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Efforts to combat bullying continue

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Bullying may have made it off the front pages of the Vancouver newspapers but efforts to nip the problem in the bud have not slowed at a local level.

Parents, police and students are undertaking separate but overlapping initiatives aimed at curbing bullying and harassment among young people in the community. The action has largely been driven by a spate of publicized bullying events throughout the Lower Mainland over recent months, including the Du Four family’s civil suit against school authorities over their part in alleged bullying incidents at Whistler Secondary.

Whistler RCMP have put a proposal to the municipality and the Howe Sound School District to install a full-time police liaison officer at the local elementary and high schools from September, 2001. Staff Sergeant Hilton Haider says the officer would help expand the existing stretched community policing program.

"Community constable Ray Bernoties does work within the schools but many of his hours are taken up dealing with other problems in the community, such as accommodation issues and equipment theft on the mountain."

Haider says having another full-time community officer would enable real progress to be made with school Drug Awareness Resistance Programs (DARE) as well as anti-bullying and harassment education.

"Theft and drugs tend to be more of a problem in larger schools than here but a lot of issues such as abuse or problems at home can be identified in the school environment." Having a full-time officer may also help overcome the negative perception of police that children often gain between the ages of eight and 10, he added.

"Some kids are terrified of the police because they are very impressionable at that age and one negative comment from mom or dad can create a long-term psychological effect."

Under the RCMP proposal, the new position would be co-funded by the Resort Municipality of Whistler and the school board. Haider says both parties have given verbal support to the idea and he expects to receive final confirmation within the next few weeks.

At the school level, a group of Whistler Secondary students involved with the Safe Schools Program will be attending a special symposium entitled Youth Against Violence next week in New Westminster. The two day event on Feb. 15 and 16, is sponsored by the Attorney General’s community programs division.

Patti O’Reilly, who heads a bullying and harassment sub-committee of the Whistler Secondary Parent Advisory Committee, says the students will attend a series of workshops and then report back to their peers.

"For such a small school it shows a good level of commitment that seven students can afford to take time off classes to attend these courses," she said.

O’Reilly will also be attending the symposium, along with another parent. She says community interest in the bullying issue has not waned, despite the fall-off in media coverage.

"People keep asking if there is anything they can do to help promote safety and teach kids about bullying and harassment," she says. "It’s nice to see a small community that cares."

A subsequent public forum and march against bullying being held in Surrey on March 11 will also include participants from Whistler. The event is being organized by Nasima Nastoh to mark the 12-month anniversary of the death of her teenage son Hamed, who jumped off Pattullo Bridge to escape incessant bullying and teasing at school. The guest speakers include Leanne Du Four from Whistler and other parents whose children have been bullied.

Ted Nebbeling, the West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA, will be attending, along with other opposition caucus members and politicians. Nebbeling says the meeting will undoubtedly yield recommendations that require legislative changes by the provincial government.

"Aside from the Whistler case, I think everybody has been shocked by that incident in Courtney where that kid filmed that fight and was ostracized for it," he says. "He exposed the bully behind that nasty act but was himself treated like the perpetrator – the situation needs to be reversed and we need systems in place to go after the bully."

Likewise Leanne Du Four says a key part of her speech will be pushing for province-wide changes to anti-bullying policies and penalties within schools and the courts.

"What we have now is a lot of guidelines for schools but implementation is not enforced," she says. "A mandatory, provincial policy against violence and harassment is needed if kids are ever to realize they are accountable for their actions."

Included in Du Four’s list of recommended changes within schools is the need for documentation of all bullying incidents, a bully relocation and counselling plan, a victim support service and a full-time trained staff member who parents and children can go to for advice. A safety drill in the event of an armed attack on students is also recommended.

Within the court system, Du Four wants to see reclassification of the term, bullying.

"The term bullying or teasing might apply at elementary school but what is happening at the high schools is harassment, assault, stalking and gang terrorism, and it should be labelled as such."

She says lumping everything under the term "bullying" reduces the significance of what is happening and re-victimizes the victim by making them appear "weak or a loser." Other recommendations include tougher sentences for young offenders, the full disclosure of juvenile offenders’ names, parent accountability and greater restrictions on violence in the media and entertainment industries.

"My daughter’s name has been splashed across the country while her attackers remain anonymous," she says. "Embarrassment may be the best cure for these types of behaviour, along with the realization that criminal charges may be laid."

Du Four hopes to meet with Whistler parents and interested parties to discuss her recommendations prior to the forum, with the intention of forming a petition for locals to endorse.

Nebbeling says the Surrey meeting must be a catalyst for anti-bullying activity, especially in the political arena.

"Recent events have reinforced that bullying is an extremely serious issue that can have horrendous demoralizing effects on students, whether it be verbal or physical," Nebbeling says.

He adds the government needs to set a strong direction in anti-bullying policy and he believes this will be a key issue in some electoral areas. However, he says getting teenagers to listen to what adults have to say on the subject, could be another challenge in itself.

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