Alberta's new Education Act contains strong words about bullying that could backfire warns the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.
Of particular concern is the part of the Act which directs students 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."
"That in itself is actually not a bad policy. In fact, there is some research that would suggest that when a student intervenes as a bystander in an incidence of bullying that incidences conclude fairly quickly, as long as the bystander doesn't become a victim themselves," said Peter Jon Mitchell, senior researcher with the Institute. "What's troubling for us is later in the bill it suggests that failure to abide by that is punishable by suspension so it adds a punitive aspect to that section of responsibilities."
Mitchell said he's concerned students are being asked to police the Internet on behalf of schools and that the punishment of bystanders inhibits the opportunities to teach children how to respond to bullying appropriately. He predicts the provision will create an adversarial relationship between school administration and the student and possibly the parents and put added pressure on students.
"I think it might have the unintended consequence of making it more difficult to address the bystander issue," Mitchell said. "I think we want kids to learn to do the right thing because it's the right thing when it's safe to do so."
Ken Sommerfeldt, superintendent of the Westwind School Division, said he doesn't foresee negative consequences from that section of the Act.
"To me the important thing to note is that I think the ministry and the public are interested in being better able to solve the problems that are associated with bullying," he said. "The notion that we could use punitive measures against someone who didn't report an incident of bullying - to me that's really a big, huge jump."
Sommerfeldt said students, parents and communities will need to better understand how to respond to bullying in any form and he expects many processes will be put in place, with suspension reserved for the most extreme circumstances.
"We're not talking about someone who called someone a name in the hallway. There's a narrow interpretation and a broad interpretation but, by and large, this is an educative process that's going to take a little time," he said. "I still believe in the broader good of humanity and that we are, as a group, still powerful enough to effect pressure on poor behaviour."
The Institute of Marriage and Family Canada is the social policy think tank of Focus on the Family Canada, a Christian-based organization.