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26 Mar, Sunday
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Montreal Families

New anti-bullying law explained

Do you ever feel that when you drop your kids off at school, you just have to cross your fingers and hope that nothing bad happens to them?  The reality is, if there is a bullying incident at school and your child doesn’t talk to you about it, you may be left in the dark.

Conversely, one of the challenges for school administrators has been getting parents to understand that their role is primarily educational, not punitive and requiring them to shoulder all the responsibilities for handling bullying is neither practical nor ideal. After all, bullies don’t suddenly come into being when they enter kindergarten or step on the bus for high school.

Parents have a critical role to play, and yet the government can’t legislate them to teach their children compassion, civility and respect. And even when parents do teach those values, their children may still be hurtful to others.

But there are many changes on the horizon for both parents and school administrators with the implementation of a new provincial anti-bullying law that came into effect this past June.

Quebec’s Law 19 (often referred to as Bill 56) requires schools to put into place a detailed anti-bullying plan and to clearly spell out prevention policies and protocols for handling bullying incidents. Administrators can tailor the plan based on the school’s needs and student population and thus they have some freedom to determine how to handle each incident. It also makes it mandatory that parents are informed of each bullying incident.

I’ve been working as a consultant with the English sector of the Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS) to help administrators put into place an action plan, which must be approved by each school’s governing body by Dec. 31 (implementation should begin in 2013).

During this process, I’ve come to realize that many parents don’t understand the implications of this new law. What follows is a breakdown of some of the changes parents can expect in how bullying and violent incidents will be handled.

Each school must define what bullying means. Most experts agree that bullying is repetitive harassment. This may be verbal or non-verbal, physical or indirect, online or in person. And while the repetitive part is a key feature of bullying, there is always a first incident in a pattern, so all hurtful behaviour must be taken seriously. Many experts argue that the definition should include the intent to cause harm. Others say intent is not necessary:  it is difficult to prove and is secondary to the harm caused to the person targeted.

Parents must be encouraged to collaborate in preventing and stopping bullying and creating a healthy learning environment. The law invites parents to get involved if they want to help organize an awareness initiative, or participate in safe school committees, etc.

Parents need to be informed of the school’s policies. Every year, each school must inform parents of the policies it has put in place and explain the school’s anti-bullying plan, which must be written in clear and accessible language. This document must explain exactly how the principal will deal with bullies and targets of bullying, as well as what measures will be taken to prevent future incidents. The action plan is a working document and can be revised annually. You need to be notified of changes.

Schools need to do a yearly evaluation of all bullying and violent incidents that took place in the school, and communicate this to parents. These evaluations must respect the confidentiality and dignity of students involved and protect their identities. Schools are also advised to avoid referring to the number of incidents, and to use percentages instead, to avoid damage to school reputations.

Parents must be “promptly” notified by the principal of an incident involving their child, with explanations of the school’s policies for handling these issues. She or he must also direct them to the person appointed by the school should they need more assistance. Although “promptly” doesn’t specify a time period, it is often interpreted to be 24 to 48 hours after an incident. However, the principal cannot violate the confidentiality of other students, so parents may not be told of specific details of consequences or follow-up with other children (such as having them seek counselling, connecting them to social services, etc.).

If a student is suspended for bullying, the principal must inform the parents of the reasons for the suspension and what measures will be taken for re-integration. They must also be told that, in the event of another bullying incident, a student may be moved to another school or even expelled from all schools under the board’s jurisdiction.

Although Law 19 isn’t a perfect solution, it aims to formalize procedures in each school so that kids – whether they are bullies, the bullied or bystanders – don’t fall through the cracks.

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