Debra Pepler, one of Canada’s foremost experts on bullying, has been appointed by the Nova Scotia government to review how the Halifax Regional School Board responded to the case of Rehtaeh Parsons.
Dr. Pepler, a York University professor and psychologist, and Penny Milton, former CEO of the Canadian Education Association, will look at programs and policies and recommend ways to strengthen them. The Globe’s Caroline Alphonso spoke with Dr. Pepler on Thursday.
Do schools have a responsibility when it comes to dealing with bullying and cyberbullying?
Schools absolutely have a responsibility. When I was on the Safe Schools Action team for Ontario, we dealt with issues of cyberbullying and it was very clear to us that even if cyberbullying occurred outside the geographical boundaries of the school, if it impacted a student’s ability to learn and the learning environment for a student, the principal was responsible for dealing with it.
Young people are living in a social-media world, and yet all of the dynamics in that world are different than the dynamics in face-to-face interactions. They don’t see the impact of their behaviour on another.
Unless we put these issues on the table and help young people understand what their role in exacerbating problems might be, what their role can be in addressing problems and keeping fellow students safe, we really haven’t educated them adequately.
What have you seen in schools when it comes to issues of bullying?
In Ontario, we have excellent legislation that addresses these issues and gives very clear guidance as to what is expected. But there’s a substantial gap between what the legislation indicates should be done and what is actually done in schools. We have administrators who are worried about identifying something as bullying. When you hide it, when you put it under the carpet, when you say, “I don’t know what to do when something like this arises,” it creates this inequity and a vulnerability for students who are being bullied and not protected. Whereas if you put it on the table, talk about it, deal with it in a really constructive way, in an educational way, everybody benefits.
What concrete steps can school administrators and teachers take?
They can have regular discussions about this in either homeroom or through some other mechanism. Students will only report these things to adults whom they trust. If there aren’t adults who are willing to talk about the issues and willing to listen to what young people are really experiencing, when something terrible arises, they won’t feel that they have a trusting relationship with an adult. Much the same as at home, we need teachers to be adults in whom students trust and would go to in situations.
What more can be done?
Schools need to make students aware of mechanisms of reporting. When a student feels uncomfortable, who can they go to, who is identified in the school as the person who will listen and take action? Do [students] want an anonymous reporting mechanism so they can just drop a note in a box? Do they want to have an adult identified in the school who would be responsive to these kinds of reports?
This interview has been edited and condensed.