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In her recent article about bullying, Erin Anderssen reports that Canadian educators are losing the fight against bullying. Most Canadian schools are simply not taking the necessary steps to combat this deadly serious problem. There are many reasons for this, Erin writes, 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.

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.

And 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.)

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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.

So what are we doing wrong?

Globe and Mail reporter Erin Anderssen answered readers' questions, along with Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, who is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Children's Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa. She is also affiliated with McMaster University's Offord Centre for Child Studies.

Online discussion transcript:

Danielle Adams: Hello and welcome. Joining us now are reporter Erin Anderssen, who wrote Saturday's story on bullying, and bullying expert Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, who is an associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Children's Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa. She is also affiliated with McMaster University's Offord Centre for Child Studies.

To start our discussion, Here's a comment posted by a reader identified as Zarny. Would you both like to give us your reactions to this statement? "A noble cause to try to put an end to bullying but it's not going to happen. It's a part of human nature; adults bully each other. To think you will eliminate in a group of THE most immature people is ridiculous."

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: I am always cautious in avoiding saying that we will eliminate bullying. It is, to some extent, rooted in our evolutionary past. However, I do think that we can reduce it substantially. I also think that we need to start with "the most immature people" i.e. children because in striving to reduce bullying, we need a cultural shift to take place whereby it becomes 'cool to care'. Research is pretty clear on the fact that it is next to impossible to change an adult's entrenched opinion. Luckily, children are much more open-minded than adults and so our efforts need to be directed at them with the hope that in the future, these children become adults with an entrenched opinion that bullying cannot be tolerated - that we must treat each other with dignity and respect.

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Erin Anderssen: Thanks for joining us, Dr. Vaillancourt. Zarny: You are absolutely right, of course. We can't expect to completely eliminate bullying. But now that we know so much about it's impact on all parties involved - including bystanders (thanks to researchers like Dr. Vaillancourt) don't we have a reponsibility to do what we can to reduce it? Dr. Vaillancourt, How well do you think schools and parents are handling that point - the need to start educating children very early about bullying?

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: I think we are just beginning the dialogue. It is something that will take time, which is unfortunate because children and youth are being hurt by this. But I am encouraged because I know from other areas such as child abuse, we have made progress. It will not happen overnight. My concern is that we live in a fast-paced society that expects results immediately. If we don't get them, we give up. We must be patient, we must continue in our effort, and we will see results.

Anthony: (Quoting from Erin's article): 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.

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: It is fine to say that it is human nature. But my worry is that too often people use this argument to justify their egregious behaviour and they use this argument to do nothing. We have a very old brain living in a modern context. Surely we can "evolve" past this tendency to oppress others. It may have to be a conscientious effort for many but I think we can move past "instinct" with success.

Guest: Some other countries are doing much better at reducing bullying (or had lower rates to begin with). What is it about Canadian culture/society that nutures or condones bullying?

Erin Anderssen: Hi Guest, I'd like to hear Dr. Vaillancourt on your question. But I don't think Canadian society is more likely to create bullies, though it seems we have just been less effective at creating programs that really work to deal with the problem. Sweden for instance, reports the lowest level of bullying compared to 35 other countries, has a comprehensive national strategy.

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Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: One thing that Sweden does much better than Canada is that it invests heavily in young children and their family. In Sweden, children transition through elementary school as a cohort. They stay together with the same peers and teacher for up to 3 years. The focus of the first year of school is on relationships. In fact, Swedes learn to read 1 year later than Canadian children and yet do better on standardized reading achievement tests. In Canada, we have done an excellent job at prioritizing the 3 Rs of education (reading, 'riting, arithmetic). Sweden has done an excellent job at prioritizing the first R of education: relationships.

JH: We need to start early. Are there some good resources on WHAT to tell kids and parents early on?

Guest: JH, there are some excellent resources for parents, teachers, and children on www.mac-cura.ca as well as www.PREVNet.ca

Erin Anderssen: JH, I imagine most parents try to teach about sharing, generosity and tolerance early on. The problem, as a parent myself, is that it gets so much more complicated when your child is actually navigating bullying situations. The most important thing, that experts said to me, was to make sure your kids know to TELL you what's going on, so you can work on it together.

