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Will “Blue Day” be on the back-to-school agenda this year?

   
 


Elsie Rempel is Director of Christian Nurture for Mennonite Church Canada.

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August 20, 2009
- Elsie Rempel

Winnipeg, Man. Not long from now there could be another day to honour on our annual calendar.

Katie Neu, (Listowel, Ont.) and Robert Frenette (Fredericton, NB), endured bullying in their childhood. Toegther with Mike Allan, a Maritime MP, they are lobbying for the acceptance of December 17th as “Blue Day” to promote a culture that is anti-bullying. Dec. 17 is also the day in 2006 when their Bullying Canada website was launched. The occasion would annually be known as Blue Day, chosen for the colour of the anti-bullying awareness ribbon. December is a good time for such a focus: Even in a post Christian-society, Canadians still expect and respond to messages of peace and goodwill in December.

On the other hand, media often feature stories about bullying in September, when school starts up again. September is a key month for establishing the social climate of school communities in which many bullies, bystanders and victims find themselves.

Can a story in September and a focus day in December prevent schoolyard bullying? As good as such efforts are, it’s not enough for a problem that is as persistent as dry skin in winter. But we can cultivate communities that make bullying the exception rather than the rule.

In Oct., 2005, an ecumenical, national task force on Bullying met in Manitoba and developed this definition: “Bullying is repeated behaviour intended to cause harm or distress. It seeks to establish a relationship that is based on power and contempt. The actions destroy the possibility of life-giving relationships and are a signal of spiritual crisis.”

Defining the issue is an important step – as are resources that equip children and educators to deal with bullying. Thankfully, good resources abound. A brief internet search reveals “Proven Bullying Prevention Software” with virtual role plays that foster experiential learning, the Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network, with handy lists of actions if you are being bullied or see someone else being bullied (www.practiquest.com), and personal safety curricula like Steps to Respect (www.cfchildren.org).

Valuable resources for developing anti-bullying communities also reside among educators in the peace church tradition. I contacted some of Canada’s Mennonite elementary, middle and high schools to find out how they respond to this pernicious relational issue.

At the elementary and middle school levels, using curricula, such as mentioned above, or from provincial education departments, were common. In addition, staff exercised considerable vigilance in responding to incidents of bullying.

Heather Smith, the vice principle at the Mennonite Educational Institute (MEI) in Abbotsford, B.C., re-defines the popular public policy of “zero tolerance” as follows: “Every incidence of bullying will have consequences, and those consequences will include opportunities for growth, for restoration and redemption.” She stressed that while students aren’t coerced into liking each other, MEI students are expected to be kind to each other. Students with special needs are also equipped with special tools, such as “Bully Busters,” a resource that is part of BC schools’ Bullying and Prevention Handbook. Everyone at MEI gets the messages that it is never wise to keep bullying a secret.

At Menno Simons Christian School (MSCS) in Calgary, a secular violence prevention curriculum is well appreciated. However, the school's PEACEMAKERS acronym gets used even more: Participants, Enthusiastic, Accepting, Christ-like, Encouraging, Mentors, Aspiring, Kind, Excellent, Responsible, and Servants. The acronym does not eliminate the issue of bullying, but it does highlight the complementary resources the staff at MSCS use to address the issue. Karen Braun, vice principal, who came to MSCS from a career in the public schools notes that while bullying is less of an issue than it was in the public schools, it still remains an issue. She appreciates the ability to work in a faith based context where she can remind students of their identity as PEACEMAKERS and pray with children who are involved in bullying. Children, who are involved in praying for each other, tend to respect each other more. Perhaps praying for each other even makes it easier to deal with one of the consequences for bullying at Menno Simons – an act of kindness toward the person whom you have just bullied.
 
At the Winnipeg Mennonite Elementary and Middle Schools (WMES), the online resource, Steps to Respect, helps teachers equip students to counteract bullying tendencies. Attentiveness to incidences of bullying is stressed, as is the one-on-one response to each occurrence. Everyone is taught to intervene when they see bullying behaviour. At WMES, referring to a higher power, to what Jesus expects of us and helps us do, adds importance to the need for making amends and making better choices. WMES recently conducted a survey on this topic among its parents. It revealed that students generally feel safe at school, that incidences of bullying erupt occasionally during unsupervised times, and that parents appreciate the way staff responds when it does occur.

At the high school level such direct moral teaching is no longer the most effective way to counter bullying behaviour. Christian teachers and administrators who model Christ like behaviour and use peer monitoring are effective. Teachers must treat students with integrity and respect, keeping their eyes open for incidences of bullying and responding pro-actively even when the bullied teen claims “it’s not so bad,” and confronting bullying with redemptive attitudes.

