B.C. beefs up schools' anti-bullying standards. Government tables bill to bring policies in line

Jeff Rud, Times Colonist Published: Friday, March 30, 2007

All B.C. school districts will have to implement codes of conduct that curb bullying and harassment and comply with provincial standards, according to legislation introduced yesterday.

Education Minister Shirley Bond said a survey of B.C.'s 60 school districts showed that only 20 districts have codes of conduct that meet those standards. Bill 22, the Education Statutes Amendment Act, will legally ensure all districts comply. The province produced a Safe, Caring & Orderly Schools policy in 2004 that directed all districts to employ such codes.

"[But] we have found that there are literally hundreds of schools across the province who have not met those standards,'' Bond said. "So this piece of legislation will require school boards to ensure that every school has a policy in place, a student code of conduct that meets those standards.''

The policy outlaws behaviours that interfere with the learning of others or an orderly environment as well as those which create unsafe conditions.

That includes bullying, harassment, intimidation, physical violence, possession or distribution of illegal or restricted substances, possession or use of weapons, theft or damage to property.

Bond said districts will have to outline their precise process for dealing with a student who breaks these rules.

"We're saying that it must be consistent across the province and in place in every school,'' she said.

District codes may vary in terms of their content, however, Bond said. The minister also said that punishments for students could vary from district to district.

NDP education critic David Cubberley said that while he is happy to see the issue of school safety addressed, he believes the exact content of the code should be spelled out for all districts.

"I'm concerned that, as I understand it, this doesn't actually set the standards that would go into the code,'' he said.

Leaving it to individual districts or school principals to determine what constitutes bullying or harassment could lead to problems such as homophobia not being addressed, he said.

"This looks hollow,'' Cubberley said. "Uniform guidelines should be there.''

But Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt, whose private member's bill was the precursor to his government's changes, celebrated the legislation and said it sends a message to districts that they must take the issue seriously. Mayencourt said the bill will legally ensure districts must provide a harassment-free setting. "If there is some discussion about whether they have defined it incorrectly or not, that will be decided in the courts.''

Bill 22 also gives the government the means to directly communicate with B.C. teachers, something it promised during the throne speech.

The government doesn't have that ability now. But the bill will allow it to enlist the College of Teachers to share information with "front-line teachers" about policy and best practices.

Skeptics believe this is a way for government to circumvent the B.C. Teachers' Federation, particularly during labour negotiations. But Bond said "that's not at all the intention.''

The legislation also tightens how school district business companies can operate. It requires the majority of these companies' directors to be "at arms-length" from the school board and that these companies appoint auditors and prepare financial statements that include all transactions between the company and school board.

Such companies will also have to issue annual reports and hold annual general meetings open to the public.

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2007