12/07/2012 02:57 EST | Updated 02/06/2013 05:12 EST

Anti-bullying strategies varied across Canada but success elusive

VANCOUVER - Lindsey Belaire was adopted. She was a short kid who was a little bit chubby and had curly hair.

In other words, Belaire's bullies — a group of six or seven cruel girls who followed her from grade to grade at their elementary school in Winnipeg — thought they had plenty to work with.

"There was a lot of 'Orphan Annie,' 'fat,' 'ugly.' 'Popcorn head' was a popular one," recalls Belaire, now 23 and living in Edmonton.

"They had their eyes set on making my life a living hell. If I was in school, they would be there harassing me."

When she finally told her mother what was happening, her mom phoned the school and demanded something be done. The principal's solution was to sit Belaire and the bullies together in a room one lunch hour a week to talk about their problems.

"It didn't help," says Belaire. "The rest of that year and the next year were five times worse than before he came up with this brilliant idea."

Belaire watches the current anti-bullying debate — too often fuelled by the latest teen suicide in the news — and wonders why it's taken so long.

Politicians are falling over themselves to promote anti-bullying strategies and laws, with formal policies now in place in half a dozen provinces and under development in others.

Those policies, often vastly different from one another, reflect the struggle to understand why children bully while keeping up with a phenomenon that is quickly moving online.

Belaire, who says years of bullying have left her with anxiety and depression, lived through that evolution onto the Internet. By junior high, she was fending off attacks through social media and text message.

She felt she had few options.

"After what I went through in elementary, when I had such a bad experience getting help, I thought, 'What's the point?'" says Belaire, who currently works as an office administrator and is preparing to enter a writing course in Edmonton.

The debate around bullying has reached new prominence in recent months following the suicide of 15-year-old Amanda Todd, a Vancouver-area teen who was sexually exploited online and subsequently bullied. There have been vigils and bullying conferences and promises from politicians to do more.

In Nova Scotia, several teen suicides, including the death of 15-year-old Jenna Bowers-Bryanton, prompted the province to launch a cyberbullying task force. A report released earlier this year included 85 recommendations, including the creation of a provincial anti-bullying co-ordinator — a position that was filled in September.

Quebec's anti-bullying law, announced earlier this year, was prompted in part by the suicide of 15-year-old bullying victim Marjorie Raymond.

And in Ontario, the death of 15-year-old Jamie Hubley, an openly gay student who killed himself last year, helped inspire that province's bullying legislation.

Some provinces and school boards focus on curriculum designed to foster empathy among students. Nova Scotia, for example, has put half a million dollars into bullying programs modelled after restorative justice initiatives, designed to show bullies the impact of their actions.

Other policies take a more punitive approach. Alberta has billed its new anti-bullying legislation as the toughest in the country, though some critics have complained that even bystanders could be punished if they don't report incidents of bullying.

Some require provincewide oversight through a central anti-bullying office, while others leave much of the implementation to local boards and schools.

The wide variation between policies might not necessarily be a bad thing, says University of British Columbia professor Shelley Hymel, as long as governments and schools are adopting strategies based on evidence and then measuring their performance.

"There are many different approaches used; different approaches will work with different kids," says Hymel.

"I, for one, applaud the diversity that's happening, but we have to evaluate whether what we're doing is making a difference."

Bullying and cyberbullying are widespread in Canadian schools.

A study funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada surveyed 26,000 students in 2010 and found 75 per cent reported being involved in bullying in some way.

The survey found 22 per cent of those students said they'd been a victim of bullying, 12 per cent said they had bullied others and another 41 per cent said they had been on both sides, having bullied other students while also being bullied themselves. Similar results were found in 2002 and 2006.

Hymel says it's a myth that bullying is simply the work of a handful of problem children. More than half of students who identify as bullies are "socially intelligent, high-status, popular kids" who are likely using bullying as a way to hold power over their peers.

Current research suggests restorative approaches that seek to teach children the impact of bullying work better than policies that focus on punishments such as suspensions and expulsions, says Hymel. Telling kids to fight back against the bullies tends to make things worse. Ensuring the parents are part of the response tends to make them better.

