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politics

Queen’s Park Watch: Doing the Right Thing On Bullying

This week, a rare moment of political cohesion as all parties agree that anti-bullying legislation is necessary and important. Residents of Ontario should be proud.

Good news from Queen’s Park yesterday, with the Liberal government tabling the Accepting Schools Act, intended to prevent bullying in Ontario schools. The move was sparked in part by several bullying-related teen suicides across the country, including that of Mitchell Wilson, a Pickering boy who killed himself in September after being violently mugged by another student near his school.

Among other things, the bill mandates tougher penalties (up to and including expulsion) for bullying, adds a definition of bullying to the Education Act, and requires that all Ontario schools support students in activities which promote equality, anti-racism, and other kinds of things that you’d want your kids to be promoting.

Not to be outdone, Progressive Conservative education critic Elizabeth Witmer (Kitchener-Waterloo) has offered up an alternative anti-bullying bill that had apparently been in the works for a couple of years. Still, in spite of the apparent competition, a brittle goodwill reigned at the Park, with all parties agreeing that the bully crackdown was a Good Thing no matter who came up with the idea. Even normally combative PC leader Tim Hudak—possibly under pressure from party spinmeisters to lighten up for a change—mused that it might be nice if all the parties could work together on legislation like this that would give voters a warm and fuzzy feeling about politicians really help kids in need.

In years past the media-bullying equation has often been limited to misfit kid + wedgie = sitcom gold. However, the spate of suicides and the rise of cyber-bullying, which leaves victims unsafe even in their own homes, has made the press, public, and politicos take a long hard look at a problem that turns out not to be funny at all. In introducting the bill, Education minister Laurel Broten cited a Centre for Addiction and Mental Health study showing that almost one out of three students from grades 7 to 12 have been bullied in school.

One important aspect of the bill is its treatment of student Gay-Straight Alliances in high schools. Such organizations are valuable because LGBT-identifying students are so disproporionately targeted for bullying, but the alliances have been controversially banned by some Catholic school boards. Here is what the current bill has to say about the subject:

Every board shall support pupils who want to establish and lead…activities or organizations that promote the awareness and understanding of, and respect for, people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, including organizations with the name gay-straight alliance or another name.

Though this seems to directly require school boards (including the Catholic board) to support GSAs under that name, some (including the Globe in an editorial today) contend that the language is vague and could permit boards to support GSAs but prohibit them using words like “gay”—negating a key purpose of the groups. However, in response to a query by NDP leader Andrea Horwath during Question Period yesterday, Dalton McGuinty reinforced the plain-text reading of the language, one which does require support of GSAs, including the use of that name. (Xtra has a transcript of the relevant exchange.)

With luck and common sense, all the parties will come together and the bill will be passed quickly. Because regardless of any political agendas that might be in play, the outcome is entirely admirable.

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