For six long years, Émanuelle Després was a victim of bullying at school. She was constantly teased and tormented, a target of intimidation almost daily.
Teachers and principals were aware of incidents but neither the elementary school nor the Académie Les Escapades in Trois-Rivières, where 13-year-old Émanuelle now attends high school, were able to stop the bullying.
Émanuelle was afraid to speak out for fear it would make matters worse and urged her father not to intervene.
Then last November another teenage girl, Marjorie Raymond, 15, living several hundred kilometres away in the Gaspé region, committed suicide after being persistently bullied at school.
“After I heard of Marjorie’s suicide I said to myself that I would not allow this to happen to my daughter,” Robert Després said. “Those who are bullied are afraid to talk and as a parent I couldn’t allow the silence to continue.”
With her father’s support, Émanuelle decided to speak out and did so in no uncertain terms. She launched a province-wide petition, gathered more than 3,000 signatures and triggered a debate that prompted parents and students to demand concrete measures to deal with the problem
“I don’t know about other schools but at mine the bullying has stopped,” Émanuelle said. “People have to speak out.”
On Wednesday the Quebec government responded by tabling a bill requiring school boards to have each school implement an anti-bullying plan involving community agencies and local police. Schools would be required to appoint a person on staff to oversee the implementation of the plan and table an annual report. School principals will have the authority to expel repeat offenders. School boards that fail to comply would be fined.
Education Minister Line Beauchamps announced that school boards would not get new funds to do so, arguing that since 2008 the government has given them $6-million to fight bullying. Quebec will spend another $1-million over three years for ads and media campaigns. But she clearly pointed a finger at some school boards that have failed to deal with the issue.
“The first thing we have to work on is prevention,” Ms. Beauchamps said. “Some say that $6-million is not enough. The way to take this further is to introduce legal obligations to intervene. I can’t promise zero violence, zero bullying … but it will be 100-per-cent intervention in cases where there is bullying and violence.”
But without additional funding, the schools will remain helpless to intervene, according to Parti Québécois education critic Sylvain Gaudreault.
“We have this young girl and her father who gathered 3,000 names on a petition. It was clear that they wanted more resources, more money to fight bullying and violence in the schools. … But the human resources, the financial resources are simply not there,” Mr. Gaudreault said.
Mr. Gaudreault said that in Quebec, 10 per cent of students are victims of bullying and violence at school, a rate higher than the estimated 8 per cent in the rest of Canada. Without additional funding, he said, schools will be ill-equipped to help not only the victims but to deal with the intimidators as well as their parents.
Mr. Després shares the assessment, claiming that without proper means, schools cannot be trained to intervene and help victims who often keep their feelings bottled up.
“I witnessed it first hand. Teachers don’t know how to intervene. They don’t have the training. If you don’t have trained staff in each school, the bill won’t do much good,” Mr. Després said. “We already have a law. We’ve had it since 2008. All this bill does is require school boards to act but it doesn’t heighten public awareness. This a societal problem.”
The financially strapped Charest government believes it can meet the same objective without having to spend more money. The minister remained adamant: School boards have the necessary funds and it’s up to them to use them properly.
“This is not a question of resources. It is a question of changing behaviours, changing attitudes. The law imposes obligations. Bullied students and their parents must no longer be viewed as a problem,” Ms. Beauchamps said.