Erin Anderssen: Dr. Vaillancourt, can you give parents some specific advice? What should parents tell their kids to do if they are standing on the playground and see someone being bullies? (Telling a teachers, seems obvious, but a lot of kids would be reluctant to do it, especially if they are not confident it will be handled properly.)

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: Children need to tell a trusted adult. Adults are not very good at picking up on bullying, especially when it is not physical or verbal. Children need to walk away and get help when they see someone being bullied. Children who bully others get some of their power by picking on others in public. They create a reputation of being powerful and send a clear message to the peer group that they are in control. Without an audience, bullying stops (not always but most of the time).

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Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: A side note, most kids think adults will "screw it up" for them and make it worse. But when children and youth tell an adult it most often gets better. We need to change this belief system-that adults are incompetent when it comes to dealing with bullying. We also need to monitor children's peer groups more. Indeed, we need more adults present, watchful, and ready to intervene.

Anthony: I have heard that sitting down the bully and the victim together in a "Conflict resolution" type setting, may be ineffective because of the power imbalance inherent to cases of bullying. Is this true?

Erin Anderssen: Anthony, I think this is where training for educators comes in, both to recognize when conflict mediation shouldn't apply, and, when it does, to conduct the meeting appropriately. One criticism is that too often, schools seem to adopt one method to all situations without considering context.

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: I tend to advocate strongly against having the child who bullies and his/her victim "sit down and talk it out". It is a little presumptuous of adults-that we know all of the nuances of this distorted relationship. Children and youth who bully others have more power. This is not going to change with a little chat. It makes victims feel vulnerable and it may set them up for more failure. If it is done, I suggest it is done with extreme caution.

Erin Anderssen: Dr. Vaillancourt, Would you agree that creating that sense of trust, means school need to do more than "reacting" to situations, but be more proactive about clarifying to students how a bullying case will be handled, with clear specifics? Often, it seems so vague - I don't think most of the 9-year-olds I know would know, other than that someone "gets in trouble."

Erin Anderssen: Also, it seems the danger of a "meeting" is that adults may assume the problem is solved, and not closely monitor what happens next.

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Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: Great point Erin, there is a lack of follow-up.

Guest: Where are the areas in schools where students feel unsafe? Where should there be more monitoring by adults?

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: Our study of over 16,000 students says that students feel most unsafe in places where there is no adult supervision (like the hallways, cafeteria, and playground).

Danielle Adams: Here's a comment from a reader identified as MailGuy: "Bullying, to a certain extent, is a part of life. And it is a rite of passage. And if you are involved and engaged in your child's life, you can mitigate it. ... Bullying, in its various forms, exists in the real world when you become an adult. Anyone in business that has to deal with government bureaucrat types already knows this. No point bringing your kids up to think they get to live to blissful, old age in fairy land where everyone loves one another and nobody gets hurt. Doesn't work that way."

Erin Anderssen: Hi Mail Guy, I think we really need to get away from the idea that bullying is a "rite of passage," as if that is something we tolerate in our schools. That message seeps down to kids, and also suggest that victims should just suck it up. It may be inevitable, but I'd want my sons to learn the skills young for how to deal with it, and I don't "just experiencing it" is enough of a lesson.

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: I feel discouraged by this comment. It is NOT a rite of passage and it doesn't have to be part of life. This sort of comment encourages, in my opinion, apathy. We can do something about this. There are successful models from around the world of making it work. Sweden and Norway lead the charge because their countries have stood behind this issue, not just their educators. I realize it is becoming cliché to say this BUT it does take a village to raise a child. If we all stood up against bullying instead of standing by we could change it.

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Also, this is part of the reason we are losing the fight against bullying. We cannot accept it as kids being kids, human nature, a rite of passage etc.

Erin Anderssen: Dr Vaillancourt, This weekend some parents asked me how you'd suggest they handle the low-level and subtle bullying that often happens, in the form of insults and pushing that teachers may not see, and may reduce to "rite of passage" behaviour, but can be so corrosive over time. I think this behaviour often gets dismissed by schools. What should parents tell their kids about handling these incidents in the moment with the bully?

