There are some problems for which politics is a blunt and unwieldy instrument. Bullying may be such an issue. No one knows whether tackling the community level problem of bullying through rigid government legislation will be effective, but that hasn’t stopped the Canadian province of Ontario from trying.
In December 2011 the province’s governing Liberals and opposition Progressive Conservatives climbed all over each other to introduce competing anti-bullying legislation on the same day. The move to introduce legislation was in response to a number of youth suicides in which bullying had been a contributing factor. Previously in 2005 the Liberal government promised C$23 million over three years to combat bullying with little discernible result.
Ontario presents an interesting case study of a government that has diagnosed a serious social problem without recognizing its own limitations in adequately prescribing treatment. As a relational issue, the problem of bullying requires active parents backed by the educational institutions to which parents lend their authority to educate children. The Ontario government has gone beyond partnering with parents to set codes of conduct for its schools and has instead presented the kind of top-down plan for social reform that has earned Ontario’s premier Dalton McGuinty the nickname “Premier Dad.”
In their 2010 book What’s Wrong with Our Schools and How We can Fix Them, authors Michael Zwaagstra, Rodney Clifton and John Long identify a long running debate over the fundamental purpose of education. They argue that a progressive romantic view of education positions the teacher as a social reformer who uses the classroom as the primary tool to bring about social change. They further argue that this focus supplants the acquisition of knowledge and skill. Those responsible for Ontario’s education system have revealed their strong progressive romantic leanings.
The Ministry of Education has allocated substantial resources to social reform under the umbrella of diversity, equity and inclusion. Ontario Minister of Education Laurel Broten states, “[w]e taught our children three fundamental “Rs” in school – Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – but now we need to also focus on the fourth R – Relationships.”
To this end, the Ministry of Education initiated the Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy (EIES) in 2009 with a four-year rollout plan. The policy is grounded in the assumption that systemic barriers exist in Ontario’s education system that prevent children from achieving their full potential. The province presented the strategy as a way of identifying and eliminating biases, barriers and power dynamics impeding student achievement. Under the EIES, the government is providing funding for policy reviews, teacher training and curriculum revisions among other initiatives.
The EIES holds the potential to create the kind of safe learning environments that parents covet for their children, but it also contains the potential to harm true diversity and mute freedom.
In her introductory letter to the EIES four years ago, then Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne wrote “[e]mbracing diversity and moving beyond tolerance to acceptance and respect will help us reach our goal of making Ontario’s education system the most inclusive in the world.” Nowhere in the EIES are tolerance and acceptance defined, making the exact meaning of the statement a small mystery. If tolerance means the respectful interaction of diverse viewpoints, then moving beyond it to acceptance can only lead to the constriction of freedom and equality. True tolerance and diversity require the participation of many voices not the muting of some in the broad name of equity.
The EIES empowers the classroom teacher as social reformer to evaluate the personally held beliefs of students. The strategy instructs teachers to “assume responsibility for examining and taking steps to modify personal beliefs and biases that are inconsistent with equity and inclusive education principles.” Teachers should address inappropriate comments and behaviors, but it is fair to ask how beliefs are determined to be inconsistent with the policy. What steps are teachers sanctioned to take in modifying beliefs and what role do parents have in this teacher directed action? The EIES moves beyond setting codes of conduct and empowers teachers to assume the authority to shape the moral character in a child’s life in accordance to government policy.
The EIES encourages the participation of outside community groups in supplementing equity education as students are encouraged “in efforts to promote social justice, equity, antiracism and antidiscrimination in schools and classrooms.” Community groups can provide passion and expertise, but their inclusion can serve as an unqualified endorsement of their view. Furthermore, the line between free participation and coerced activism can be easily blurred. The Toronto District School Board sanctioned a curriculum guide that suggests Junior Kindergarten to third grade students hold their own Pride Parade and invite the media and representatives from Pride Toronto or a similar organization. It is fair to ask whether this is an educational experience or activism and media event providing a platform for an outside special interest group.
The introduction of the government’s anti-bullying bill in December 2011 will codify aspects of the EIES into the law. Media coverage of the bill has focused almost entirely on a brewing controversy between the Ministry of Education and its publically funded Catholic school boards over whether Catholic schools will be free to host broad equity clubs rather than provincially mandated gay-straight alliance clubs. The debate has overshadowed other aspects of the bill including the creation of a hierarchy of victimhood that will likely affect the distribution of anti-bullying resources. There has been almost no public discourse concerning a small clause in the bill that some legal experts believe will bar faith communities who hold to a traditional view of marriage from renting school facilities.
No one wants any child to experience bullying for any reason, but there is no guarantee that the government’s attempt to legislate schoolyard friendships will bring about real change. Bullying is a community-level problem requiring parents to address the issue with their children, backed up by schools that articulate expectations and then follow through. The government can set standards and offer resources, but the province makes for a poor parent. Learning to live in community occurs in the first community: the family. Rather than imposing rigid policies and facilitating social reform, the government should empower parents, students and educators to develop solutions that resonate with specific communities.
Peter Jon Mitchell is a senior researcher with the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada in Ottawa and the author of the recent report Ontario’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy Reviewed.