Alberta's proposed Education Act targets schoolyard bullies

The Alberta government re-introduced its Education Act Tuesday, promising a systematic provincewide effort to go after and punish schoolyard bullies
Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk discusses Bill 2 at the Alberta legislature on Tuesday. (CBC)

The Alberta government re-introduced its Education Act Tuesday, promising a systematic provincewide effort to go after and punish schoolyard bullies.

"I want to make sure that in the province of Alberta we have a uniform code of conduct clearly spelling out what is and what isn't allowable in schools relative to students' behaviour," said Lukaszuk after introducing Bill 2 in the legislature.

"That will include verbal abuse, physical abuse, homophobic abuse, cyberspace abuse and the list goes on and on."

Lukaszuk said school boards will submit to his department their plans on handling bullying. They will then be compared to an over-arching definition of bullying to make sure there is a one standard of what will and won't be accepted.

"The fact is we need to standardize this, particularly as kids move from school and class to class, that this same level of expectation will be placed on them," he said.

The act allows school officials to suspend students for up to five days and, if they feel the behaviour is so injurious or the student so unrepentant, they can ask the local board to expel the child for longer periods as required.

This is the second time the proposed act has been before the house.

It was first introduced 10 months ago in the last spring legislature sitting, following three years of public consultation, only to be pulled again last fall for more consultation.

Lukaszuk said the revised bill is substantially the same as the old one except for the expanded provincewide initiative on bullying and the actions to be taken by school boards to combat it.

He said the new bill also allows parents more access to get information on their child's education, sets up a minister's student advisory council, and puts in place an expanded audit committee involving third parties to make sure school decisions reflect the goals of students and communities.

"It (the old bill) was a great foundation from which to build on, but the changes are significant," said Lukaszuk.

The bill retained a provision to hike the minimum dropout age to 17 from 16. It also promises to fund students up to age 21 to complete their high school diplomas; the previous limit was age 19.

Lukaszuk said the changes are to encourage students to stay in school.

More latitude will be given to school boards to pursue programs unique to their students and communities.

"I want to make sure that school boards have the flexibility to make the decisions that reflect local community mores and needs but at the same time also be responsible and transparent," said Lukaszuk.

The bill also lays out requirements for establishing and running charter schools.

It also compels school boards to collaborate with post-secondary institutions to ease the way for students making the leap to higher learning.

NDP education critic Rachel Notley said the bill falls short.

"We were looking for some specific changes and action to improve our schools," said Notley.

"We were looking to see a ban on school fees. We were looking to see something around school lunches, around something on full-day kindergarten.

"There's almost nothing new."

Premier Alison Redford's government is making changes outside the new act, starting with last week's 2012-13 budget

About $6.5 billion is to be invested in kindergarten through Grade 12 in the first year of a three-year funding commitment

School boards are to receive grant rate increases and there is a 22 per cent rise in payments to help students with special needs.

Another $289 million is earmarked for student transportation — an increase of $14 million.

The province is also proceeding with construction of 14 new schools this year.

Lukaszuk himself is pursing other initiatives based on conversations with parents in recent months.

Last month, he released 10 policy priorities. They include more opportunities for students to earn post-secondary credits while in high school and reduced travel time for students on buses.