Bullying is not just normal disagreements between kids.
It’s when one child or more intentionally harms another, repeatedly over time, whether through physical or verbal aggression or through social exclusion.
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about ways schools can effectively address bullying – because it’s nothing new.
Karen Anthony’s daughter, Amanda, had high marks in grade seven – at first.
“Her report card was 88 in science,” says Anthony. “At the end of the year, she had 44 – yet the comments were ‘cheerful and pleasant to have in class’.”
It turned out that Amanda was being bullied. Anthony feels nothing was done about it because “she wasn’t rocking the boat”. She decided to enrol her daughter in Masters Academy, a private school in their hometown of Calgary.
Amanda Anthony, now 31 years old, says that when there was an incident at her new school involving a longtime friend, staff “dealt with it, which I appreciated”. So did her mother. “They did not sweep it under the carpet,“ says Karen Anthony. “They sat down with them and worked it out.”
Colin Macdougall’s daughter, Jane, had a similar experience. In grade nine, she excelled at the public school she attended. But in grade 10, she suddenly had a tough time socially. “There was a change in her,” says Macdougall. “She wasn’t smiling too often around here.”
Macdougall and his wife decided it would be good for Jane to try out Rothesay Netherwood School (RNS) in Rothesay, New Brunswick – his alma mater. She would have to board because the family lived an hour’s drive from the town. They were nervous for their daughter the first week, but full of relief when the school sent some photos.
“She was in a little sitting area,“ says Macdougall. “Somebody’s playing the guitar, and she’s got a big smile and she’s laughing.”
“They do such a good job socializing the kids with each other.”
RNS teacher Craig Jollymore says that the school has a very deliberate process to start things off well socially for students.
“We’re aware and careful,” he says. “The first weeks of school are vibrant, and there’s lots of opportunity for students to make new friends.”
Jollymore says students start building a stable peer group that they will rely on during their years at the school – supported by staff. “We do what we need to behind the scenes.”
Working hard to prevent bullying in the first place is a common approach at private schools.
“We actually don’t have an anti-bullying or anti-harassment policy,” says Blayne Addley, Headmaster at Halifax Grammar School in Nova Scotia. ”We have a mutual respect policy. From the outset, we frame everything in a positive tone we build into the culture.”
Addley says it boils down to respect. “If you treat each other properly, it will dramatically decrease incidents of bullying. And that has definitely proven true.”
Dealing with it
But Addley says that when bullying happens, “we have pretty clear processes by which we deal with incidents.”
Jollymore concurs. “At the end of the day, if a student isn’t prepared to show respect for other students, they won’t remain part of our school community,” says Jollymore. “That is unique to private schools.”
Strong relationships with authority figures
Eric Petersiel is Head of School at The Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto. He thinks the longer-term relationships students have with teachers and school leadership at private schools is effective.
In large public school systems – especially in big cities – Petersiel says teachers can pick and choose from many schools. “You know, ‘I’d rather go to this place or go to this place.” Petersiel says in a closed system, like with his school, students “don’t just have one teacher for one year who’s their go-to, and then, ‘poof’, that person’s out of their life.
“I truly believe that the strongest bullying prevention program is proper role modelling,” says Petersiel.
Linden Gray is Prep School Head at Halifax Grammar School. She says the support given to teachers helps. “Teachers have time to collaborate and learn about vigilance out in the schoolyard.”
“We do a lot of work around monitoring the environment and helping children reach a better place if things are not going well. ”
The combination of a respectful school culture, active engagement of teachers and staff and the leeway to ask a student to leave if they continue to bully seems to work. Addley says he can count on one finger the times that a bullying incident has had to go to a formal stage of discipline.
“When we talk to our students,” says Addley, “they do feel safe and secure.”