Teachers play key role in bullying, says expert

New Brunswick's education minister has promised to introduce new legislation this spring to help schools better deal with bullying, but a Moncton psychologist doesn’t believe legislation is the answer.

Charles Emmrys contends the most important variable in preventing bullying is the teaching staff and their investment in finding solutions.

Legislation is a “very poor tool for improving the environments in schools,” while anti-bullying programs and publicity campaigns have limited effectiveness, he said.

But “teachers can be very powerful and very forceful in intervening in this kind of problem. And it’s the degree to which they’re willing to do that that really makes a difference.”

Intervening quickly and assertively are key, said Emmrys.

Make it a big deal

When teachers are faced with a complaint about bullying, it’s important to “make a big deal of it.

“To not say ‘Well we’ll wait and see what happens,’ or ‘We’ll wait and see if they can resolve this, or ‘We’ll wait and see if maybe it’ll go away,’ or ‘We can’t do anything because we have no proof.’ All of those excuses are not valid,” he said.

“Teachers have to be assertive as soon as they hear about bullying, they have to get involved, they have to get parents involved and they have to, in a sense, take the power away from the bully and bring it back where it belongs, with the teachers.”

Emmrys said if he intervenes in a bullying situation at the school level, he brings everyone involved in.

“I confront the bully over the behaviour saying it's not acceptable and he will be confronted over and over again with escalating sanctions if it continues.

“I bring in the kids that were witnesses, I confront them and their parents are advised and told that their child failed to stop a fight and that is, in my view a serious thing.

“And then, of course, I talk to the staff. So if I'm allowed to act systemically, I certainly try to walk my talk and I become quite assertive, to the degree that I’m allowed.”

The problem, said Emmrys, is that studies show teachers miss 90 per cent of what's actually happening.

Tips to diminish bullying

So he teaches children who are the targets of bullying four “golden rules,” which can be effective when applied systematically:

- Avoid eye contact with the bully.

- Don't engage in any conversation with the bully.

- Stay at least four feet away from the bully.

- Always travel with a friend.

Last week, Education Minister Jody Carr promised the New Brunswick government would introduce legislation during the spring session to crack down on bullying in the province.

There have been several stories of bullying in recent weeks across the province, including a Saint John boy facing charges after lighting a girl's hair on fire, a Fredericton teen being pulled out of school by his parents after being subjected to months of harassment by another student, and a Fredericton mother coming forward about how she hired a bodyguard three years ago to protect her daughter who was being bullied.

Teach children to care

Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander, agrees with Emmrys that legislation has limitations.

She believes programs that teach children to care deeply, share generously and help willingly are more important.

"One of the most important things is to recognize it’s not a normal, natural and necessary occurrence in a child’s life," said Coloroso. "We often confuse conflict with bullying. Kids are going to be in conflict, but bullying is about contempt for another human being. And once I have contempt for you, I can do anything to you and not feel any shame or compassion.

“I say to young students, as an educator myself, that you don't have to like every kid in this class, but you have to honour their humanity, you have to treat them with dignity and regard,” said Coloroso.

“You don't throw them down a flight of stairs, you don't lock them out of a chatroom as you're all gleefully watching.”