The tragic suicide of BC teen Amanda Todd has put the issue of bullying back into the public spot-light.
Bullying has always been a problem, but modern technology puts many new and troubling twists on an old problem. New technology allows pictures to be shared widely and quickly, and allows people to post things anonymously. It allows bullies to spread negative informative about a person, even after that person has changed schools or cities.
As with any tragedy, it is important that we draw the right lessons from this case, and work together as a society to combat bullying in the most effective way. Unfortunately, bullying has sometimes been used as an excuse to impose one-size-fits-all anti-bullying policies on schools, which actually go far beyond bullying.
For example, Ontario responded to the tragic suicide of a gay Ottawa teenager by forcing Catholic schools to allow student clubs which reject Catholic teaching on homosexuality (Gay-Straight Alliances or GSAs). This was a clear misuse of a tragedy for political purposes, since the teen in question was not attending a Catholic school and since the family of the teen testified before a legislative committee that a GSA would not have helped their son.
Bullying is a complex and long-standing problem, and the nature of its application will vary from school to school and area to area. In our view, all schools should have anti-bullying policies and protocols which work to protect students, but they need not be the same policies in each case.
For example, at a Christian school, teachers might chastise bullies or potential bullies by talking about how Jesus would view their actions. This sort of talk would obviously be inappropriate in a secular public school, but it could be very effective in a Christian environment. Concern about bullying should not lead to centralization; rather, it should lead individual schools to develop anti-bullying policies which work for their community.
In our view, school choice can play an important role in reducing the affect that bullying has on students. If a student is being bullied at one school, and finds that teachers are unable or unwilling to stop it, then they should be able to move to a different school. This can allow them to ‘start-fresh’ with a new group of people, to benefit from a more rigorous anti-bulling policy, or to enter a program where they fit in more naturally. I recently met a family who was frustrated because their son was being bullied, but was not able to change schools because of tight boundary limits in their area. This is a problem that needs to be addressed – students should always be able to change schools if their safety depends on it.
Obviously it is never a good thing if a student feels that they have to change schools to get away from a bully. It is also clear that changing schools does not always work – Amanda Todd changed schools a couple times, but was pursued to new locations online by her tormenters. (In her case, given the nature and degree of the bullying she encountered, the police probably should have gotten involved much earlier.) School choice does not solve every problem, or help in every case, but it can provide some students the space they need to make new friends and find a good support network.
At Parents for Choice in Education, we hope that schools, school districts, and governments will take the action that is appropriate at their level to address the problem of bullying in and outside of our schools. This is a complex issue, and we need to zero in on bullying itself, and make sure that these types of tragedies are not exploited as a way to take autonomy away from local schools and school districts. The government of Alberta is promising that the new Education Act (expected this fall) will include robust anti-bullying provisions. We are hopeful that these provisions will target the problem in the most effective way, and that they will not follow the lead of Ontario by using the very serious problem of bullying as a tool to pursue an unrelated agenda.