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Tough Talk on Bullying with the Minister of Education

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A few days ago I spoke with Laurel Broten, the Minister of Education in Ontario. Her office reached out to me to ask if I wanted to discuss bullying with the Minister. Would I?! You bet. The question is, does she really want to hear what I have to say? I wasn't going to hold back.

I had dealt with some pretty tough bullying issues through the years with my own kids. I tried, unsuccessfully, to appeal to the parents. I then went through the proper channels at the school, also to no avail. We got through it, but it was a real eye-opener. Over the past few years I've talked to many parents who have had children bullied and even one or two who were bullies. This is a sore subject for many families and it isn't going anywhere. So when offered the chance to talk to someone in a position to make some real changes, I jumped at it.

It is unfortunate and aggravating that many parents don't teach their children how to "play nice." And it's shocking how many bullying situations warrant the statement, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

Minister Broten and I discussed the importance of teaching kids to help when they see a child being bullied instead of simply standing by. I'd like to think more children will come to the aid of victims and I appreciate that the Ministry is working on that message. We as parents should do the same. But overall, I don't think it's the Ministry's job to teach parents how to raise their kids. I'd rather the Ministry of Education focus on dealing with bullies and those situations inside the school so that kids and parents understand this behavior will not be tolerated.

After speaking to many parents about bullying, there were three areas that came up repeatedly:

1. Special needs children
These kids are frequently victims of bullying and in some cases become bullies themselves. They need more attention in classes and teachers need more training to work with special needs kids and integrate them into classes. According to Sara Bingham of Weehands, a development program for babies, toddlers and preschool children: "The incidence of language, hearing and communication problems among young offenders is higher than for adolescents in the general population. Increased speech-language services at the school level, including the use of speech-language pathologists and communicative disorders assistants, will serve victims of bullying and potential bullies themselves."

2. Early intervention in the curriculum
One thing that struck me as I watched my kids go through kindergarten was how socially ill-prepared they were for grade school. Minister Broten agreed saying she'd like to add "Relationship" to the Three R's: Reading, Writing, 'Rrithmetic. Kids need to learn how to be inclusive, fair, respectful, and how to manage friendships. (Some adults could use that lesson too!) If kids aren't taught this at home, and incredibly many aren't, they need to learn it at school.

The reality is by the time your child enters the school system, parents are no longer the most influential person in their child's life. Kids spend the majority of their time at school among peers, so it seems natural they should learn skills about effectively managing friendships starting at an early age. If a child becomes suicidal as a result of bullying, we can all intervene (and we should) but truthfully shouldn't we have been there sooner?

3.Robust bullying protocol
What I find quite shocking is that there really isn't a mandatory process that schools follow when dealing with bullies and victims. In most schools the process, if there is one, it's confusing and inconsistent. Some schools deal with it and others don't do anything. Some schools claim they have a "zero tolerance" policy (which is not the Ministry mandate by the way).

Other schools claim to have a "three strikes and you're out" rule, which in reality is rarely implemented. On a recent Facebook discussion about bullying, one dad said the whole process is focused on the victim and the best thing the victim can do is change schools. What a massive upheaval for this poor child. Sadly, it seems to be the only solution when schools don't have processes, or, in many cases, the training to deal with bullying issues.

My goal in talking to Minister Broten was to flag these issues with her. I wanted her to know that these are serious concerns and something needs to be done. To my pleasant surprise, she agreed. She is currently working on early intervention in the curriculum. She is also working on getting more resources for special needs children and their teachers. On the third point -- process inside schools -- Minster Broten agreed there needs to be a coherent process in schools for dealing with bullies.

She was discouraged to learn that the emphasis has been on victims; specifically victims either living with being bullied or having to change schools to escape the situation. We actually discussed the concept of mandatory expulsion for bullying. In the end, what I really wanted was to ensure that Minister Broten would work with parents on developing these processes and solutions. Time will tell if that comes to fruition. Bullying in schools needs to be addressed now. It can't wait any longer.

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