Jen: Telling a teacher seems like a great way to reduce physical bullying, but will it effectively reduce relational bullying (e.g., gossiping, rumors, back stabbing, exclusion)?

Erin Anderssen: In fact, Dr. Vallancourt, the piece of research that really struck me was the finding how emotionally stressful it can be for bystanders who see it happen. It seems that empowering and educating bystanders often gets overlooked. Do you agree?

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: Yes and there is new research showing that it impacts negatively on bystanders just like witnessing intimate partner violence (domestic violence) negatively impacts children.

Guest: I remember being in grade school and being bullied, only to get to high school where I became a bully. To me is certainly seems to be an issue of power especially as the bullying in each case was so different in style.

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: Bullying is a systematic abuse of power. Bullying is about the abuse of power.

Erin Anderssen: Hi guest, can you explain how the bullying you experienced, versus the bullying you did was different?

Guest: Well age, I'm sure, had a lot to do with it. When I was younger the teasing about my accent (I moved from the UK) turned into some pretty nasty name calling and vandalism, which only stopped when I was put into a composite grade class a couple years later. In high school my bullying was quite subtle, back handed compliments, exclusion etc not nearly as easy to detect by teachers or even some peers.

Erin Anderssen: Guest, in high school, what - if anything - would have made you stop bullying, from a school perspective?

Guest: I think if it had been checked by peers and those teachers that I had a good releationship with - almost as if there was a program to wean me off getting the boost from abusing power in that way. but by checked I think it couldn't be too based on punishment, maybe more on helping others. It may sound a bit granola but I think being made a 'bad guy" would have sent me further down the wrong path.

Erin Anderssen: Dr. Vaillancourt, many bullies are also victims. Why does this happen, and doesn't that complicate how to handle bullying itself?

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: Children and youth learn pretty quickly that you achieve power, unfortunately, by oppressing others. And so, this does occur far too often.

plentyspace: Bullying Awareness Week is coming up (15-21) shoudl this be used as an opportunity for parents and teachers to talk about bullying?

Erin Anderssen: Plentyspace: I think this is a great idea. What's the most important message, you'd want to see sent?

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: YES, Bullying Awareness Week is a terrific platform for a discussion about bullying.

Erin Anderssen: Dr. Vaillancourt. I'd like to put my last question to you: if there was one thing schools could do tomorrow to reduce bullying, what you suggest it be?

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: One thing they can do is monitor students.

JH: I think empowering our youth is beautiful. I specifically enjoyed the example from the article where the peer mediators investigated a child alone, hood over his head and discovered he was being intentionally left-out. Training educators to recognize social exclusion and question why a child is isolated on the playground as this intuitive youth team did is so important. Social exclusion and social bullying hurt. I think recognizing the hurt caused by this form of peer abuse and intervening should be a big priority for educators. Too often I see adults telling kids they don't have to play with a particular child if they don't want to after a conflict. This mentality can fuel bullies. In my experience sending the message that everyone has a right to be included leads to a more effective discussion about how to solve individual conflicts, the kids involved learn important skills, and it does not nurture social exclusion as a way to harm others. I have worked in settings where it is a rule not to leave anyone out and have been amazed at how accepting the kids are of this idea once it is part of the culture.

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: As this discussion wraps up I want to point out a few facts about bullying. Longitudinal research points clearly to the fact that bullying causes harm. Children and youth who are bullied become depressed, anxious, suicidal, sick, etc. because of the poor treatment they receive from their peers. Bullied youth are more likely to drop-out of school and they report in adulthood, that the oppression they received from peers still haunts them. They feel inadequate, sad, and angry. Over 450,000 children and youth are bullied at school *every day* in Canada. We cannot say we value children if in the same breath we can we condone bullying. We need to stand up together against bullying--- we can no longer stand by and do nothing. The evidence is too convincing. Bullying harms.

Danielle Adams: We are out of time for our discussion today. Thanks to all the readers who joined us, and a special thanks to Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt and Erin Anderssen for sharing their valuable input.

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