Standing up for others may not always be easy, but it can
change a life. In some cases, one small act of kindness or support
can help change many lives. That's what happened when a group
of high school students in Nova Scotia held the first "Pink
Shirt Day" in 2007.
Witnessing a Grade 9 male student being bullied and teased for wearing a pink shirt, two older students and their friends purchased and distributed 50 pink shirts to show solidarity with him. When the bullied student saw what they were doing, one of the organizers said: "It looked like a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders."1
Unfortunately, not all bullied children get the help and support they require. Bullying can result in severe emotional pain, physical injury, and even death in some well-known cases. In this blog, I define bullying, explain the type of damage it can cause, and explore how institutions such as school boards could be held liable for failing to act when bullying occurs.
What Is Bullying?
Ontario's Education Act defines bullying2 as aggressive behaviour that is typically repeated with the intended effect directed toward to causing harm, fear or distress in the targeted individual or even others. Bullying takes place in a context where there is a real or perceived power imbalance between individuals, based on factors such as physical characteristics, strength, peer group identification, social status, or other factors.
Bullying can take the form of physical, psychological, or social abuse, and can also cause harm to a person's self-worth, reputation, property or academic achievement. Even witnessing a person being bullied can have a negative effect on a bystander.
Research suggests that children who bully often feel unhappy inside or have difficulty engaging in healthy social interactions with other kids. Early intervention is extremely important to help kids who bully address their underlying issues and develop better social skills. Indeed, kids who bully often grow up to be adult bullies3, with a higher risk of delinquency, substance use, sexual harassment, dating aggression, gang involvement and criminal adulthood.4
Help For The Bullied
Children who are bullied are known to experience depression, social anxiety, stress-related health problems, low self-esteem, and aggressive behaviours. In more extreme cases, they may even contemplate, attempt, or commit suicide. Although events such as Pink Shirt Day are important to show bullied children and others that their peers and wider communities support them, certain people and institutions have much larger roles to play in combatting bullying.
Since children spend so much of their time at school, it is essential that school boards, school administrators and other staff have effective strategies to identify and prevent bullying. Ontario's Ministry of Education "Bullying Prevention and Intervention" Policy Memorandum provides direction to school boards with the expectation that they support and maintain a positive school climate in their facilities.
No one reasonably expects perfection, and individual or isolated incidents of bullying may not necessarily be witnessed or addressed on the spot by an adult. However, if there is a repeated or systemic failure to identify situations where there is bullying, to properly notify parents and guardians of incidents, to discipline perpetrators, and to help both victims and their bullies to break these patterns of abuse, a school board may liable for failing to establish or implement policies and practices that, if present, would likely have reduced the risks to students, especially more vulnerable ones.
Lawsuits5 have been filed against various Ontario school boards alleging individuals or the boards themselves have failed to provide a safe environment or adequately address bullying/harassment in their schools. Plaintiffs have alleged both physical and psychological injuries, such as stress disorders, panic attacks, stomach ulcers, and other effects.
A lawsuit may not reverse the damage that has been done to a victim, but it can prevent future damage and can demonstrate that inaction has consequences for the people and institutions responsible for a safe school environment. In other words, lawsuits can change conduct and can lead to strengthened anti-bullying policies that are well-observed and available to protect others from similar harassment.
Take A Stand Against Bullying
Let's show our kids that their community is here to keep them safe and to help them if they are being bullied. Gluckstein Lawyers are proud supporters of, and participants in, 2020's Pink Shirt Day. To learn more about how our participation initiatives like this one is part of our commitment to full circle client care, contact our Client Liaison, Brenda Agnew.
5 https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/winston-vania-karam-bullying-ocdsb-broadview-1.3691086; https://www.iheartradio.ca/newstalk-1010/news/york-region-school-board-sued-over-allegations-of-racist-bullying-1.9232236; https://www.thepeterboroughexaminer.com/news-story/8220634-school-board-sued-over-allegations-of-bullying-involving-peterborough-girl-12/
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.