Schools need to take a more evolved approach to school safety, says a UBC expert
With back-to-school season in full swing, issues of school safety and bullying begin to resurface. Lisa Loutzenheiser, an education professor at the University of British Columbia, researches anti-homophobia policies in B.C. schools and is completing a study with queer youth at CampOUT, a summer leadership camp for LGBTQ youth. She explains why there’s no quick fix when it comes to bullying, and why the term itself is too simplistic.
Despite the number of high-profile anti-bullying campaigns we’ve seen in recent years, new cases of bullying continue to pop up. Why does bullying seem to persist?
Part of the problem is the generic understanding of bullying itself. When really bad things are happening, we call it the same thing, no matter if it’s based on gender, race, sexuality or physical appearance. The same conversation occurs when a child is teased for wearing glasses versus a child who is undergoing homophobic harassment. With limited resources and training, a school’s response to these different incidents becomes generic in that they are addressed the same way. No matter what actually takes place, they often don’t get talked about as homophobic or transphobic harassment or violence–they’re all defined as “bullying.” This only makes the problem worse as it suggests that these different types of harassment require a similar solution.
What needs to be done to make schools safer? Should zero tolerance policies be reinforced?
A school’s entire culture needs to change. Schools and children will benefit if differences such as gender identity and sexual orientation are viewed as positives and their intersections become the norm at the school. Principals and teachers have to buy in and be given the resources to build capacity. Research shows the more identifiable supportive adults children see at school, especially for queer or trans children, the better they do in class. As for zero-tolerance policies, they don’t work well in altering the behaviour of the perpetrator. Instead of suspension, which only puts a kid out of school for five days, more focus ought to be placed on asking why a kid feels it’s OK to harass or threaten someone else.
Over the past few years, have efforts to stop bullying gotten better or worse?
It’s gotten better, and different. Schools have learned lots of skills to work with people and communities to make schools safer for kids. We are seeing more children thinking about gender identity and transitioning or living as trans or gender variant people, but we don’t know much about the best ways to support them. Policies like the one recently passed by the Vancouver School Board, which has a great deal of specificity when it comes to harassment and discrimination, particularly in relation to trans and gender variant youth, helps teachers and administrators set the tone for students to follow.