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New focus on bullying tries to find solutions

Provincial laws aim to curb problems in wake of suicides

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VANCOUVER -- Lindsey Belaire was adopted. She was short, a little bit chubby and had curly hair.

Belaire's bullies -- a group of six or seven cruel girls who followed her from grade to grade at their elementary school in Winnipeg -- thought they had plenty to work with.

"There was a lot of 'Orphan Annie,' 'fat,' 'ugly.' 'Popcorn head' was a popular one," recalls Belaire, now 23 and living in Edmonton. "They had their eyes set on making my life a living hell. If I was in school, they would be there harassing me."

When she finally told her mother what was happening, her mom phoned the school. The principal's solution was to sit Belaire and the bullies together in a room one lunch hour a week to talk about their problems.

"It didn't help," says Belaire. "The rest of that year and the next year were five times worse than before he came up with this brilliant idea."

Politicians are promoting anti-bullying strategies and laws, with formal policies now in place in half a dozen provinces and under development in others.

Those policies, often vastly different, reflect the struggle to understand why children bully, while keeping up with a phenomenon that is quickly moving online.

Belaire lived through the evolution onto the Internet. By junior high, she was fending off attacks through social media and text message. She felt she had few options.

"After what I went through in elementary, when I had such a bad experience getting help, I thought, 'What's the point?'"

The debate around bullying has reached new prominence following the suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd, a Vancouver-area teen who was sexually exploited online and subsequently bullied. There have been vigils and bullying conferences and promises from politicians to do more.

The Manitoba government introduced an anti-bullying action plan on Tuesday with a focus on protecting kids at school and on the Internet.

"What we want to do is up our game," Education Minister Nancy Allan said. "Everyone is responsible, so if we see bullying, there is a responsibility to report that."

The province's plan gives more resources to kids, teachers and parents when dealing with bullying issues, and has new provisions to protect students from cyber-bullying.

In Nova Scotia, several teen suicides, including that of Jenna Bowers-Bryanton, 15, prompted the province to launch a cyberbullying task force. A report was released earlier this year.

Quebec's law, announced earlier this year, was prompted in part by the suicide of Marjorie Raymond, 15.

In Ontario, the 2011 suicide of 15-year-old Jamie Hubley, who was openly gay, helped inspire bullying legislation.

Some provinces focus on curriculum designed to foster empathy among students. Nova Scotia has put half a million dollars into programs modelled after restorative-justice initiatives designed to show bullies the impact of their actions.

Other policies take a punitive approach. Alberta has billed its anti-bullying legislation the toughest in the country.

Some require provincewide oversight through a central anti-bullying office, while others leave much of the implementation to local boards and schools.

Bullying and cyberbullying are widespread in Canadian schools. A study funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada surveyed 26,000 students in 2010 and found 75 per cent reported being involved in bullying in some way.

The survey found 22 per cent said they'd been a victim of bullying, 12 per cent said they had bullied others and another 41 per cent said they had been on both sides.

Current research suggests restorative approaches that seek to teach children the impact of bullying work better than policies that focus on punishments such as suspensions and expulsions, says University of British Columbia Prof. Shelley Hymel. Telling kids to fight back against the bullies tends to make things worse. Ensuring the parents are part of the response tends to make them better. But even the best strategies typically only lead to a 17 to 23 per cent reduction in bullying when implemented in schools, Hymel says.

Belaire says she hopes the renewed focus on bullying finally prompts meaningful change.

"I saw the Amanda Todd story and that was kind of my breaking point," she says. "That was the point where I said, 'I've seen enough kids kill themselves because they've been tortured. This happened to me.' It's been 18 years since I started school, and in the past 18 years, nobody has come up with anything to help this problem. It's an epidemic."


-- The Canadian Press, with staff file

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 A4

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