The mistake schools often make, researchers suggest, is to apply one solution to all situations, without adapting their methods to specific cases or unique school environments. Anti-bullying programs tend to speak too vaguely about respect and diversity, without the hard talk about the most common motivations: homophobia and race. (At Bridlewood, principal Pauline McKenna also has had to deal with fights among the older boys that resulted from "dissing each other's gods.")
Recent research also suggests that educating bystanders to change their behaviour helps to reduce bullying, says Wendy Craig, a researcher on bullying at Queen's University. Teaching kids to simply walk away rather than intervening, she suggests, removes the audience and often stops the bully.
And there's little evidence to suggest that tough new American laws about cyber-bullying are effective at doing much more than placating voters. For one thing, punitive approaches haven't been shown to change behaviour in serious cases of traditional bullying - one three-day suspension, and the bully's back in class. Online, bullies can remain anonymous and their taunts travel farther. (A recent survey reported that one boy in 20 aged 11 to 18 has uploaded "humiliating and harassing" photos of a partner.) Experts suggest it's a mistake to see online bullying as a separate case, when it usually starts with face-to-face abuse. So stopping real-world abuse should make for a kinder virtual community.
Sometimes, though, schools overlook simple solutions. Tracy Vaillancourt, the Canadian Research Chair in Children's Mental Health and Violence Prevention, points out that the harassment doesn't happen when adults are around, and yet often playgrounds and high-incident areas like hallways are largely unsupervised. "At best, you might have two teachers monitoring 300 kids, and most of the time, though not always, they are catching up with each other," she says.
A recent survey of Canadian teachers conducted by Dr. Smith, found that 61 per cent were most likely to intervene in bullying incidents when the victim was targeted frequently and clearly distressed - situations more easily identified. The finding suggests that many teachers may not respond as effectively to more subtle cases, particularly those involving the cool kids, where victims may tough it out so they don't lose face. The survey also found that while 69 per cent of teachers reported their schools have bullying-prevention programs, only 43 per cent had received any training related to bullying prevention. (Half the teachers who completed the survey said what training they did get was inadequate; three-quarters said they need more.)
Sneaking up on bullies
On the playground at St. Anne, Hannah, Sarah and Nick return to the hockey game to see if their advice has worked. It's a pretty quiet hour - winter is busy season, resolving territorial disputes over snow forts. The peer mediators, picked from Grades 5 and 6, number about 25 at school, and Ms. Hill has no shortage of applications. They work in pairs, trained to watch for trouble in large groups, or solitary kids looking wistful on the margins. Mostly they sneak up on bullying, but occasionally, other students provide intelligence. "Sometimes people think it's tattling," Sarah says. "We have to tell them they are really helping." If fists fly, they tell a teacher.
The school's anti-bullying program also includes student intramural leaders, a visible teacher presence during recess, character-building workshops (including anxiety workshops for those in Grade 5, which Ms. Hill identifies as the most trying year), and an anonymous reporting system. Bullying still happens, but the students say teachers usually handle it swiftly. Last year, a couple of Grade 5 girls were caught trashing another student online - a parent brought in a printout of the insults - and a raft of meetings led to a tearful apology. "They were certainly surprised they got caught," says Ms. Hill, who monitors Facebook under her maiden name. (In January, older students will get a lesson in Web manners from a Privacy Commission spokesperson.)
Spotting a lone boy, sitting against the wall, with his hoodie pulled over his head, the mediators wander over. Turns out he has been excluded from the game, so Nick leads him back, coaxing another player into sharing his stick.
"If it doesn't work out," Nick says, patting the boy on the back, "you can always come back to us."
That's the message educators and parents need to start sending more clearly so that kids will listen.
Erin Anderssen is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.