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St. Anne Catholic School in Ottawa's west end, has set up an anti-bullying program where students take turns monitoring for bullying during recess and lunch.Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail

It is lunchtime at St. Anne Catholic School in Kanata, Ont., and a squabble is under way at a hockey net in the playground. Hannah Gartland, 10, and Sarah Cousineau and Nick Kidd, both 11, march over, a mini riot squad in their bright yellow vests that read "Peer Mediator." The Grade 1 boys, immersed in bickering over who should get to play goal, stop immediately and spill their sides of the story. "How about every goal, you guys switch," Nick suggests. "You can be defence," Sarah tells one boy. "Does that sound fair?" Problem solved, a little grudgingly. "Great," Hannah says cheerfully. "Have a good game." The three walk off, alert to more playground mayhem.

Not really a case of bullying, explains Nick, cool and confident in his backward baseball cap, but he has seen these disputes grow into fistfights, especially among the older kids. "It's always best to start with a little problem so it doesn't get bigger," Sarah says.

The idea that starting young might reduce teenaged locker-room brutality and cyber-harassment is behind St. Anne's anti-bullying program. It's the kind of comprehensive, well-supported, community-based approach that research has shown to be most effective. Indeed, principal Jane Hill credits the program with bringing down bullying incidents - but most schools in Canada are failing to curb the problem. There are many reasons for this, not the least of them the fact that educators have tried to simplify a complex social issue down to good guys and bad guys, hoping positive language will seep into playground politics, and that zero tolerance will scare bullies straight. Schools have too often failed to act in the most serious cases, and kids won't tell on bullies if they don't believe it will make a difference.

When left unchecked, bullies can destroy lives, as in the recent spate of U.S. suicides related to homophobic bullying that prompted President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to speak out, expressing their sadness, shock and support for the victims of bullies.

Eliminating bullying altogether is an unrealistic goal. It's human nature: People like to boss other people around and it's not hard to see traits of a control-seeking bully in parents who rant viciously at hockey games.

"Some parents, I am sad to say, are not at all bothered if their child is a bully. In fact, they can be quite proud of it," explains Ken Rigby, a bullying expert in Australia.

The view lingers that getting picked on is a teenage rite of passage: When bullying leads to suicide, the outrage is swift, but, as Guelph high-school student Alix Vander Vlugt asks, "Where's the outrage for everything that happened leading up to that?"

Most kids grow out of bullying by the time they reach their mid-teens.

Research consistently shows that bullying is linked to depression, poor school performance and anxiety, for both victim and perpetrator. The worst offenders are cleverly covert, often the popular kids in class.

They're the ones teachers like and parents don't suspect, and they use their social capital to cow bystanders into staying quiet, or joining in.

A Grade 8 student interviewed for this story, who didn't want to be named, described this very type: a former friend who would order her posse to go up to other students and call them names, or generally intimidate them. "I felt that if I went against her, I wouldn't have friends. Looking back, I definitely should have told a teacher." Alix Vander Vlugt, who now speaks out against bullying, recalls watching his peers torment younger students. "I usually didn't say anything."

Many bullies are also victims themselves. And while the constantly terrorized victim merits the strongest intervention, a second worrisome group are the kids pushed into nasty behaviour they know is wrong because they fear the consequences of not playing along. "You cannot wait until a child is 15," Dr. Rigby says. "They are doing real damage."

Schools can post warm and fuzzy messages about tolerance in the hallways, and hand out good-citizen awards at assemblies - both well-meaning, and necessary - but that strategy speaks loudest to students who wouldn't bully in the first place, and many of those who do (between 10 and 20 per cent) don't necessarily see their behaviour that way.

Zero-tolerance policies on fighting, as cases in Canada have shown, do not solve the problem either, often leading to punishment without investigation, and little follow-up. Last month, in Squamish, B.C., for example, Zoe Aldridge says she alerted her son's school that a gang of boys planned to coerce him into a lunch-hour confrontation: When the fight happened, with a crowd of students jeering and catching it on video, 14-year-old Austin emerged with a broken hand and a suspension. (The alleged instigators received lunchtime detentions, she says.) Ms. Aldridge now wants the school board to pass a rule requiring that such incidents be referred to the police. "You tell your kids, 'Come to an adult, we'll sort it out.' That's exactly what he did, and it failed him."

What makes a program work

Many anti-bullying programs are implemented in schools, often inconsistently, because they sound good, rather than being supported by actual research. A couple of years ago, says David Smith, a psychologist at the University of Ottawa who studies bullying interventions, the Ontario government doled out money for anti-bullying initiatives, but schools had to scramble to get it spent before the end of the fiscal year, without real thought about where it should go to do the most good. "Probably," Dr. Smith observes wryly, "Chapters and did very well."

A good bullying program, Dr. Smith says, is shaped by the needs of the individual schools. Such programs must be adapted to the age and gender of children, as well as the circumstances around specific incidents, while fully involving parents, students and teachers.

The results show: A 2008 analysis of 15,000 students in Canada, the U.S. and Europe found that roughly one-third of students felt that anti-bullying programs had improved their school environment; but on an individual level, victims and bullies reported little or no change. That's why a school like St. Anne may have the right idea, by including parents, empowering teachers and students and stressing the role of social skills in managing bullying.

According to an ongoing international survey of bullying by the World Health Organization, Canada ranks in the middle, with higher rates by several measures than England and the United States. (Canada has more reports of bullying than the U.S., but fewer Canadian students admit to being bullies.)

While other nations have brought their numbers down, researchers say, Canada has had limited success, according to data collected from 1994 to 2006. Although there was a decline in reports of students involved in repeated, long-term bullying, the number of chronic victims has remained steady - and girls' reports of occasional bullying have increased. As awareness grew about bullying, students may have identified it more often, but this doesn't explain why other countries, with similar campaigns, have seen more significant improvement. Topping the list is Sweden, which has a clear national strategy on bullying - something that's complicated in Canada, since provinces handle education. And while Canadians may consider themselves more tolerant and open-minded than Americans - reports of verbal and physical harassment from lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students are only marginally lower here.

Talking it out

Last year, when whispering, rumours and exclusion were dividing the class of Grade 7 girls at Bridlewood Community Elementary School, not far from St. Anne, teachers organized a "class circle" forcing the students to discuss the problem as a group in one-hour sessions over four weeks. The school is a pilot case for restorative justice.

The girls talked about what it meant to be cool, and, as one student who participated explained, saw that they weren't alone. What's more, they felt empowered to speak up against bullying, or walk away - an important component since most bullies seek an audience. "There were girls that I had not heard talk before," said another student. (Neither of them wanted to be named.) Everybody knows that bullying is wrong on principle, they explained, but people still do it. "The circles were different" from just setting out codes of conduct; "they went deeper."

Still, the verdict is mixed on restorative justice, partly because it may be used in situations that require sterner action. Peer mediation has also proved less effective with older grades, when the dynamics of bullying are more socially complex.

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.

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