03/22/2012 10:08 EDT | Updated 05/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Nova Scotia government questions call to appoint anti-bullying co-ordinator

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's education minister is challenging a recommendation to appoint a co-ordinator to oversee the government's anti-bullying strategy, saying she doesn't want another layer of bureaucracy.

The proposal comes from a task force established last April after two sets of grieving parents publicly complained that online bullying was responsible for the suicides of their teenage daughters.

Wayne MacKay, the group's chairman, issued a report Thursday with 85 recommendations, including the suggestion that a co-ordinator should be hired to make sure the province follows through on its commitments.

"It's not enough to simply add it on to some existing jobs," he said after a news conference.

The co-ordinator should have a staff to help them work with private and public partners to select the best education and awareness programs aimed at stamping out bullying, said MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"They would also have a monitoring role to assess how things are happening."

But Education Minister Ramona Jennex said her department already has people in place to do the job.

"We need to make sure we're not adding more people into an existing system," she said. "We already have people with expertise ... who can work together on how we can fulfil this mandate without more bureaucracy."

Rob Frenette, executive director of the anti-bullying group Bullying Canada, said hiring a co-ordinator is a good idea.

"My concern is that the information will get lost and forgotten about," he said in an interview from Fredericton.

He said only a few provinces have introduced anti-bullying initiatives, including New Brunswick, where the government is preparing to introduce legislation this spring.

MacKay's report also calls for provincial legislation to help tackle the problem.

The proposed Bullying Awareness and Prevention Act would define bullying under provincial law, making it an offence for students who engage in bullying and cyberbullying.

The legislation would also require teachers and other school staff to report bullying. As well, it would tell parents that it's their duty to supervise the online activities of their children.

MacKay said a section of the province's Education Act already includes duties for parents, which he admitted are not enforceable.

"The idea of putting it there is not to come down with big sanctions," he said. "It's really to send a message in the legislation that parents have an important role here."

Jennex said she would review the report before committing to any recommendations, which have no costs attached.

The report also recommends the province set up a pilot program to determine if a ban on cellphones in the classroom would help reduce cyberbullying.

MacKay stressed students could continue using the devices outside of class or if they needed one for an educational purpose or an emergency.

"It's one way to send a message to students that says, 'Life did exist before technology," he said. "Before we had computers we actually could talk to each other and behave in a somewhat civilized way."

Jennex said she wasn't interested in that idea.

"That's not an effective way to solve any problem," she said.

"I don't think that a ban would be appropriate because cellphones now are pretty well part of most young people's things that they have with them."

Alexis Allen, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, took exception to a recommendation that says teacher performance appraisals should include a category for maintaining discipline, including bullying issues.

"If the teacher isn't able to correct the issue within the classroom ... then it will go on the performance appraisal," she said. "But if it's a collective (responsibility), then it's not up to one teacher."