TORONTO - Thousands of students from Canada's largest and most diverse school board vowed Wednesday to take a stand against bullying as educators grapple with what they consider a pervasive and potentially deadly problem.
Roughly 9,000 Toronto-area children from Grade 2 to Grade 8 packed into Ricoh Coliseum and publicly pledged to "make it better right now" for those targeted by bullies.
"It's a huge issue that impacts every school throughout the whole district," said Chris Spence, director of education for the Toronto District School Board, which serves more than 250,000 students.
Spence said the event kicks off a broader campaign to promote tolerance in schools and tackle an insidious problem that affects up to one in three students.
"The real work is going to happen in their schools. This is just a catalyst for the conversations and the programs that we already know are happening in our schools."
The campaign follows a number of suicides by children and teens who were bullied.
The deaths have brought the issue of bullying into the spotlight and the Ontario government has recently introduced anti-bullying legislation.
The bill would require that schools take action to prevent bullying, intervene when appropriate and punish offenders.
Meanwhile, a west-end Toronto high school captured international attention last month after pop superstar Lady Gaga delivered a personalized message of support to students who held an assembly against bullying and homophobia.
That assembly inspired Wednesday's rally, organizers said.
Jacques St. Pierre, the student behind the assembly at the Etobicoke School of the Arts, said he hopes the larger event will spread the chart-topping singer's message.
"I think if (the students) really understand the message and it really affects them and makes them feel differently about bullying ... then when they're in high school, things will be so much better for all the kids there," he said.
Raffi Sekdorian took his Grade 7 class to the rally, which featured a mix of student performances and popular acts such as the band Neverest.
Sekdorian, who teaches at Bowmore Road Junior and Senior Public School, said it's important to involve students of all ages in anti-bullying efforts.
"The focus used to be kind of in the middle years around Grades 4, 5, 6," he said.
"There's things happening in Grade 2 that I think it's very important to deal with and I think that's what this event shows."
The message seemed to resonate with even the younger members of the crowd.
After several hours of presentations and performances, one main lesson stuck with eight-year-old Sebastian Dorata, a Grade 4 student.
"(Bullying) is the worst thing that could ever happen to you, nobody likes it," he said.
"If I would see bullying, I would tell them to cut it out. They shouldn't be doing that."