Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Let's move from awareness to change

Welcome to the second day of bullying awareness week.
From statements from ministers to pledge drives, to twitter hastags we keep talking about bullying-- a term that is so overused it's lost some meaning as what it truly is: harassment.
With schools often leading the way, boy have we taken on bullying. Well, awareness of this form of harassment. I think every kid in any of our school systems has most certainly heard what this behaviour is, even if they weren't listening or understanding it.
But, as Moira MacDonald asked this past weekend, the evidence on the impact of these many awareness programs and activities is scant.
While revisions to the Education and Safe Schools acts now require board in Ontario to conduct periodic scans of their student body to look at where students feel safe and don't, I'm only aware of one board that took it to the extent the Thames Valley DSB did back in 2004-05, after the death of 14-year-old Strathroy student Joshua Melo.
That board surveyed every high school student in its (then) 30 high schools, some 17,000 or so kids, asking them where they feel safe, where they don't. It identified a definition and then asked several questions on how teens responded to this behaviour.
Overall (and going from memory) the responses could be troubling. In this first survey, the responses showed one in 10 students didn't feel safe at school. Social and peer acceptance along with a fear of recrimination were the leading answers for why students didn't report being bullied or witnessing it.
Remarkably, the board also surveyed every one of its Grade 4-8 students the following year. Then, it surveyed everyone in all age groups again-- spotting some slight improvements in the responses received. Some of the programs put into place were credited with helping, most notably the TRIBES program which is now widely used across Ontario.
Now some will continue to be critical of this board and others because students are still being harassed and the overall culture within some schools and communities hasn't moved. Rightly so in those cases where an appropriate, reasoned response isn't being put in place by the school and supported by the larger community around it.
As mentioned earlier in this space, changing this behaviour of harassment is going to require more than words and pledges, as well-intentioned as they may be. It means accepting that this behaviour is prevalent across our entire society. That it's woven into our fabric, particularly in sports, political and business worlds.
Is this the generation we're raising that will guide its children away from these attitudes and behaviours? It'll take 30 years to know.
So take your pledges (I did), learn your lingo, wear your ribbons (where available) and tsk tsk in shame every time you hear of bullying. Then ask yourself whether you're actually prepared to do more. Ask whether you'd be willing to accept a consequence
Look around you for this harassment in your circles-- I guarantee you'll find it. Would you do something to change it? Would you be accountable for your own actions and behaviours if you were the harasser?
Until more of our answers start changing on those questions, I fear all the awareness in the world won't effect the change we all say is needed.