Alberta’s new anti-bullying law could punish kids who don’t report incidents

Westminster School was the first junior high in Edmonton to adopt a school-wide anti-bullying program. I think everyone now agrees that bullying should not be treated as a normal rite of passage for children, a character-building exercise they have to tough their way through.

But some critics think a part of Alberta's new Education Act that officially outlaws bullying goes too far.

The new law's anti-bullying sections are being scrutinized as other provinces struggle for ways to address the bullying problem.

Section 31 (e) of the Act, which came into effect earlier this month, says students, as partners in education, have the responsibility to "refrain from, report and not tolerate bullying or bullying behaviour directed toward others in the school, whether or not it occurs within the school building, during the school day or by electronic means."

School boards are also required, as a way of providing a "welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment," to address bullying behaviour in their student code of conduct.

Fine, so far. The problem for critics appears to be with the legislation's section on student discipline, which suggests teachers or school principals can suspend or even expel "the student that has failed to comply with section 31."

The implication for some is that it applies not just to bullies but to those who stand by while the bullying takes place, whether or not it's at school or in cyberspace.

[ Related: Bullying in schools: Old problem or new phenomenon? ]

A report released Monday by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, an Ottawa think tank tied to the religiously-based Focus on the Family organization, says the law gives schools the authority to suspend bystanders to bullying.

That means, presumably, if you don't step in to stop a bullying incident or at the very least report it to someone, you're liable to be disciplined for your inaction.

The report's author, institute senior researcher Peter Jon Mitchell, calls the provision "wrongheaded," according to Postmedia News, because it appears to leave parents out of the equation.

"It's essentially saying that as adults, we've left the playground, and that it's up to kids to police bullies on behalf of the school and parents," Mitchell said.

"Certainly there might be room for bystanders' (involvement), but I hope we're not passing the buck to kids and saying, 'Solve your own problems.' "

Mitchell also argued the law puts the government, and by extension school authorities, in the role of parents, a job he thinks they're lousy at.

"Bullying is a relational issue requiring a relational response," said Mitchell. "It's not that (lawmakers) shouldn't be involved; it's that involvement should be limited, with policies that empower parents instead of having the opposite effect."

[ Related: Anti-bullying video a hit for Vancouver student ]

The right-wing research group got some surprising support from Brenda Morrison, a Simon Fraser University criminologist and outspoken critic of the passive-bystander culture.

The problem with the Alberta law is that it threatens students into reporting bullying under pain of suspension or expulsion, instead of empowering them to do the right thing, she said.

"These heavy sanctions actually create more of a culture of fear in schools," Morrison told Postmedia News. "We want kids to voluntarily step up for all the right reasons, because they're good citizens."

The law clearly seems to be a product of the frustration authorities feel over bullying, coupled with the related tragedy of suicide by tormented young people who can't take it anymore.

But it also seems like the Alberta legislation is asking kids to do more than the law requires of Canadian citizens when they witness a crime on the street.

We're not asked to step in and stop it; if anything, police discourage it and recommend we call them instead. We have a civic duty to report crime but we're not under a legal threat if we don't.

Mitchell and Morrison agree bullying is a problem that won't be solved simply by threatening kids. It needs to be addressed at a societal level.

For Morrison, that means pulling everyone — students, teachers, parents and groups — into the discussion. Mitchell thinks parents are the primary influencers and role models of children but concedes a widening generation gap makes it harder for them make a difference.

"Youth have their own culture where adults, for the most part, aren't present," he told Postmedia News. "(As such), many of our approaches to bullying are akin to refereeing a soccer match from outside the stadium."