Canada's largest daily newspaper
Why Canada can't stop bullies
The Toronto Star, Noor Javed, STAFF REPORTER, November 19, 2009
Daniel Sebben was just 13 when the taunts began. Day after day, for the next three years, the Newmarket high school student faced homophobic slurs, insults and verbal abuse from a group of six boys.
He would come home upset, confused and fearful of what they might do to him the next day, said mom Karen Sebben.
His marks slid. He became depressed. He began cutting himself and eventually attempted suicide.
"He emotionally bottomed out. Every day, he was convinced they were going to get him."
But it was also the lack of support within the "chain of command" at school, among superintendents and those at the board level that left the family distraught. The aggressor was suspended for a few days, and when he returned, things got worse for her son, she said.
The Sebben family's experience echoes the finding of a new study, which ranks Canadian students among the worst in the world for involvement in bullying-related activities - including those who are bullies, those being bullied, or those involved in both.
Canada came 36th out of 40 countries - just ahead of Israel, the U.S. and Lithuania - in a paper done by Wendy Craig, a psychology professor at Queen's University, in conjunction with the World Health Organization.
Anonymous surveys were carried out in 2005 and 2006 among more than 200,000 students aged 11, 13 and 15. (The researchers defined bullying as the "use of power and aggression to cause distress or control another.")
They also asked students in six countries, including Canada, to describe the bullying - if it was verbal, physical, sexual or racial. They found, for instance, that 14 per cent of 11-year-old Canadian boys reported being physically bullied, and 30 per cent reported verbal abuse.
"I was really surprised and horrified," said Craig. "We have this view that Canadians are nice and kind and generous, and in fact our kids are being socialized on the playgrounds on how to be aggressive and are being victimized."
There are policies in place, like the provincial Safe Schools Act, that have put bullying front and centre in recent years. The province has also done training for 25,000 teachers and 7,500 principals to address and prevent bullying.
And this week schools across the province have held anti-bullying events as part of Bullying Awareness Week.
But Debra Pepler, scientific co-director of PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network), a coalition of Canadians concerned about bullying, says there is little proof such programs work.
"People who suggest that watching a 45-minute video or a 45-minute theatre production is a solution don't understand the nature of the problem," said Pepler, noting there is almost no monitoring in Canada to see if these approaches work.
In countries with low rates of student involvement in bullying - Norway, Sweden and England - there are coordinated programs and policies are in place that are continually evaluated.
Sebben said policies here aren't helpful for a parent looking for help. She started the York Region Anti-Bullying Coalition and has had dozens of parents contact her. "They are completely lost," she said.
In Sebben's case, the bullying eventually stopped at the end of Grade 11, after her family sat down with the aggressor and his father, a facilitator and a vice-principal.
Through counselling and an alternate education program, Daniel was able graduate last June.
"He beat the odds," she said. "He was one of the lucky ones."