Bullying is deeply hurtful to students and destructive to the culture of schools. All forms of bullying, whether verbal, physical or electronic, often leave painful scars that take considerable time to heal. Tragically, some victims of bullying, such as British Columbia teen Amanda Todd, commit suicide because of the pain.
Fortunately, the public is becoming more aware of the harm that bullying causes. In the past, bullying was often dismissed as a minor issue, but today school officials and the general public take it much more seriously. In fact, Manitobans no longer consider hazing an acceptable rite of passage in schools or clubs.
Several provinces, including Manitoba, have decided to redress school bullying with legislation. But, to be effective, the legislation must satisfy two fundamental criteria: It must define bullying accurately, and it must respect existing rights and freedoms. Sadly, the Manitoba government's proposed Bill 18, Safe and Inclusive Schools, meets neither of these requirements.
Specifically, Section 1.2(1) defines bullying as behaviour that "is intended to cause, or should be known to cause, fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other forms of harm to another person's body, feelings, self-esteem, reputation or property." This definition is so encompassing that if students inadvertently hurt another student's feelings with a single off-handed quip they could be charged with bullying.
Compare this definition with North Dakota's law that describes bullying as conduct "so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive that it substantially interferes with the student's educational opportunities or benefits" and "places a student in actual and reasonable fear of harm to the student's person or... property." North Dakota's definition makes it clear that bullying is harassment and not off-handed comments.
By contrast, Manitoba's Bill 18 places hurtful, but inadvertent, comments on the same level as severe physical and verbal abuse. This confusion makes it more difficult for school administrators to use common sense and to ensure that any disciplinary measures are appropriate and effective. Some forms of student interaction are more damaging than others, and the law must reflect these differences.
The other problem with this bill is that it threatens religious freedom. Specifically, Bill 18 requires all schools, including independent faith-based schools, to facilitate student groups that may undermine the schools' religious values. In its enthusiasm to stamp out bullying, the Manitoba government appears prepared to run roughshod over the right of private religious schools to uphold their faith.
If this sounds eerily familiar, look at what happened last year in Ontario. The McGuinty government's Bill 13, Accepting Schools Act, contained a similar provision mandating specific student groups in schools. Despite strong opposition from Catholic school boards, the government passed the legislation, ignoring their concerns.
Obviously, some people will say that since some faith-based schools receive government funding, they should accept Bill 18 without question. However, the acceptance of funding should not eliminate the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. Many parents, in fact, choose faith-based schools specifically because of the school's values.
Until now, the Manitoba government has been careful to respect the religious freedoms of faith-based schools. But, public opposition to Bill 18 continues to grow. A website has recently been set up by opponents of Bill 18 (protectourschools.ca), which has resulted in hundreds of emails being sent to provincial politicians.
The issue of bullying is too important to be dealt with by poorly written legislation. Hopefully, the government recognizes the serious problems with Bill 18 and drafts a law that does a better job of defining bullying and respecting religious freedoms.
We need an anti-bullying law, but we need one that all Manitobans can support.
Rodney A. Clifton and John C. Long are co-authors of the book What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them. Clifton is senior fellow with the Frontier Centre and Long is a senior scholar at the University of Manitoba.