Westgate School principal Bob Hummelt views peer assessment as the most powerful agent for change. He and his staff work hard at building up positive values in their students. Hummelt asks students engaged in bullying activity if they want their classmates to think of them as jerks. These students get the message and usually work at improving their behaviour. Phys-ed classes support this approach with curriculum units on the topic and equip students with bullying prevention language, such as “That’s bully action. Stop it.” The community spirit of their smaller school also helps Westgate builds an anti-bullying culture, although some students do still “freeze other kids out.” Bullying, like dry skin, isn’t easy to eradicate, but it can be treated.

Such good news stories occur in the public school system as well. There are many people of faith in public education systems that are committed to redemptive non-violence but serve in settings where explicit references to their faith are not possible. However, their attitudes and actions convey clear messages of care for the underdog. Their redemptive approaches toward perpetrators and supportive bystanders of bullying make them distinctive and help them build relationships of respect and integrity that go a long way in building school cultures of anti-bullying, even where faith is a taboo topic. When students, who are stuck in cycles of retribution are asked, “Have you ever considered the power of not hitting back?” they are often surprised, but sometimes try out this weird strategy, and add it to personal toolbox. 
    
Are our children getting too soft to tough it out like their parents and grandparents may have? No.

Much of the increase of violence and killings in North American schools is linked to disadvantaged kids being bullied, “frozen out,” and eventually lashing out with incredible violence. The shootings at Columbine High in the 90s, where her sons were students, prompted popular parenting author Barbara Coloroso to focus on the issue of bullying.

Since then, she has led workshops and given presentations across North America. She traveled to Rwanda and Darfur to lead anti-bullying workshops, and was shocked to discover how genocide survivors identified countries according to bully and bystander qualities. This led her to additional research and the conclusion that it’s a short path from bullying to genocide. Her book, Extraordinary Evil: A brief history of Genocide (Nation Books, 2007), effectively illustrates the path from the personal dynamics of bullying to the social dynamics of hate crimes and genocide. Coloroso claims that, as in bullying, a critical requirement for stopping genocide is to see and name it as early in the process as possible. She challenges the international community to get involved and help rewrite the script, rather than take decades to name the genocides of the past and then say “never again,” while remaining blind to the evolving genocides of the present.

Christians who are committing themselves to speak to peace in the public square, need to do our part in building anti-bullying cultures wherever we are active, whether that is in our families, in our schools, in our church communities, or at broader civil and ecclesial levels. One of Coloroso's tools to overcoming the relational evils from bullying to the extraordinary evil of genocide is a commitment to "deep caring" and moral formation. And deep caring can make every day a “Blue Day”, including December 17th.

Click here for resources on bullying.


Sidebar: Remembering Remembrance Day: An act of peace
- by Dan Dyck

A kilted piper shattered the opening silence at my eldest daughter’s Nov. 11 service at her school. She was in grade three.

Amazing Grace pierced the high gymnasium, bouncing off the walls and metal rafters. The principal welcomed military representatives from the nearby military base, the students and parents gathered for this solemn occasion to remember those who had died in service to their country. A visual presentation began, set to an ominous, pulsating soundtrack. The screen reflected sad images of crosses in cemeteries, victims of war.

A few more images followed and I began to get uncomfortable. Forceful images appeared. Gun toting soldiers in action stances – legs spread apart, tension in every muscle, weapons at the ready. Soldiers riding triumphantly atop tanks roving down dusty streets in some foreign place. I squirmed in my seat. I watched the K-5 kids, eyes glued to the screen. The younger ones looked lost – even a bit frightened. I resolved to act.

Later that day, I called the principal and respectfully asked how these violent, forceful images could be shown in a school with an active anti-bullying program, a school that appointed conflict managers on the playground, a school that actively teaches dialogue and negotiation over force and fighting. It didn’t mesh, I said. I made it clear that I was not against honouring those who died as a result of the choices they made, but didn’t this way of honouring the war dead advocate for conflict resolution through force? What about the teaching philosophy of the school?

Our school's principal was very gracious and acknowledged the contrast, admitting she had never thought of it that way. She said she would have a word with the teacher who put together the presentation.

A year later I returned to take in another Nov. 11 service. The presentation had improved – though there was still room left for further improvement. This all happened about 5 years ago. My eldest daughter will soon be in grade eight.

My youngest daughter will be in grade 5 next year. I intend to take in her final Nov. 11 day service before she graduates to middle school.

Most public schools have anti-bullying programs. What messages does your child’s school send on Nov. 11?