02/17/2013 03:30 EST | Updated 04/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Author of report on cyberbullying pressing Nova Scotia to take action

HALIFAX - Almost a year after a cyberbullying task force issued a report with 85 recommendations for the Nova Scotia government, the author of the study says the province has lost its enthusiasm for combatting an insidious problem.

"They're taking it seriously and I appreciate that," said Wayne MacKay, a law professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax. "But I ... don't feel that there is as much urgency to deal with some of the recommendations."

In particular, MacKay said he's concerned the province's newly hired anti-bullying co-ordinator, Kathleen Richard, is spending too much time collecting data rather than focusing on finding anti-bullying programs that can be used in schools.

As well, MacKay says he's heard nothing about the province's efforts to implement another key recommendation: adding courses on so-called digital citizenship to the curriculum.

"A lot of young people don't have a sense of what's appropriate or inappropriate in online activity," said MacKay.

"Part of what we have to do in a preventive way is to make students more sensitive to the proper use of the Internet and the hugely negative consequences of abusing their power on the Internet."

MacKay's task force was established in April 2011 after two sets of grieving parents publicly blamed online bullying for the suicides of their teenage daughters.

Education Minister Ramona Jennex insisted in an interview that her department has been working diligently on a plan that will be released soon.

"We haven't stopped work," she said. "There's been an awful lot going on in terms of what's happening in schools."

Addressing MacKay's concerns, Jennex said Richard has been compiling information on the best anti-bullying programs. And the minister said MacKay's call for a digital citizenship course is already being addressed in the classroom.

"Teachers have the resources to present to their students .... how to be safe on the Internet and how to practise digital hygiene," she said.

On another front, Jennex said the government has spent $138,000 on anti-bullying public awareness campaign that included a new website and advertising campaign.

Jennex said the government has also introduced regulations that spell out definitions for bullying and cyberbullying, which enable those involved in anti-bullying work to be consistent when reporting incidents.

Last October, Jennex introduced amendments to the Education Act defining the roles of all school staff in reporting incidents of severely disruptive behaviour, including bullying.

"It's not just for teachers and principals to respond," Jennex said, adding the Richard is already working with bus drivers and custodians on what to look for and how to report bullying.

MacKay commended Jennex for the legislative changes, but he said they don't go far enough.

He said there should be legislation that would make bullying a separate offence under the law, and the jurisdiction of school boards should be extended off-premises and after hours to deal with bullying incidents that affect the school.

"This is not a radical or wild idea," said MacKay, noting that Ontario has such a law on the books to deal with cyberbullying, which typically happens off school grounds.

Liberal critic Karen Casey said the province's new regulations are toothless appendages to existing legislation.

"It didn't translate into any concrete action," she said, adding that the NDP government ignored her attempts to add an amendment that would see the province asking Ottawa to add cyberbullying to the Criminal Code.

Casey, a former principal and education minister, also said legislation should be introduced to allow principals to ask Internet providers to suspend service for students caught cyberbullying.

"After a year, I feel that we've not made any progress," Casey said. "It seems that the minister just doesn't get it."