Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Letting bullied kids be heard

Tories, province to conduct surveys

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Bullied kids -- prepare yourselves to get seriously surveyed about bullying in our schools.

Diametrically opposed as they may be over anti-bullying Bill 18, Education Minister Nancy Allan and Conservative Leader Brian Pallister both announced on Thursday they will conduct extensive online student surveys on bullying.

The government's Tell Them From Me bullying survey will be launched in the fall for students in grades 4 to 12 in 550 public and private schools deemed large enough to safeguard students' anonymity. Students will be asked to respond twice during the school year.

"Schools will hear from students about the prevalence of bullying in schools... how students feel unsafe, and why," Allan said at Collège Sturgeon Heights Collegiate.

Pallister said the Tories will conduct their own survey of Manitobans to get a better grasp on how anti-bullying legislation should work in this province. The PCs are to launch a survey on the party's website early next week and will use its results to propose their own amendments to Bill 18.

"We will consult broadly," Pallister said. "We will ask teachers and people involved in school administration for their views. Parent councils will be asked. But most importantly, we'll go straight to the children of this province and ask them how they feel this problem can be best addressed."

Allan had nothing new to say on the provision of Bill 18 that guarantees a school must accommodate any student requesting to form a gay-straight alliance -- but made it clear she won't budge on that part of the bill.

Allan and Pallister would not address the Feb. 24 sermon at Southland Church in Steinbach, at which Pastor Ray Duerksen told thousands of parishioners God would replace politicians, teachers, police, firefighters, media members and others in publicly prominent jobs who don't join the opposition to Bill 18.

Allan did say Altona-based Border Land School Division told her Wednesday it would comply with Bill 18, as Steinbach-based Hanover SD said last week. And she said the province will hold on May 10 a leadership forum on safe schools that will involve students, teachers, parents and administrators from throughout Manitoba.

Allan said all the attention paid to the gay-straight alliance provision in Bill 18 has taken the focus away from cyberbullying -- Bill 18 was a direct response to the suicide of bullied B.C. teen Amanda Todd, she said.

"Bill 18 is going to provide the framework for all students in all of our schools to have a safe and caring learning environment," said the minister.

All she would say when asked repeatedly about Duerksen's sermon was, "There are many voices in Steinbach, there are many opinions in Steinbach.

"I love Steinbach," said Allan, pointing out she and Premier Greg Selinger opened Clearspring Middle School in November as a state-of-the-art environmentally friendly school that is the envy of North America.

Allan said the government has not decided what to write into Bill 18 as the ultimate sanction for any funded school that refuses to comply with Bill 18.

Pallister said the province needs to step back before imposing legislation that's weak in focus and short on consequences.

He also revealed his own experiences as a young schoolboy and being bullied by others, including once being jabbed with a sharp pencil under his right eye by a fellow student.

"More often it was verbal abuse and things like not getting chosen for teams, getting left out at recess, the stuff of isolation and of exclusion, a perfect recipe for a lonely and unhappy boy," Pallister said. "I felt alone. I felt helpless. I understand the pain that bullying can cause."

Pallister also pointed a finger at the NDP for what he described as its sloppy handling of Bill 18 that's sparked intense debate in Manitoba's religious community at the price of shifting focus away from the well-being of children.

"It attempts to create an illusion that it is dealing with an issue that it is not," Pallister said, describing Bill 18 as a "perceptual piece of legislation."

Pallister also said Bill 18 defines bullying too broadly in that even normal interactions between students and teachers could be construed as bullying. "Pity the teacher who assigns a demanding project or evaluates critically. Feel for the coach or volunteer who puts demands on a young athlete. Have compassion for students who jeer an opposing team's foul shooter or quarterback.

"If everything can be bullying, the bill means nothing," he said.

Pallister steered away from questions about concerns Bill 18 undermines religious freedom because it includes a provision that both public and private schools accommodate any student who asks to form a gay-straight alliance in the school.

"We should be unafraid to have a debate about the efficacy of the approaches we take," he said. "We should engage openly and honestly in a full debate. That's what we're trying to help happen here, because the debate needs to shift. It needs to focus on our children and their best interests."

Pallister also said he had doubts whether compelling schools to form gay-straight alliances was a wise course of action.

"To create separate organizations within a school structure, whether that works or not, there's lots of room to debate that," he said. "I'm not sure if a tall, geeky guy club would have helped me much in my school."

Sturgeon Heights principal Ron Pelletier said it was invaluable for his school to pilot the bullying survey this year. "We know when kids are worried about their safety, they can't concentrate for long," he said. "This fear devalues our students. We learned that certain stairwells, our students stayed away from," and some immigrant students felt unwelcome, Pelletier said.

Grade 10 student Michael Rushinka said too often adults are oblivious to the problems students face. "They don't live it, so they never really understand it," he said.

"We do need help from other adults, (to) put an end to this problem for good," said Grade 10 student Lauren Slegers.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

A prayer and a pamphlet

A pamphlet handed out at a prayer meeting to protest Bill 18 that drew 1,200 people to Steinbach Christian High School Feb. 24 says the legislation violates constitutional rights to freedom of religion. It says the definitions of bullying are vague, yet so subjective the legislation will be almost impossible to enforce.

Some of the 'talking points' covered in the pamphlet:

"Bill 18 requires schools to accommodate and promote student groups that may be in direct contradiction to their faith principles (in the case of a faith-based independent school) or to community values (in the case of a public school)."

"Bill 18 impacts the constitutionally protected right of freedom of religion by requiring faith-based independent schools to accommodate and promote values in their schools that contradict their faith."

"Parents send their children, and pay tuition fees, to independent schools with the expectation of certain values and principles being upheld at the school."

"A new bill should be introduced that would protect all children from bullying, clearly define bullying, have measures to deal with bullies, provide information for parents, and not interfere with freedom of religion rights."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2013 A3

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