02/26/2014 04:58 EST | Updated 04/28/2014 05:59 EDT

New Manitoba school code of conduct pushes discussion over punishment

WINNIPEG - The Manitoba government has revealed its long-awaited code of conduct for schools as part of an anti-bullying strategy announced over a year ago.

But the document released Wednesday stops short of imposing specific penalties for offences. Principals and other school officials will continue to have the discretion to decide what, if any, punishment should be handed down.

"Those people on the ground — who can use professional discretion, who know the kids involved, who know the context — need to be able to have the authority and the responsibility to make those appropriate disciplinary decisions," said David Yeo, the province's director of education administration services.

The 18-page code outlines many existing policies, including a definition of bullying developed by the province in 2012 that was criticized by some as being too vague. The definition includes hurting a student's feelings.

The Opposition Progressive Conservatives have said the vague wording could make a "bully" out of a teacher who fails a student or a coach who cuts a student from a school team.

What's new in the code are 15 defined interventions or punishments principals can enact. Until now, those measures have varied between school divisions.

The measures run a range from informal discussion to detention to expulsion. The code says the aim is to "emphasize positive and proactive strategies that foster student learning, as opposed to punitive and reactive strategies."

The code does not toughen the existing law governing when parents are alerted. It says parents of a bullied child need only be notified if the child is harmed.

The NDP government faced strong criticism from some quarters soon after it launched its anti-bullying strategy in the fall of 2012.

Some conservative religious groups were upset over a new law that requires schools, including publicly funded faith-based schools, to accommodate students who want to establish gay-straight alliances. Supporters said the law would go a long way toward promoting diversity and tolerance.

The government has been looking more recently at other anti-bullying measures, including an anonymous tip line similar to one established in British Columbia. The phone line would allow victims of bullying to come forward without identifying themselves.

Education Minister James Allum said the new code is aimed at ensuring students in all school divisions feel protected.

"What we've done is try to make a statement that, provincewide, bullying is unacceptable in our schools and we need to prevent it."