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The role that bystanders have to play in Ontario's anti-bullying push

A scene from the 2008 movie Drillbit Tayor, in which three children hire a low-budget bodyguard to protect them from the playground bully.

Suzanne Hanover/Suzanne Hanover

As the issue of bullying continues to make headlines and Ontario schools prepare for tougher anti-bullying rules, the proposed legislation is being criticized for not addressing the role of bystanders – the responsibility of the witnesses to report what they are seeing and discourage it.

On Wednesday, students across the country will wear pink shirts in an annual ritual to show they don't tolerate bullying. But the challenge is figuring out how to bring real change every day of the year. If there's a chance, it will be through a whole-school approach that moves beyond the bullies and motivates the bystanders, experts say.

Eric Roher, a lawyer who advises Southern Ontario schools, said he wants the province to address the role and responsibility of the students who witness bullying.

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"The bystander plays a critical role in this complex dynamic," Mr. Roher told a recent conference of teachers and administrators. "We need to empower the bystander to say 'no' and to defuse the bully or to report the incident to someone – an adult – that they trust."

Even if only a handful of students are directly involved in bullying, chances are most have seen it. Canadian research suggests that 85 per cent of bullying incidents are witnessed by other students. But bystanders only try to stop the bullying between 11 and 22 per cent of the time.

The Accepting Schools Act went to second reading in December and was expected to go to committee this month. It calls for consequences up to expulsion, new policies on bullying prevention and intervention, and school progress reports. It goes further than current rules requiring staff to report serious student incidents, contact parents and consider suspending offenders. If the proposed act is passed, boards will need to toughen their policies by September.

Last October, the Toronto Catholic District School Board added the role of "bystander" to its existing anti-bullying policy. But Mr. Roher said he's yet to see bystander responsibility recognized in the same way by the province.

Although the proposed legislation doesn't directly mention bystanders, Minister of Education Laurel Broten said reaching out to them is exactly what it sets out to do. Specifics about exactly how bystanders will be addressed will be determined by a panel of experts that haven't been selected yet, she said in an interview.

"We know that it's about changing behaviour, it's about teaching kids to make the right decision," Ms. Broten said. "We're going to get the expertise from the best experts that we have as a province."

It hasn't been decided whether certain anti-bullying programs that motivate bystanders to come forward will be recommended provincewide or if boards will make their own choices. But Ms. Broten pointed to Roots of Empathy, a program that brings babies to classrooms to teach kids kindness, as an example of a way to change a school environment.

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In the past three years, there have been a "rash of lawsuits" claiming schools have been negligent in bullying cases, Mr. Roher said.

One of the largest ongoing cases was filed against the Bluewater District School Board in 2010 and alleges teachers, principals and the board did not do enough to intervene in bullying by teachers and students. Four separate suits, containing allegations that haven't been proven in court, seek a total of $34-million in damages. Similar cases have been reported in Waterloo, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Toronto.

"Not only are these prevention steps important because pedagogically they're the right thing to do but, my point is, legally they will minimize legal exposure and minimize legal liability," he said.

Bullying researcher Debra Pepler, a York University professor and psychologist, said the bystander issue is getting more attention now because of online bullying. To combat the fear of being a "rat" or becoming the next victim, she said students need to know adults will back them up.

Bullying generally happens where adults aren't, she said, including hallways, bathrooms and online. "It's a social event," she said, noting that bystanders can be key to getting adults involved and are particularly helpful in cases of cyber-bullying.

Bullying can be like theatre because the bully wants an audience and support, Dr. Pepler said. Once bystanders express their discontent with a situation, being mean loses its appeal. Research suggests bullying stops quickly more than half the time if a bystander intervenes, she said.

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