Skip to main content

It's a classic bully manoeuvre: Thrust a finger, lay down a taunt and bring the target down to size.

This time it's parents doing the finger pointing, laying blame on school boards for not doing enough about bully problems, despite ramped up efforts to battle the problem with programs and policies.

Earlier this month, a mother in Kanata, Ont., filed a $325,000 lawsuit against the Ottawa Catholic School Board for failing to protect her daughter from a relentless bully. A week earlier, a parent in Waterloo, Ont., slapped the Waterloo Catholic District School Board with a suit for doing nothing to halt bully attacks on her son. The woman is also suing the Region of Waterloo Public Health unit for crafting what she considers a shoddy anti-bullying policy. The expectations of teachers and principals to handle bullying are ramping up.

And as governments keep searching for ways to solve the problem - last week Ontario passed a resolution to create an official Bully Awareness and Prevention Week - and lawsuits become more frequent, many are spurred to ask: Are these programs actually working?

University of Regina professor Rod Dolmage says they are not. "The research does not support that they are successful," says the professor of educational administration who researches law and policy in education.

"Now, if you ask particular boards or the person in charge of a particular anti-bullying program in a school or a board 'Is it working?' you'll probably get the universal answer 'Yes,'" he says

They don't work because they're too ambitious, he says. "Schools have an obligation to keep their own environment safe and welcoming and conducive to learning. But they can't change social problems."

Too often, the definition of bullying is up for debate. In Ontario, Bill 157, the Education Amendment Act, which came into force Feb. 1, requires school staff to report bullying incidents to the principal and intervene when they witness anyone "behaving in a way that is likely to have a negative impact on the school climate." They also have to report the situation to parents of both the bully and the victim.

Even when unacceptable behaviour is outlined clearly, it's tough to catch a bully in the act, says Bob Keel, a Toronto lawyer who deals with discipline cases. "Quite often [parents]believe in their heart of hearts that teachers should have known something was going on," he says. "Teachers will say in their heart of hearts that they didn't see anything going on and [the bullying]was not brought to their attention."

Boards and schools are only liable while the kids are under their supervision, he notes. And they are only required to take "appropriate action." What that is depends on the details.

"The parent will demand the kid be suspended, the kid is not suspended, the parent is outraged and quite often this leads to the lawsuit," he says. "And that's even though the principal in the lawsuit will say 'I did what I considered to be appropriate.' "

Another frustration for parents: Privacy laws in some jurisdictions also keep staff from telling the victim's parents how the bully was punished, though of course they hear about it through their son or daughter.

The unfortunate fact is that some teachers turn a blind eye even if bullying happens in class, says Stuart Auty, president of the Canadian Safe Schools Network. "You've got teachers who are overwhelmed and see themselves as having too much to do. [And others]don't have co-operation with the whole staff." Having complete buy-in, he says, is key to upholding bully-free policies in schools.

But while it's nearly impossible to catch everything, "that doesn't mean you stop doing it," says Sue Continelli, a Grade 7 teacher at Grapeview Public School in St. Catharines, Ont.

Ms. Continelli tries to weave character building and citizenship materials into her lessons, focusing more on such content at the beginning of the year. She applauds her school's anti-bullying policies and has no problem interrupting an algebra lesson to deal with an incident.

Shauna Brown, on the other hand, says there is a cost that comes with having to deal with bully issues while trying to teach the class.

"You know you have a curriculum to deliver," says the Grade 1 teacher at Pineland Public School in Burlington, Ont. "It can be that juggle between 'What do I need to do as a professional' and 'What do I do as a professional that also takes into account the human being?'"

How schools deal with bullying

Anti-bullying policies differ from school board to school board, but most carry these core elements:


Bullying is usually described as aggressive, intimidating or cruel behaviour that harms another person verbally, physically or emotionally. The policy will require that students, teachers and principals all understand and work with the same definition.


All bullying incidents must be immediately reported to staff. Staff who witness or hear about the incident must report it to the principal. Parents of both the bully and the victim must be told about the incident and what kind of harm it caused.

Prevention and education

This includes posting school rules and making presentations about the costs of bullying. Many school boards include character education in their curriculums, which aims to teach students citizenship and respect.