Fiona EllisThe Toronto Star
Date Published: Saturday, September 22, 2012
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The not so “mean girls” at Canada’s private schools are fighting back against bullying.
The 2011 Ontario Student Drug Use and Health Survey Mental Health and Well-Being Report, released in July, reveals 29 per cent of students — an estimated 288,000 students provincewide — reported being the victims of bullying while at school.
The report shows that a greater percentage of girls than boys report being victimized at school, at 31 per cent versus 26 per cent. And girls are twice as likely as boys to be the victims of cyber-bullying, at 28 per cent versus 15 per cent, according to the report.
Dr. Jennifer Connolly, professor of psychology at York University and a member of the LaMarsh Centre for Child and Youth Research, has been researching bullying for more than 10 years. She says bullying in girls’ schools manifests in the same way it does in any school; however, she says the rates of bullying are somewhat lower in single-sex girls’ schools than in mixed schools.
“It’s still not so low that we can say this isn’t a problem — maybe just a bit lower when you don’t have boys around.”
She says boys show more physical bullying than girls, but apart from that, girls show the same cluster of behaviour that boys show.
“It’s not as though they do something entirely different. Bullying takes many different forms. It can be physical. It can be psychological. It can involve attacking the person’s relationships through exclusion (we call that relational bullying), cyber bullying or sexual harassment.”
Kate McEvenue, a guidance counsellor at The Linden School, a private Toronto girls’ school, says bullying among girls can sometimes fly under the radar.
“Often, it’s not pushing or shoving or anything very overt, but more covert,” she says. “It might be putting people down in a very subtle way, or have to do with body language, exclusion or comments. It’s a more subtle form of aggression and it often happens between friends,” she says.
Joelle Therriault, a social worker at girls’ private school Branksome Hall, in Toronto, agrees. “We need to be clear that bullying occurs, and it is a problem that exists in our society,” she says.
“[Bullying] looks different depending on the school. In my experience in working with girls it may look like more social and verbal bullying, as opposed to more physical types of bullying.”
Branksome Hall has had a Peer Supporter program aimed at combating bullying up and running for more than five years. Peer supporters are students from grades 11 and 12 who have been trained to facilitate “girl circles” in grades 6, 7 and 8.
“Our peer support program is one piece of a whole-school approach,” says Therriault. “We put a lot of focus and attention on highlighting relationships and ways of fostering a healthy community within the school. The program includes speaking about bullying, activities and conversations that promote empathy for one and other and really looking at ways to develop healthy relationships with one another.”
Linden’s Girls Helping Girls program was started by McEvenue and teacher Soteira Hortop to raise awareness among the girls about bullying.
Each week, a group of nine to 12 girls from the junior division meets with McEvenue and Hortop for an hour to discuss issues they are facing in their own lives. By naming and identifying bullying behaviours and discussing and examining relationships, the girls develop the skills needed to address and resolve conflicts.
“[I’ve] learned there are a lot of feelings in the world,” says 11-year-old Isobel Bain, a Grade 6 student at Linden.
“We talk about bullying, because it’s really bad, and some social justice issues that happen in the world, but mainly about feelings. I think it is important and really fun,” she says.
This fall, the program will expand from one group to two, including girls from grades 1 through 7. Each group will be made up of girls of different ages and social groups so the girls can take what they’ve learned and share their knowledge throughout the entire student body.
“With this approach the girls are really part of the solution,” says Hortop. “They dictate the direction of the group and curriculum in a huge way.”
Lindsay Barwise, 17, from Toronto has been a Peer Support leader at Branksome Hall for two years. “It’s really students helping students,” she says. “It’s a mentorship program and because it’s student to student, not only can we relate but we offer a unique perspective that is different from that of an adult.”
Every two years from 2006, Branksome partners with York University to survey the students experience in relation to bullying issues.
The last survey was from 2010. “It is particularly significant that girls are feeling safer in the community,” says Therriault. “There is a real appetite to do these types of work and have these types of conversations. We are working very hard to prevent bullying types of behaviour.”
The way to tackle bullying is for the school, from the highest ranks of administration to the youngest students, to show no tolerance for bullying behaviour, Connolly says.
“There needs to be a whole-school approach. There must be a very clear understanding of what bullying is and that the school won’t accept bullying.” she adds.
And Isobel has some advice for victims of bullying: “I would tell someone about it, that’s always a good thing to do,” she says. “It’s good to take it into your hands and try to solve it, but if it gets too out of control, always involve a teacher or person you trust to help you out a bit.”
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