310(1) of the Education Act, which sets out the circumstances in which a student must be suspended and considered for possible expulsion. It proposes the following addition to infractions listed in subsection 310(1) of the Education Act.
7.1 Bullying, if,
- the pupil has previously been suspended for engaging in bullying; and
- the pupil's continuing presence in the school creates an unacceptable risk to the safety of another person.
7.2 Any activity, listed in subsection 306(1) that is motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or any other similar factor.
In light of the proposed amendment, where a student had been previously suspended for engaging in bullying and the student's continuing presence in the school creates an unacceptable risk to the safety of another person, the principal can recommend an expulsion. Under the current provisions of the Education Act, the principal could recommend an expulsion from the student's school only or from all schools of the board.
Only the school board or a committee of the board, consisting of at least three trustees, has the authority to expel a student. In addition, Bill 13 proposes that where a student is involved in certain conduct, such as uttering a threat to inflict serious bodily harm on another person, swearing at a teacher or bullying behaviour that is motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on factors such as race, ethnic origin, mental or physical disability or sexual orientation, the principal could recommend an expulsion.
These proposed changes provide a principal with a greater range of tools to take disciplinary action in circumstances related to bullying or activities motivated by bias, prejudice or hate. Under Bill 13, bullying behaviour will be taken as seriously as physical assault at the school. The purpose of the bill, among other things, is to encourage a positive school climate, address inappropriate student behaviour and promote early intervention.
Research indicates that children who suffer prolonged victimization through bullying, as well as children who use power and aggression as bullies, may experience a range of psycho-social problems that may extend into adolescence and adulthood.
In reviewing Bill 13, a concern arises about support for students who are impacted by the inappropriate behaviour of other students. Depending on the circumstances arising out of an incident of bullying, there may be support needed for the victim of the behaviour, any bystander who may have witnessed the conduct and/or the student who uses power and aggression as a bully.
York University's Debra Pepler, one of Canada's leading experts on bullying, stated that if students are going to face expulsion for their behaviour, they need "alternative classrooms, alternative schools where there is extensive mental health support". She indicated that where students struggle with social and emotional development, the school needs to provide specialized support and services. She said that when students struggle in math, we give them support and tutoring in math. "When they struggle with social and emotional development, it seems to me we should come in with every resource we have."
The new bill was introduced for First Reading on November 30th. However, with a minority of seats in the House, the Liberals will need support from either New Democratic Party or the Progressive Conservative Party for it to become law. On November 30th, all three parties spoke in the House about the importance of working together. NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said that given the importance of this issue, now is not the time to "play politics". On November 30th, Progressive Conservative MPP Elizabeth Witmer also introduced her own anti-bullying strategy in the legislature.
It is expected that in the Spring of 2012, the proposed legislation will be passed in some revised form.
On November 30, 2011, Minister Broten provided strong commitment that the Government will pass legislation that will address this complex issue. "We are unequivocal in our commitment that Ontario schools will be places where all of our students will be supported, where all students will be loved for who they are."
The Minister stated:
"We want to do our part to end bullying in our schools, but we will not get there alone. We need the whole school community to be involved. We all have a role to play in helping to make our schools safer."
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