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This article was published 15/3/2013 (1473 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
To supporters of Manitoba's new anti-bullying legislation, Bill 18 is a vital tool to reduce harassment, violence and social isolation among kids in school.
To opponents, the NDP government is engaging in dangerous social engineering and may be limiting the constitutional freedom of religious groups.
The firestorm over the proposed legislation has made bullying one of the most contentious issues facing the provincial government right now.
Bullying, of course, is not the central facet of the Bill 18 controversy -- it's the opposition to the idea of schools creating gay-straight alliances.
But the firestorm has placed the creation of anti-bullying policies under a microscope, exposing what experts do and do not know about a very old phenomenon.
Anecdotally, bullying has been present in schools as long as schools have existed.
Young human beings occasionally do live down to the Hobbesian notion of a nasty and brutish state of nature.
But the actual prevalence of bullying is difficult to discern, which is important considering school divisions and education ministries across Canada are devoting resources toward the creation of anti-bullying policies and programs.
Practically every parent, teacher and administrator believes bullying is a problem, based on what they hear from their children or students.
Extreme cases such as such as the 1997 beating murder of Reena Virk in Saanich, B.C., and the 2012 suicide of cyber-bullied Port Coquitlam, B.C., teen Amanda Todd only reinforce this perception.
But nobody really knows how often bullying takes place or the severity of the average incident.
This is partly because of the difficulty in defining bullying -- but also because researchers are only beginning to study the phenomenon in a rigorous manner.
Some of the best data about bullying belong to the Canadian Public Health Association, which has conducted several nationwide surveys of students. In 2010, a survey of approximately 26,000 Canadian students found three in four had some involvement in bullying -- as a victim, perpetrator or both.
Creating a picture of bullying in Manitoba is more problematic.
"To date, we don't have any data that's specific to Manitoba," said Mary Hall, director of Safe Schools Manitoba, a quasi-non-governmental agency.
For starters, Manitoba Education and Literacy does not keep any form of systematic track of bullying.
"The department knows, based on feedback from students, parents and teachers, that (bullying) occurs," spokesman Joe Czech said in a statement.
As well, the vast majority of Manitoba school divisions have no means of quantifying the prevalence and severity of bullying incidents.
Some, such as Seven Oaks School Division, infer bullying incidents from the number of suspensions. Others make no attempt at all.
The star exception on the data-gathering front is St. James-Assiniboia School Division, which has conducted two "safe schools" surveys of all of its students since 2009.
The results of its most recent survey, unveiled at a public forum on Wednesday afternoon, suggest roughly half of St. James-Assiniboia's students have been bullied at some point.
The lack of any baseline data led St. James-Assiniboia to launch the survey, which garnered responses from 6,731 of the division's approximately 8,500 students, said chief superintendent Ron Weston.
"That's what really prompted our survey. 'How do we know this stuff?' " said Weston. "Are our anti-bullying programs effective. Are we presenting the right programs? We don't know unless we learn more."
Weston, who is keen to tell Winnipeggers the vast majority of the students in his division do in fact feel safe at school, is quick to note the limitations of the survey.
"It's only somewhat scientific, as students are self-reporting the behaviour," he said.
A much more ambitious attempt to gather data will be launched this fall, when grades 4 to 12 students in all Manitoba schools will be invited to take part in a national online survey called Tell Them From Me.
Like the St. James-Assiniboia surveys, the national questionnaire will ask how often bullying takes place, in what locations and how students respond, among other questions.
"That'll be a really useful bank of data that will give us the nature, the quantity and the prevalence of bullying," said Safe Schools director Hall, who describes the establishment of baseline data as extremely important.
"As we continue to implement programs and policies, when we administer the survey again, over time we should be able to see the (effectiveness of) all the initiatives we put together."
A national standard is important, as the definition of bullying can vary from student to student or region to region.
In general terms, bullying can be defined as "repeated, hurtful words or actions by an individual or group with intent to harm others," to quote the definition employed by Pembina Trails School Division. But that definition remains open to a variety of interpretations.
"The difficulty for the term 'bullying' is it encapsulates a broad range of behaviours," said Brian O'Leary, superintendent of Seven Oaks School Division.
Traditionally, schools readily recognized physical and verbal bullying. More recently, electronic bullying -- that is, threats or abuse transmitted via text, email, websites or social media -- has risen to prominence to point where it has served as a source of moral panic.
"The online stuff intensifies bullying in a way that makes it worse than it used to be. And there's a record of it, whereas where someone did it by passing a note or phoning friends, there would not be," O'Leary notes.
There is also what's known as social or relational bullying, where students are excluded from activities or isolated through means that may not involve any overt communication.
The complexity of the definitions has led to fears common forms of adolescent communication -- for example, sexual jokes or playground teasing -- will be defined as deviant behaviour, creating a chilling effect in classrooms and playgrounds.
While no parent or teacher questions the idea bullying is a problem, the fact remains tragedies on the scale of the Virk and Todd cases remain rare.
"Those very serious, severe incidents are isolated," Hall said. "But at the same time, when they do occur, they shake us to our core."
Wondering where the bullies are
Attempts to quantify the incidence of bullying in Manitoban schools:
St. James-Assiniboia School Division
The only Winnipeg school division to try to monitor bullying is St. James-Assiniboia, which has conducted two "safe schools" surveys since 2009.
During the 2011-12 school year, 6,731 out of 8,500 students in the division participated in the questionnaire, which asked whether students had witnessed bullying, taken part in bullying or had been bullied themselves -- and where the incidents took place, among other questions.
Here are some of the findings, presented to parents and students at a forum on Wednesday:
Percentage of students who see bullying and/or harassment as a problem
Serious problem: 7.6 per cent
Moderate problem: 17.6 per cent
Minor problem: 42.3 per cent
Not a problem: 32.4 per cent
Percentage of students who say they have been bullied
Grades 6-12: 53 per cent
Grades 3-5: 53.9 per cent
Kindergarten to Grade 2: 30.5 per cent
Three most common types of bullying
Grades 6-12: Verbal, electronic and physical
Grades 3-5: Verbal, social and physical
How often have you been bullied?
Not been bullied: 46.2 per cent
Once or twice: 32.4 per cent
Several times: 16.6 per cent
All the time: 4.9 per cent
How often have you bullied others?
Have not bullied: 58.6 per cent
Once or twice: 20.4 per cent
Several times: 7.5 per cent
Top four locations where bullying is most likely to occur (grades 3-5)
1. Playground or field: 44.2 per cent
2. Classrooms: 13.9 per cent
3. Gym or change room: 10.7 per cent
4. Hallways: 9.4 per cent
Canadian Public Health Association
In 2010, the Canadian Public Health Association surveyed approximately 26,000 students in 436 Canadian schools. The results of its research were published in 2012.
Incidence of bullying
Students who were bullied: 22 per cent
Students who bullied others: 12 per cent
Students who were both perpetrators and victims: 41 per cent
Students with no involvement in bullying: 25 per cent