SD67 celebrating annual day of bullying awareness

Todd Manuel is the superintendent for Okanagan Skaha School District 67 which operates schools in Penticton, Summerland, Kaleden, Naramata and Westbench. He spoke this week with LJI reporter Dan Walton on bullying and how the school system is addressing this complex issue.

Q: What is the most common form of bullying students face in 2024?

MANUEL: In SD67 our administrators, teachers and school staff work hard to build safe and caring school communities. This includes teaching and modelling positive social skills, and supporting social emotional learning initiatives to help students understand and care about themselves and others. Additionally, our school communities work to create conditions that empower students to report concerns and help them to work positively through challenges when they arise.

Today, social media continues to create some of the most significant and common challenges around on-line communication and bullying. The proliferation of social media apps and communication tools that allow for anonymity and that can also be quickly amplified and spread to others can increase the impact of bullying, and they continue to be a significant challenge for our educators to navigate and respond to. Often, youth will make comments or engage in behaviours online that they wouldn’t otherwise do if they were interacting face to face, which is an additional challenge of social media.

We appreciate the critical role parents play in supporting and monitoring their child’s online connections, and to help with this, the district continues to share online safety sessions for both parents and students throughout the school year.

Additionally, the Ministry of Education and Child Care continues to support anti-bullying initiatives, mental health promotion and anti-racism learning resources through their Erase initiative, which is all about building safe and caring school communities.

Q: How is the culture around bullying improving, and in what ways is it getting worse?

MANUEL: We see our students being incredible leaders in our schools every day, and they certainly provide us with lots of hope and inspiration through their actions as they connect with others in kind and thoughtful ways. In many schools, students have worked with teachers to formalize advocacy and learning around kindness initiatives, such at the recent real acts of caring assembly. Supported by SD67 educators Jenny Mitchell and Melissa Burdock, KVR students lead a virtual assembly that was broadcast to our elementary schools on Feb. 7 with a focus on how doing kind acts for peers and for community can make a significant and positive impact. There are many other examples of our students’ leading initiatives that focus on kindness, respecting diversity and equity of others, and giving back to community. In fact, in many respects, today’s youth, and our SD67 students in particular, are modelling for all of us ways to be inclusive and understanding while demonstrating an authentic appreciation for equity and diversity.

In terms of how it may be getting worse, I would again reference the challenges that social media and on-line tools play in the lives of youth. It is particularly difficult when these tools allow for anonymity, and when they are used after hours, as communication is of course accessibly 24/7 through these apps, it becomes increasingly concerning and difficult to monitor and respond to in a timely fashion.

These social media tools can also quickly magnify bullying issues by broadcasting to larger groups, in turn widening the social circle involved in a particular event of incident.

Of course, digital access to online tools can involve larger networks of cyberbullying and potentially provide connections to others that may wish to do harm in some way to our youth.

I would want to emphasis the point that our students regularly demonstrate growth and learning to accept others for who they are and continue to model kindness and understanding of others each day in our schools and our community. We really have amazing kids in our schools.

Q: The focus of anti-bullying is usually focused around kids. But I’m wondering, what does workplace bullying look like when it involves faculty members?

MANUEL: Speaking for SD67, I am proud of the professional relationships that have been fostered among the adults who support our students. Our team understands the need to model positive adult relationships and how to navigate differences of opinions and challenging situations in respectful ways that do not fracture climate and culture. Like our student population, this may not always be perfect but I do believe the foundational value of working together to support our students while maintaining a healthy working environment is very strong.

Q: Does Pink Shirt Day make a meaningful difference or has it become a token gesture?

MANUEL: I think it remains a healthy reminder for all of us to reflect on how we treat others, and that bullying or hurting others is never acceptable in any form. Pink Shirt Day continues to provide a great opportunity for schools to engage in conversations about bullying, how students can access supports if needed, and generally how we can all make more of an effort to treat each other with kindness and respect.

That said, the work in schools around empathy and kindness certainly goes much further than a conversation one day a year. The work currently happening in our schools has gone beyond simply a message around anti-bullying to focus on building caring and inclusive school communities on a daily basis, and there are lessons and conversations that occur each day that are centred on these themes.

Dan Walton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Penticton Herald