Thanks to social media, students are 'never free' from bullying, expert says

The Hamilton-Wentworth School Board's new bullying review panel begins its work this week. Two members of that panel take your questions and hear your comments on what we need to do to stop bullying in Hamilton schools.

The panel will hold several 'engagement' sessions from now to the end of March

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's new bullying review panel begins its work this week. Two members of that panel take your questions and hear your comments on what needs to be done to stop bullying in Hamilton schools. 17:40

Two people tasked with fixing problems of bullying in Hamilton schools say that when they start hearing, officially, from students and parents they expect a lot of frustration and, because of social media, students across Ontario are "never free" from cyber bullying.

Dr. Jean Clinton, professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences in the division of Child Psychiatry at McMaster and Brenda Flaherty, former Executive Vice President at Hamilton Health Sciences and former chair of the board of directors at YMCA Canada came to CBC Hamilton's studio on Wednesday to talk about their plan to stop bullying. The third member of the panel is Gary Warner, a former professor and administrator at McMaster University.

Clinton and Flaherty spoke with the CBC's Conrad Collaco about how they hope their safe schools review panel can help prevent bullying in Hamilton schools.

You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or watch to the full interview by hitting the play button above.

Jean Clinton and Brenda Flaherty

What would you like to see and hear from the people who attend your engagement sessions?

BF: We want to hear, first and foremost from students and their families as to what their experiences are and, as we know, bullying is about relationships. So, we want to view their experiences and move forward in a healthy way. So, we would really value the family and the students' opinions about how we can make a better and healthier environment for kids to learn. 

JC: Oh absolutely. I'm expecting that we're going to hear a fair amount of frustration. Our role is to be listeners, to listen to that frustration and from that hopefully engage with the parents and the students so they can come up with some ideas that will be helpful for us for recommendations to do something about that frustration.

How do you define bullying?

JC: We will be sharing with people in the sessions and online, a series of slides, but the definition that's used by the Ministry of Education and the board really is talking about bullying as an aggressive and repeated action that is meant to hurt, that's experienced as hurt by the other. It is also a power imbalance. Someone is exerting their power over someone else, whether it's power because of race, because of sex, because of a whole range. It is, at its heart as Brenda has said, a relationship. It's a relational issue and for us, really, what we're learning from the experts is this bullying issue needs to be viewed through the lens of how do we look at what's happening in terms of relationships, not only the one on one but systemically what is being affected because of the relationships.

How will you establish systems to address the various root causes of bullying, including racism or sexism, in an environment where teachers and principals can be uncomfortable with or unable to recognize those root causes?

BF:  A huge part of the system is about education and professional development which, of course, would happen on a very regular basis. It wouldn't be once a year. Most of all it is daily and I believe the system relies on leadership and values and culture. Those three are very important as we look at changing the environment for our students in regards to bullying — values, culture and leadership. And I think everyone has an accountability for bullying. [SIMLAR]

JC: It means that we need to be listening very carefully. We need to be reviewing very carefully. The heart of the matter is are the schools creating safe, inclusive environments for learning? That's the business of schooling. As we are thinking about leadership, as we're thinking about the culture, we're really going to be asking some tough questions. You know there's some good policy and procedure in place that looks good on paper. Tell me why we're still having this frustration with parents and children. So, we're not just going to skim nicely on the surface. Our intention is very much that we look deeply to see why so many people are frustrated when we have so many good people working very, very hard in the system. Where's that tension? How do we understand it and how can we make meaningful recommendations to see change happen?

BF: That deep dive is about moving forward in a healthy way and not about blame. I think, as Jean said, we really have to listen to understand what the supports are and the barriers that need to be removed.

That is a challenging task. If what you have to do is change the perceptions of teachers, who in some cases may not see the bullying or see the root cause, your task is to come up with a system that gets to those teachers and delivers what? A better ability to identify bullying when it happens?

JC:  There are a couple of things that we've learned. One is that students that we've been talking to have had this 'a ha!' moment of 'wow, you know, when you look at the definition of bullying like this we didn't recognize that we were bullying somebody else.' I think we're going to find that the same is true of teachers, that what they saw was just teasing or some conflict that had looked like it had resolved but had actually gone underground. So, they're unaware. I think what the board is doing is looking at how can they make the environment for the students feel safer? And so, they're investing a lot of time and emotion coaching. So, when you look at emotion coaching, it's recognizing and validating the feeling of others. To start you have to have a heightened awareness of what are the feelings of others.

So we're seeing a shift in education that is saying education is not just about academic achievement, it's also about being good at life and being safe in school.

Social media and bullying

Has social media made bullying easier to carry out?

JC: Some of the statistics I've seen say that 42 per cent of kids, a huge percentage, say they've experienced cyber bullying and 60 per cent say they've seen it happen. I just read this recently. So what's different? What's different now is that this bullying used to happen predominantly face to face. You went home. It was done. Now it can happen 24/7. They are never free from it. I'm not sure what the solution is in terms of Facebook and other things but I think one of the responsibilities we have as caring adults is to educate so that kids become more caring and to have kids know to turn to the adults to help. They're learning about the etiquette around this but we need to go more deeply and ask the kids help us figure out what are some of the solutions.

BF: Part of our process is to survey to all stakeholders. We've understood from other experiences that's where we're going to get some of our very rich information. Our electronic survey will be anonymous and that will be part of our process.

Frustration and cynicism

What do you say to people who aren't confident your recommendations will be either reflective of the feedback you're given or implemented by the school board?

BF: When you need a change you need to really understand why. I think all of the community would agree that we need to change but we need to hear from them. Tell us your experience because sometimes you need to understand what are some of the root causes of having to make a change. We very much want to hear from all the stakeholders, the teachers, the parents and the kids because there will be many different solutions based on some of the barriers. So, that's what we really want them to know. We need to hear. They're going to help us form the recommendations for change. And we absolutely know that the school board is very committed to hearing our interim recommendations in May. We've got our final report in September. So, we need to hear from our community.

JC: I think the question behind your question is — is there something that we can do to make sure this is not a report that goes on a shelf here and just gathers dust? There's always a risk of that but as Brenda said we are completely separate from this school board. We're people who have come together with a passion around creating safe communities for kids and families. So, we're going to bring that credibility. We're going to bring that visibility. You know we're doing 20 sessions facilitated by experts. Our relationship with the administration is one that has made it crystal clear to me this is a top priority. It's not going to get shoved under the carpet.

If this is going to work what does success look like in a year from now or two years from now? How can we measure this?

JC: Luckily, we have in Hamilton some really great survey tools that we can utilize. We can look at, right now, a report from the students — both from a school climate survey as well as from a middle development instrument that is done by the school board that talks about safety, that talks about bullying, talks about caring adults, so we can absolutely say 'here's baseline' and has it changed. That's not adding another burden onto the school board. That's looking at what they're already collecting and saying 'are we actually making a difference?'

We long to see is that students are coming to school and they feel safe. They feel heard. They have a sense of belonging. That's going to take a lot through to change system. That will be success to me.


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