Ontario's new anti-bullying strategy lacking, violence expert says

Ontario rolled out new steps to tackle bullying in schools last week, but a University of Ottawa researcher says the list of proposals could use an overhaul.

Ontario's education minister Stephen Lecce announced the measures Nov. 27, which included assigning an MPP to advise the minister on bullying prevention, conducting a province-wide survey to learn about student experiences and looking at redefining "bullying" in its policies.

Tracy Vaillancourt, the Canada Research Chair in Children's Mental Health and Violence Prevention, told CBC Radio's All in a Day Tuesday some of the new initiatives aren't needed.

"One of the things I don't think we need is a review of the definition," Vaillancourt explained.

That's because when it comes to explaining what bullying really is, the province already has "the best definition in the world", Vaillancourt said. 

The existing definition outlines various types of distress, describes how the behaviour can be based on a wide range of factors and includes an emphasis on cyberbullying. 

"I think they're worried that the new technology is not going to be represented, perhaps more vulnerable groups are not represented in the definition," Vaillancourt explained.

"But the definition is one that I think about every day and I promote around the world."

The announcement was prompted in part by the death of 14-year-old Hamilton teen Devan Selvey, who was fatally stabbed outside his high school in October. 

As for the ministry's plans to survey students across the province, Vaillancourt said much of the information that could be gleaned from questioning already exists.

"Measuring something is really important because we need to know what the problem is and what the prevalence of that issue is before moving forward with intervention and prevention," the researcher explained.

"But the thing is we know this, because every two years every school in Ontario has to look at what their prevalence rate is. They're surveying kids all the time."

They're surveying kids all the time. - Tracy Vaillancourt

One example is the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children study, which asks Canadian youth every four years about their well-being in school.

A commitment to studying specific types of bullying — like taunts based on sexual orientation, race and disability — is what's actually needed, Vaillancourt said.

"As a researcher who's been in Ontario for the past 15 years studying this issue in earnest, I've been quite frustrated with school boards not allowing us to ask specific questions like this."

For her part, Vaillancourt welcomes the ministry's efforts to boost anti-bullying and de-escalation training because teachers have told her they struggle with those issues.