Listen Up! School curriculums need to effectively address bullying

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

It’s time to deal with bullying …

After the columns I have written in the last two weeks, I had decided to tone things down a little and write about something less controversial. Maybe about the mail strike or how some favoured newspapers and journalists could look forward to financial goodies from the government. Something easy like that. But then came the story of St. Michael’s College, a private school for boys and young men in Toronto and I couldn’t resist it. So here I go again.

St. Michael’s College has been around for well over 100 years. It had a solid reputation as a Catholic school where scholarship, athletics and discipline went hand in hand. Last week, much of that reputation came crashing down. It did so because of videos that circulated, showing terrible and inexcusable abuse in the bowels of the school. The headlines shouted sexual assault as, these days, that is what grabs people’s attention. And no question, there appears to have been some of that and, if true, people should go to jail because of it.

But there is another underlying, systemic issue here, an issue too far out of the limelight because other issues make better news. Nevertheless, it is a matter that needs exposure because at its root is a type of behaviour that develops the very kind of individuals that in later life cause so much harm, in so many different ways. I am speaking of bullying.

I sometimes wonder if we have a culture of bullying in our school system in Ontario. I am not just talking about private schools, although there is no doubt that the situation at St. Michael’s College got way out of hand. Public schools too, in my view, also have serious issues with systemic bullying and I have, sadly, seen some of this first hand.

My personal experience comes from four years in a private boys’ boarding school. It was a good school then and it is a good school now. To be honest, I didn’t like it much, but I learned a lot. I haven’t always been successful in life, but what success I have had I owe in part to my experience there. One of the things I learned was how to deal with bullies. They were some, but certainly not all, of the power guys, the jocks who had little use for those who did not take part in their games. Those folks became the butt of their jokes, pranks and often cruelty. It was almost like entertainment for them. Interestingly, the two bullies I remember best from those days never got too far in life and are dead now!

Bullying is learned behaviour. It builds character in the wrong direction. Bullies believe they are powerful and that they can use that power to put other people down. They often succeed. One even became President of the United States.

The time to stop bullying is to nip it in the bud and the best opportunity for that lies within our school system. One can be sure that every private school and hopefully every public school in the province is reviewing their policies and practices when it comes to bullying and sexual abuse in light of the St. Michael’s College fiasco. At least, they had better be. On top of that, however, they ought to be thinking about curriculum. If sex education has a place in our schools, and I believe that it does, then why not studies of equal weight on the effects of bullying; how to recognize it, how to avoid being one and how to deal with it? Please don’t tell me it is already there because if it is, it is not very effective.

The charges of sexual assault at St. Michael’s College are more than disturbing. In my view, they are the consequence of learned behaviour through a culture of bullying that has gone on in many schools, both public and private, for far too long. If we could come to grips with that, if we could find ways to deal with that, perhaps we would have fewer sexual assaults.

In the meantime, maybe we need another ME TOO Movement, this time for victims of bullying. It is that important.

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5 Comments

  1. Hugh, we may disagree on some issues, but, as usual, you are right on. As an immigrant kid, I was bullied in public and high school, not just because I probably talked “funny”, but I was also lucky to have some great, understanding teachers who nurtured my love for learning, and supported me and my parents in helping me to love this country and the opportunities it gave us. But…the bullies were always there. It wasn’t till around grade 12 that I finally managed to escape them. Nothing like the horrible stuff at St. Mike’s, but it was always there.
    And, a generation later, bullying still existed in our own small town…my kids can attest to it.
    The schools are trying, but it’s tough.

  2. Think how much harder your life is when you are a bully. The only people that like you are your close knit circle of bullies. The majority of kids don’t respect you. They think you are a meathead. Good luck getting a summer job because your community knows you’re a bully…. Social media!!! As an employer in Huntsville trust me; we know everything about you. We communicate with your teachers, parents, past employers and even your closest friends before we hire you. The last thing we want is a student representing our company that no one respects.

