Anti-bullying legislation is all the rage these days. After all, bullying among kids is epidemic, and sometimes deadly. Almost every state in America has passed a law designed to combat bullying in schools. Now Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty, a.k.a. Premier Dad, is hopping on the bandwagon. “We will not tolerate bullying of any kind, at any time, for any reason,” he declared. Terrified of appearing unconcerned, the opposition Tories have proposed a rival law of their own.
Do these laws work? Count me skeptical. They’re just the kind of feel-good measures that make politicians look caring without having to spend a dime. One thing you can bet on is that school administrations will be burdened with more directives from the Ministry of Education, more training workshops for the staff, more bullying-awareness sessions for the students and much more paperwork.
Plenty of teachers are skeptical, too. For years, they’ve seen kids get away with misbehaviour that school administrators seem powerless to check. “Administrators have had their spines surgically removed,” one teacher says. Another told me: “Unless the kids doing the bullying know, for certain, that they will be punished seriously for bullying, there is no incentive for them to stop.”
The pendulum has swung back and forth on discipline in the schools. In Ontario, Mr. McGuinty quickly undid the much-maligned zero-tolerance policies of Mike Harris. The new policies were designed to let no kids fail, no matter how badly they behaved or how late or inadequate their school work. Schools were no longer allowed to suspend or expel students except in the most extreme circumstances. Adult authority, already on the wane, went out the window.
Today, misbehaving students are sent to cool off in “student success” rooms. Instead of being flunked, they’re offered “credit recovery,” “credit resuscitation” and other remedies designed to create the illusion they’ve done the work. Because of orders from above, schools now spend far more resources on the bullies than the bullied.
Schools already have policies on bullying. The trouble is, most bullying is subterranean. The last thing kids will do is tell adults about it. Bullying encompasses behaviours that range from beating someone up on the playground to spreading rumours about a person, or not inviting her to your party. Some of the most devastating injuries are inflicted by words, not fists. And one of the gravest wounds of all is simply being shunned.
The schools don’t need a law to go after bullies. They don’t even need gay-straight alliance clubs, which have now been mandated by the Premier himself. What they need is the authority that’s been stripped from them to demand good behaviour and impose consequences on bad behaviour. What they need is close communication with parents who pay attention to their kids. What they need is caring teachers with good antennae. As one school safety consultant says, “Parents and educators have the most important tools that legislation cannot deliver – education and supervision.”
Bullying is a community problem, not a government one. Nonetheless, the politicians can’t resist. Law-and-order types like bullying laws because they want harsher discipline for juvenile miscreants. Soft-authoritarian nanny states, such as Ontario, like these laws because they believe they’ll improve the general morals of the public. That’s why the Liberals spend so much time banning pit bulls and harassing children to bring carrots to school instead of cookies.
I feel sorry for the schools. They’ve become extensions of the nanny state, burdened with implementing every faddish notion from 100-per-cent injury-free playgrounds to healthy snacks, and a bizarre form of math that won’t teach your kid to add or subtract but will ask her to explain how she got the answer. Maybe we should blow up the giant school-board bureaucracies and the ministries of education, give the money to the teachers and let them run the schools again. The kids will have more time for learning stuff, and the teachers will have more freedom to make them behave. Maybe what we really need is a law for that.