Bayridge principal studies case of extreme bullying

By Tamsin McMahon
Local News - Tuesday, October 26, 2004 @ 07:00

The principal of Bayridge Secondary School says he still plans to investigate a case of extreme bullying in which four students allegedly extorted nearly $1,500 from a classmate.

Craig Alderson said he’s waiting for police reports before he conducts his own investigation into the alleged crime before considering whether to hold a school-wide assembly to address what he said is an isolated act of bullying.

“That will all be part of our response,” Alderson said. “We’re very careful in how we react. We don’t want a knee-jerk response to anything. We know we have a responsibility to our entire [school] population.

“Bullying in general is very serious, but in this particular instance you really have to get the facts before you see the nature of the incident.”

Last week, police charged four 14-year-old students with extortion and threatening after the teens allegedly forced a 14-year-old classmate to hand over $1,440 during one month.

The harassment began just after school started in September, police say, when the four teens allegedly told their victim they’d hurt him if he didn’t hand over money.

The threats continued almost daily for a month until the victim’s grandfather caught him stealing money to pay the bullies.

One of the boy’s parents talked to a vice-principal at Bayridge, Alderson said.

“There wasn’t any hesitation. As soon as we found out anything, we acted,” he said.

The students were suspended immediately.

He has 20 days from suspending the students to decide whether they should be expelled from Bayridge, or be barred from any classroom until they complete a strict-discipline program.

The alleged victim continues to attend class.

There have been just two students expelled in the past three years. Both were high school students and one was expelled for assault, the other for drug trafficking.

The school isn’t starting any new anti-bullying programs, Alderson said. Instead it will continue with a program started three years ago to encourage healthy relationships between its students.

The program started with a staff retreat in fall of 2002 to go over Queen’s University psychology professor Wendy Craig’s material on anti-bullying and raising awareness about harassment going on in the school hallways.

Bayridge also has a “respect committee” with both students and staff, and its drama department has put on a play for senior students about bullying.

The school also has plans for an anti-bullying awareness week campaign in November – plans that were started before the school learned of the extortion scheme.

Alderson also hoped to bring speakers to the school in the spring to talk about building confidence and respecting differences.

The school’s peer tutoring groups all have sessions on bullying before going into the classroom – even the school newspaper has addressed the problem.

Alderson said the programs have helped combat bullying in the school.

“We’ve had a real improvement in that area over the last little while,” he said.

Although the high-profile incident hasn’t provoked more admissions of bullying by other students, Alderson said it highlighted for staff the importance of building relationships with students so they can detect when something is wrong.

The school’s parent council has put on panel forums for parents with community agencies like city police or the local health unit that have included question-and-answer sessions on bullying, said council co-president Barb Meilenner.

“It’s an ongoing quest,” she said. “I think school boards are continuing to find programs, whether they be community-wide or school-based.”

The alleged extortion hasn’t led the Limestone District School Board to institute mandatory anti-bullying programs across its public schools, said superintendent of education Madeliene Tarasick.

But, she said, there are procedures already in place to deal with bullying under board policies like harassment, conflict resolution, human rights and the provincial Safe Schools Act that spells out what crimes warrant a suspension or an expulsion.

Each year the board sends home a newsletter to parents on bullying prevention and recognizing signs of harassment in their children, Tarasick said.

The board leaves it up to each school to find an anti-bullying program that works best for its students. She said a bullying prevention committee found that all of its elementary schools have some sort of anti-bullying program in place.

Programs are more inconsistent in secondary schools, she said, which also cover bullying as part of their Grade 9 lessons and in the schools’ codes of behavior.

The board also has experts and a human rights education adviser who go into schools to work with students on issues of violence and harassment.

Schools are required to report and track some acts of bullying, but principals still have discretion on relatively minor incidents, like students poking each other in the back or writing nasty notes.

“The principals still work very often in the grey areas,” Tarasick said. “Even though the Safe Schools Act looks like it’s in the black and white, it actually has a lot of grey areas.”

The provincial legislation, which was introduced in 2000 to establish a zero-tolerance policy on violence in schools, has given principals more legal backing to enforce the rules, Tarasick said.

But the rules already existed in the board before they became provincial law.

“I don’t believe [the act] has helped or hindered to the degree that one might expect,” she said.

Tarasick said it’s still a struggle for teachers and principals to learn about bullying in the first place, since much of it goes on behind the backs of adults and victims are too often ashamed about being singled out by bullies to come forward.

“There is a very powerful code of silence among students of being a rat or telling on someone,” she said.

Breaking that code is one of the best ways to stop bullying, said Wendy Craig, a Queen’s associate professor who has studied bullying.

A survey of students who were victims of bullying found that 68 per cent recommended telling an adult, she said. Students who tell someone are more likely to stop being victimized and adults are more likely to follow up to make sure the student is never victimized again.

The prevalence of bullying hasn’t changed much in the last 14 years, Craig said, although students are turning increasingly to the Internet and cellphones to bully each other.

But educators are only recently learning just what kind of devastating and long-term effects bullying has on victims.

While the alleged incident at Bayridge is unusual because bullies were able to get so much money in such a short time, extortion is the most common form of bullying among teenagers, along with nasty comments, Craig said.

The challenge for schools is to foster an environment where students feel comfortable in telling, she said.

Students are smart at hiding their bullying, but teachers and administrators have to do more to learn about their pupils, what kind of groups they are forming, what they do outside of the classroom and notice when their behaviour changes.

“There are a lot of reasons why schools miss it,” Craig said.

“That doesn’t make it OK.

“I wouldn’t say the school has failed. I would say the school has to seriously examine the culture within that school that allows children to tell when they are being victimized and the kind of the response that the school implements.”

Policies and classroom programs that deal with bullying are fine, Craig said, but they don’t go far enough to stop the problem.

“When it comes to bullying, schools tend to have a boxed response,” she said.

“They buy the anti-bullying programs, they introduce them into the classrooms and they follow up. But that’s not sufficient enough to address bullying. It has to go beyond the box.”

Innovative ways of addressing bullying being used in other countries are classroom lectures, she said.

For instance, in Japan, students write journals where they discuss their thoughts and feelings toward each other.

“A lot of it is about creating a caring classroom that is almost like a family,” Craig said, “that builds empathy and relationships, where kids are allowed to be open and discuss things that are happening to them.”

Tarasick said she realizes school programs aren’t a cure-all and that the boys accused of extortion would have gone through anti-bullying lessons in elementary school.

But there’s only so much schools can do, she said.

“I think it’s a larger issue than what program we are using, it’s more than a school issue. It’s a community issue and a serious one.”