Well, another summer ends, and another school year begins. And, there is amongst educators, as always with the approaching of autumn, a sense of excitement, worry, and contemplation. “What changes”, teachers ask themselves, “will this year bring?”
Change is certainly in the wind. Last year’s media firestorm around the tragic death of Rehtaeh Parsons caused the government of Nova Scotia to introduce the Cyber-Safety Act in April. This new legislation, making its way into schools this week, contains four major components, including establishing cyberbullying prevention and protection orders, setting out a definition for cyberbullying, establishing what has become known as a CyberSCAN unit, and finally, changes to the education act. It could also represent some marked changes for schools right across this Province.
In a nutshell, the CyberSCAN unit will be open to receive reports from anyone in Nova Scotia who is either aware of or a victim of cyberbullying. The unit will then activate an investigator (five in total for the Province, according to early reports from Justice Minister Ross Landry) to look into the allegations. If someone is actually found to be cyberbullying, then they can face a series of repercussions, such as being prohibited from communicating about a person, losing the use of any means of electronic communication, or facing fines and jail time.
There are bigger teeth in the legislation as well in that it establishes cyberbullying as a tort, which means that a victim may sue a cyberbully in civil court. If the cyberbully happens to be a minor, then that child’s parents will be financially on the hook for damages.
The language of the Act certainly sounds good from a victim standpoint. Something, proponents might argue, is finally being done. And I personally applaud the intent behind the Act. Certainly, I do not want my own child bullied, and there is some peace provided to me as a parent that there are steps I could take if my child were to become a victim. But as laudable as is the intent of the Act, I find myself questioning the practicality of its implementation.
To begin with, one must understand the culture of schools. Discerning the actual repeated abuse of true bullying from the everyday angst of being a teenager will pose a serious problem to this initiative. I would suspect that once word of this service spreads, 50 investigators would not be able to look into all the complaints, let alone 5.
As well, I could find nothing in the wording of the Act to deal with false accusations. Knowing that a simple accusation against another student will initiate a full investigation may prove too great a temptation for the junior high student with a broken heart. Indeed, without some protection against false reports, the reporting of cyberbullying might in and of itself become a bullying act.
My most grave concerns, however, center around the added legislative responsibility it places on already beleaguered school principals.
From early reports, the Act requires principals to fully investigate every single report they get of bullying and cyberbullying, as these are considered examples of “severely disruptive behaviour”. (The duty to investigate behaviour of this nature is not new, but there is certainly now greater emphasis on bullying rather than, say, weapons offenses.) When they investigate, principals must contact all the parents involved, and speak to all the students. Once their investigation is complete, they then have the responsibility of deciding upon punishment as prescribed by policy. If a parent is not happy with the result of the investigation, they can still contact the CyberSCAN unit, who will look into the matter independently. The principal will be part of another investigation, presumably explaining what steps were taken on the issue in the first place. This process applies even if the alleged incident occurs after school hours and off school property, and will be repeated for each and every case.
Honestly, I’m not sure how some principals will have time to do anything else.
The definition of “investigate” also remains a matter of some uncertainty. To what extent do principals need to investigate? At what point are bullying complaints considered serious enough to call in the CyberSCAN people? What if the alleged event happened three weeks ago? To what extent are principals liable in the courts if a civil suit is launched?
And, of course, what happens if they get it wrong?
I recognize that bullying is a tremendously important issue, but I wonder to what degree we seriously feel that the principal of our local school is responsible to monitor the behaviour of our children when they are sitting at home in our basements? If we actually expect that principals in schools will play such a major role in the success of this initiative, we should be having the conversations with the principals first. At the very least, if we are going to demand this level of accountability, to insist that they be responsible for our children twenty-four hours a day, we need to take something else off their plates.
Principals are not miracle workers. They are not magic. They are, at the end of the day, educators. In our headlong rush to tackle what is an inherently a societal issue, I am concerned that we are offering up those most in a position to help as sacrificial lambs. Anti-bullying legislation is welcome and long overdue, but to sit back as a society and say that the Principals will handle it seems an awful lot like passing the buck.
Yes there will be some changes this year. I just hope to goodness that some common sense will prevail.