Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce announced new measures on Wednesday aimed at stemming bullying in schools, including training teachers in de-escalation techniques.
Lecce said that as part of a province-wide effort, he has asked Scarborough Centre MPP Christina Mitas to advise him on strategies to fight bullying. Mitas will talk to students, parents, teachers and experts.
As well, the province will conduct a survey of students about bullying, review school reporting practices on violence, and review the definition of bullying in Education Ministry policies.
While Lecce was making the announcement at Toronto's Ogden Junior Public School, hundreds of members of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation — currently working to rule — held a demonstration as part of efforts to fight education funding cuts.
After his speech, some of the demonstrators briefly surrounded Lecce's car as he tried to leave.
Hamilton death prompted action
Lecce told reporters that one factor driving the new anti-bullying measures was the death of Hamilton teen Devan Selvey, 14, who was stabbed in the back behind his high school on Oct. 7.
"I think there are so many tragic incidents of bullying ... where we have young people dying, either as a consequence of young people taking their own lives, or because of violence perpetuated by others. I think each and every story that has been shared in the public discourse has really informed us and driven us to act today," he said.
"I want parents who have faced this sense of darkness in their life to know that we are absolutely determined to learn from these examples and take corrective action.
"By strengthening these mechanisms, we're putting the right measures in place. Because when it comes to the safety and inclusion at schools, we all share in this obligation — administrators, parents, teachers, and of course, our proud students."
Lecce said young people need to know there are caring adults who can help them.
"I know what it feels like to grow up feeling like you don't belong. It can be tough. For a lot of kids, the sense of being alone or apart can wear down on you. But I want them to know is this — that you are not alone, and you don't deserve to be bullied. There are people out there who love you and care about you, just the way you are."
Lecce also said in a statement Wednesday that the province is "working to change the culture to one where everyone sees the inherent dignity and the value of a person, irrespective of their faith, heritage or orientation or race or their income, to build a more accepting and inclusive province."
Mitas, a former teacher, said it is an "absolute honour" to be given the chance to help the province deal with bullying in schools and make schools "bully-free" zones.
"Bullying is no laughing matter and it has no place in Ontario's education system. As educators, we know that we can always improve when it comes to students' well-being and safety."
The government said it has invested $3.18 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year on programs, partnerships and services that help "to promote a positive school climate, support healthy relationships, build empathy and address bullying and cyberbullying."
A recent CBC News series featured heartbreaking stories of violence — physical, psychological and sexual — inflicted on students in today's schools. All of this came hard on the heels of the stabbing death of Selvey in front of Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School.
Mom of bullied teen thankful
Kelley Trudell, an educational assistant in Windsor, Ont., said the announcement is an acknowledgement that something needs to be done in schools.
"I'm just thankful that somebody is acknowledging this, is actually taking it seriously."
Her son Jayden was attacked outside his school just days after starting grade nine at W.F. Herman Academy SS. He was 14 at the time and was left with a fractured skull, brain bleed and hearing loss. He spent months in hospital recovering.
And although the school expelled the students who attacked Jayden, the threats continued for the rest of the school year. And things got so bad that he eventually left his school.
His mother said staff didn't do enough to support her son or stop the bullying.
Staff people heard her son being made fun of in the hallways after the attack and did nothing, she added. That just made my son "feel small," she said.
She said teachers and principals need to know how to handle these situations when they see it.
"Every child deserves to go to school and feel safe."
Experts welcome changes
Elizabeth Saewyc, a professor at the University of British Columbia whose work focuses on the trauma of marginalized young people, said Wednesday: "It's a very important good step."
She said it's excellent that student will now have a champion and advocate in Mitas, and she expects the province-wide survey will be revealing.
"Our research has demonstrated that the reporting … is just the tip of the iceberg, because there are lots of barriers," said Saewyc, "[and] that anonymous, school-based surveys are an important strategy to help track this."
York University psychology professor Debra Pepler also said the changes announced are good news, but need to come with resources and a long-term plan.
"The education for teachers needs to be ongoing," said Pepler, who's also the co-founder of PrevNET, a national network on researchers who study bullying prevention.
"It can't be a one-off teacher workshop that will just solve the problem. We need to be there, to support teachers that have bullying in their classroom."
Pepler says the province-wide survey announced by the ministry will also help gauge whether students trust the adults around them — and would feel confident and supported enough to report violent situations.