Article by Teresa R. Haykowsky, McLennan Ross LLP and Suzanne Lundrigan, Alberta School Boards Association
Cyber-bullying grabbed headlines across Canada again this year, triggering Nova Scotia to pass a special law aimed at stamping it out in schools. As schools and school boards prep for the coming school year, this article cites resources you can look to for guidance when dealing with this issue and also lets you know about one town in the US which passed a bylaw making parents liable for children's bullying.
Seventeen-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons' suicide garnered international headlines. Parsons killed herself after she was allegedly sexually assaulted when she was 15 – and photos of the incident were posted online.
As reported by the CBC on August 22, 2013 Parsons' classmates mocked her and she endured relentless harassment and humiliation after a picture of the assault was circulated at school and on social media. The 17-year-old died in April.
Two 18-year-olds have been charged with child pornography in connection with the case. They can't be named because they were 17 at the time of the alleged offences. (A detailed summary of Parsons' story is found here.)
Shortly after Parsons' death, Nova Scotia's legislature passed the Cyber-safety Act (Bill 61) in May 2013.
The legislation defines cyber-bullying as:
"any electronic communication [...] that is intended or ought reasonably be expected to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person's health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation"
Significantly, as well as holding cyber-bullies liable for their behavior, the new legislation means parents of young cyber-bullies may face penalties because of their children's misbehavior. To avoid charges, parents will have to prove they were actively supervising their child – and taking reasonable steps to stop their child's bullying behavior.
While Alberta doesn't have an equivalent law, the incoming Education Act references cyber-bullying and in a new development imposes a positive responsibility on students to report incidents of bullying – wherever it occurs: at school; off school property or in cyberspace. School boards are also now required to write student codes of conduct that speak specifically to bullying.
The Parsons case triggered much self examination and a search for preventative measures. On April 18, 2013, Nova Scotia appointed two respected Canadian experts to review the approach of Halifax Regional School Board, and associated agencies, to the events that led to the tragic death of Parsons.
On June 14, 2013 Nova Scotia accepted the 13 recommendations of the two out-of-province experts, Debra Pepler and Penny Milton of Ontario, who issued their June 10, 2013 report reviewing how the Halifax Regional School Board and associated agencies handled events leading to the death of high school Parsons.
"Rehtaeh's story is not an easy one to listen to, but it's important that we hear it," said Marilyn More, lead minister for the Action Team on Sexual Violence and Bullying. "Dr. Pepler and Ms. Milton have written a thorough report on her experiences and implementing their recommendations will help prevent another tragedy. This is not the end of our work; far from it. The review and its recommendations will be added to the efforts currently underway."
The 13 recommendations from Pepler's and Milton's June 14, 2013 final report included:
- Government, school boards, community and social agencies are to promote safety at every opportunity – both to prevent bullying, cyber-bullying and sexual aggression
- Department of Education is to revise school codes of conduct to include opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes when they violate the school code
- Government and school boards are to include young people in advisory roles and that "many different students" play meaningful roles in the development of policies, procedures, protocols and initiatives that affect them
- School boards are to develop a standard to guide school administrators in determining what informal information to share when a student transfers between high schools
- School boards are to ask (through surveys and other tools) students, staff and parents about the quality of their relationships within the school community
- Department of Education and Early Childhood Development are to emphasize social-emotional learning when reviewing and revising curriculum.
The province has asked the Department of Health and Wellness to prepare options to review the IWK Health Centre's mental-health programs, services and policies as it relates to Parsons' case, a move supported by the reviewers.
The province is conducting an independent review by out-of-province experts into the actions of the Public Prosecution Service and police. This will begin immediately after police release the results of their criminal investigation.
An action plan in response to the all of the recommendations will be completed in the next few weeks.
"If there is one message we want to emphasize, it is this: work together. Good relationships will be essential for finding solutions that work," Dr. Pepler and Ms. Milton said in their report. "We need to listen, learn from each other, and build a body of evidence that will help us all to respond effectively in crisis situations."
Pepler and Milton did not assign any blame in their report and called for an independent commission to review the programs and services of the IWK Health Centre and the Capital Health Authority, which is the largest health service provider in the province, "as they relate to the case of Rehtaeh Parsons."
Tips and takeaways
We think some of the best ideas come from the recommendations out of Nova Scotia's February 29, 2012 Task Force Report on Bullying and Cyber-bullying chaired by Wayne MacKay. This report highlights that cyber-bullying is complex and multi-faceted. There are no simple fixes, or, as the title of the report suggests, "there's no app for that." Cyber-bullying is part of a much larger issue about deterioration in the quality of human relations in society as we adapt to a fast paced and high tech world. If your school jurisdiction is experiencing a decline in respectful and responsible relationships that must be reversed in order to get at the roots of bullying and cyber-bullying, it may consider the following tips and takeaways:
- School jurisdictions may create or adopt age-appropriate, digital citizenship and online safety programs for all its students aimed at changing attitudes and values and not just providing information. Such programs could be prerequisites for continued access to school computers
- School jurisdictions can draft standardized student computer usage agreements that include clearly defined consequences for misuse. Agreements should be signed by students, their parents and teachers
- School jurisdictions can create a digital and printed parents' guide to combating bullying and cyber-bullying
- School jurisdictions (and parents) should educate students about bullying and cyber-bullying: what it is, why it is inappropriate, that it will not be tolerated, and that it is harmful
- School jurisdictions should create a clear mechanism for students to report on bullying, a process for evaluation of that data, and a student survey to be regularly executed every 2-3 years, to gauge the effectiveness of these reporting and evaluating methods
- School jurisdictions can teach students about the possible dangers of improper Internet use and educational materials about cyber-hazards and digital citizenship
U.S. Town Bylaw Makes Parents Liable for Children's Bad Behavior
Meanwhile in Monona Wisconsin the municipality took the bold step of passing a bylaw that will make parents liable for any bullying done by their children. A first violation of the parent-liability clause carries a $114 fine. Subsequent violations within the same year carry fines of $177 each. On June 3, 2013, the Toronto Star reported that police officers in Monona Wisconsin wondered if parents whose children are bullying / cyber-bullying other students would co-operate more they faced fines for their children's bullying.
On May 29, 2013, the municipality of Monono passed this bylaw, with the assistance of the local school board. Now parents may be fined if their child is found to be a repeat bully. The municipality was mirrored the language in a state law that had already been tested in court. The parent-liability clause is part of a larger ordinance passed by city council to prohibit bullying and harassment.
It is believed Monona is the first town in the U.S. with such a parent-liability fine.
The fine is seen as a tool of last resort. Parents who make an effort to address their child's concerns would not be ticketed.
The town's mayor, Bob Miller, told the Star that this parent-liability clause was intended to be a "wake-up call" to parents who may not be attuned to what their children are doing at home on the Internet.
"There are parents who just believe their children could never do something that was inappropriate," the mayor said. He added that the ordinance has bite to it, but "it's not looking like we're looking to bust parents."
Tips and takeaways
- School jurisdictions may wish to share this story with their school councils in September and discuss ways in which parents can become more engaged in the conduct of their children at school and in promoting anti-bullying conduct as school.
- When discussing Internet use with your students, stress that they may not know with whom they are communicating. Teach them about and advise them to use safe Internet practices.
This article was prepared for the ASBA as part of the service provided to school boards who subscribe to the ASBA education netletter, Vis-a-Vis.
We encourage you to distribute this article to your school administrators who may wish to discuss cyber bullying with their teachers and staff.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.