But even then, researchers have yet to find the miracle cure. Hymel notes that even the best strategies typically only lead to a 17 to 23 per cent reduction in bullying when implemented in schools.

"In a sense, we still don't know the best method," she says. "Anyone who says they have the answer, don't listen to them, because there is not one answer. "

Whatever the solution, governments and school boards need to ask students themselves what they think, says Jennifer Yoon, president of the Vancouver District Students' Council, a coalition of student councils.

Yoon confronted B.C. Premier Christy Clark at a recent anti-bullying event, chiding the politician for not approaching her group sooner and raising her own concerns that issues faced by gay and lesbian students haven't been more prominent in the province's response.

"I think it's absolutely crucial" to include students, says Yoon, who adds those sorts of discussions could help tailor anti-bullying strategies at individual schools. "Each school's atmosphere is different, and one cookie-cutter approach won't help everyone."

Legislation is becoming the bedrock of provincial governments' responses to bullying.

Such laws don't turn bullying into a new crime, but instead create legal definitions for bullying and place requirements on governments and school officials to report and respond.

Ontario's Accepting Schools Act, for example, requires principals to investigate when a case of bullying is reported and notify the parents of both the victim and the bully. The law also outlines training requirements for teachers and requires school boards to conduct routine "school climate surveys" to track the problem.

Putting anti-bullying policies into law is important, says Wayne MacKay, who chaired the Nova Scotia government's cyberbullying task force.

"At a symbolic level, I think the law has an important role — it tells you what you think is important and what needs to be addressed," says MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"More practically, it needs to be defined so you can measure it and report it. It needs to be defined as unacceptable conduct that either requires restorative approaches, peer mediation or ultimately some kind of suspension or something like that, as a last resort."

MacKay's report includes a recommendation that Nova Scotia's justice minister press his federal counterpart to examine whether the Criminal Code needs new provisions for bullying and cyberbullying.

MacKay says the courts should be involved in bullying cases only when other options have failed to address the problem. But he says in serious cases that do require the force of the criminal justice system, there needs to be a debate about whether current laws against harassment, assault and uttering threats are adequate to deal with bullying.

"It may be that the existing provisions are fine, as long as they are appropriately applied," he says.

"Whether we actually need, for symbolic or other reasons, to have a separate crime of bullying or cyberbullying is very much debated at the moment."

There have been several high-profile cases in which the issue of bullying has collided with the courts.

As recently as October, police in London, Ont., announced they had arrested and charged eight teen girls with criminal harassment after a student was the target of physical and emotional bullying in-person and online. In Nova Scotia, a teen girl has launched a defamation lawsuit over a fake Facebook profile about her. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in September the girl can remain anonymous, describing the case as "sexualized online bullying."

Wendy Craig, a bullying expert from Queen's University, says she's encouraged by the recent anti-bullying push after decades in which the issue was effectively ignored.

However, she worries the attention may be short-lived. Schools that enthusiastically tackle the issue today may lose interest over time, and this year's focus on bullying may soon be replaced by the next hot-button issue.

"That was the thing in the year 2012, but now in 2013, maybe we've moved onto healthy eating, so there's not as much commitment to the program," says Craig, the scientific co-director of PREVNet, which promotes evidence-based approaches to bullying.

"That means people start moving away from what the program is designed to do and the effect gets smaller and smaller over time."

Belaire, the 23-year-old who was bullied while growing up in Winnipeg, says she never saw the problem improve during her school career and she isn't sure it has in the more than five years since she graduated.

She says she hopes the renewed focus on bullying, among politicians and in the media, finally prompts meaningful change for students who are now facing what she once did.

"I saw the Amanda Todd story and that was kind of my breaking point," she says.

"That was the point where I said, 'I've seen enough kids kill themselves because they've been tortured. This happened to me.' It's been 18 years since I started school, and in the past 18 years, nobody has come up with anything to help this problem. It's an epidemic."