Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bullying is a crime -- treat it that way

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OTTAWA -- Fifteen-year-old Amanda Todd's face peeks out over the top of the hand-printed note cards.

Most of her face is obscured but you can still see in her face the pain and suffering she endured as she tells her story in a video she posted on YouTube one month ago.

The B.C. teenager has become the latest poster child for bullying victims and teenage suicide. She took her own life last week after enduring years of torment by her peers.

There is the inevitable outpouring of grief for her family, the outcry against bullying, the calls for action.

Today, MPs will begin debate on a motion from NDP MP Dany Morin. The motion, introduced months ago, calls for a non-partisan, all-party committee to be established to study the issue of bullying and create a national bullying prevention strategy.

It couldn't be more timely, given the attention Todd's death has generated.

But is another government study going to solve the problem?

The Senate standing committee on human rights launched a study of cyber-bullying last December. Its final report to Parliament, and a report for teachers and students it hopes to post online, are expected this fall.

In Ontario and Quebec, anti-bullying legislation was introduced and passed last year after other high-profile suicide deaths of bullied teens.

Manitoba has anti-bullying language in its 2004 Safe Schools Charter.

In 2008, a University of Toronto study on cyber-bullying found one in five students in 33 Toronto schools reported being bullied online in the previous three months. That included name calling, rumours, someone pretending to be them online, threats and sexual harassment.

More than one-third of the students surveyed admitted to being a bully online, but only one-quarter of that group also admitted to bullying offline.

That, according to several experts, is proof positive the Internet gives people a forum to behave in ways they would not in their so-called real lives.

One frightening finding in the study is just one in four of the students knew that information or photos they post online can stay there forever. The same number thought the information was gone if they deleted it themselves and 41 per cent had no idea how long it would remain in cyberspace.

Amanda Todd could have told them. The image of her partly naked that she shared when she was just 12 years old never disappeared. It was used to torment her again and again.

Her first attacker used it to try to blackmail her into doing more things or risk the photo being released. When she refused, he made good on the promise and sent it to her friends. That started a years-long bullying and ostracizing endeavour from which Amanda never recovered. She changed schools twice and the attacks followed her.

Kids often do things adults roll their eyes about. We wonder how they could be so gullible. The answer is that it's because they're kids. They don't yet have the maturity or world experience to handle things the way adults think they should. Besides, how do we arm kids better to handle the technology many parents don't understand themselves? How many parents have sat down with their kids and taught them how to use Twitter or Facebook properly rather than the other way around?

Then there is the issue of punishment. What becomes of Amanda's tormenters? What happens to the person who convinced her to bare herself on a webcam and then stalked her for years? What happens to the kids who posted online that they were glad Amanda tried to kill herself the first time and hoped she would be better at it the next time?

Is another round of government hand-wringing going to decide how to deal with this behaviour so the consequences become a deterrent? So that bullying is not seen as something the "cool kids" do?

The RCMP are investigating. It remains to be seen whether there are laws that allow for them to charge any of the bullies with anything.

Morin's motion calls for the national strategy to focus on prevention rather than criminalization.

Certainly preventing crime in the first place is a noble pursuit, but all the awareness days and education tool kits and pink-shirt-wearing anti-bullying weeks aren't going to be enough if the behaviour itself isn't severely punished.

We need more days to teach kids how to deal with it, and we need laws and policies that see bullying for what it is.

A crime.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2012 A7

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