    I think that most kids listen to their parents first and foremost; and if they don’t then the parents need to do a better job. We as parents need to explain to our kids why you shouldn’t bully and the real and not so obvious consequences if you do. We need to explain how your peers, all parents and the community you live in see’s you.

    We need to explain that if you are the captain on your high school team that you need to inspire and help the weakest member on your team instead of teasing him or not including her. The weakest kid wants to be like you and will work harder and practice more if you are a good leader. This makes the whole team better.

    Teachers have enough to do. Parents are responsible for making their children understand the consequences of bullying.

  3. Hugh, great topic with personal insights, but I am not sure bullying is a learned trait and if it is, who teaches it. For the past two months I have watched a young rafter of 22 wild turkeys as they develop into mature birds. They all started being about the same size. Debi and I noticed almost on their first visit that one or two birds were ostracized from the group, pecked at and shunned from the rest. This habit has been exacerbated as they grow; their size has evolved in proportion to this bullying. About 12 are larger now and use their size to physically keep the smaller ones from the feed. This isn’t unique with turkeys but we see it with all birds as well as squirrels and chipmunks. It seems to be a natural territorial instinct. Back to humans, the single bully from my vantage point seems to have lessened with mob rule taking its place. Although physical abuse is still in the News and public such as your article, I feel mental abuse has grown exponentially in social media, newspapers, tv and Internet sources.
    News stories that were once meant to keep people informed have now morphed into bullying the public into supporting the media’s and those that control that narratives beliefs through the guise of editorializing or as writers or broadcasters say “telling you what the speaker meant or what their actions truly indicated”. This is not just territorial but is a learned means of bullying others. Known not as bullying but as the Power of the Pen or negotiating same process, different name. Bullying has happened for ever and as the respect for everyone’s opinions not just those “politically correct ones” wanes, I fear nothing will change. Hugh you gave the answer already, which is we need to teach our children how to handle the bully press, the bully boss, the bully Union and all other bullies in society. Parents, not teachers, need to step up and teach their children that bullying is not acceptable in or out of school.

  4. Hugh, the first thing that I noticed was that you omitted to include Mr. Ford (who, coincidentally, removed all the excellent sex education classes instituted by the Grits); when mentioning POTUS. But that is not a universal opinion, and not really the subject at hand.
    .
    With respect to the St. Mike’s students; it’s all about entitlement. They have wealthy parents (who bailed all 6 out within hours of their detention), and I’m sure that they watched in amusement as the College’s top 2 administrators were punished in their stead. If you feel that you can get away with anything, then you will do anything.
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    Bullies are, by definition, cowards: They need this obscene behaviour to prop up their self-esteem. Add in some mob mentality (and I’m willing to bet that 5 of the students were “followers” by nature); and you have an explosive situation, duly recorded. Two decades ago, this would all be handled “in house”; but with social media, “no mas”. I hope that all six are prosecuted to the full extent of the law, AS ADULTS. No expunging of records should prevent the “St. Michael’s Six” from encountering the same discrimination that any criminal finds when seeking future employment.

  5. Karen Wehrstein on

    I wonder if bullying could be stopped/prevented or at least lessened by mandated investigations into proven juvenile bullies’ home lives. They do start out as kids — impressionable and strongly influenced by parents — and because kids are most impressionable at preschool ages, parents have much more influence on forming their behavioural habits than do schools. With persistent bullies, you have to wonder about what they have learned, or been subjected to, at home. Have they themselves been bullied — i.e. abused — by their parents, and therefore intervention is needed? Does Dad bully Mom (or, more rarely, vice-versa) so the children’s example of how to treat people includes domestic violence? Do their parents tell them that bullying as acceptable or even advisable because they have to be “top of the heap”? Is the child acting out due to parental rejection or neglect, parental substance abuse, or stress in the home that could be alleviated by support from outside? Does the child have anyone to talk to about what hurts him? Some commenters want to put the onus on parents to prevent bullying, but I’m sure that good loving parents already do, while other parents are incapable of it, or worse.

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