The Voices Against Bullying steering team met yesterday in person for the first time for two hours, at the end of which we were emotionally exhausted. This is tough stuff to deal with.
The first thing we did was simply give everyone the chance to share their own story of bullying and why they want to be a part of the solution, as well as what skills they have to offer. That ended up being a very emotional experience and taking significantly more time than expected, but created a huge amount of necessary trust.
One of the principles we're operating under is that we're not know-it-alls. And if we approach the board like we already know what the solution is, then the board will just listen politely and ignore us. If we want to change the system, then we first need to understand the system. And to do that we need to hear from people who work in the system, but, firstly, from outside Hamilton.
So we brought in two resource people with over 60 years of experience working in the Ontario school system dealing with bullies, one as a principal and the other as one of the founders of the OSSTF Restorative Justice program. And we have other experts lined up to meet with us in the future so that we can better understand how the system is supposed to work, how it really works, what has actually worked elsewhere, and what has not worked elsewhere.
Some of our key learnings so far:
1. The first priority of the system is supposed to be creating a safe space for learning. The system is failing on this primary responsibility. Children are not being protected. But we already know that. That's why we're here.
2. Approaching the board in anger will not change the system. There are plenty of good reasons for parents to be angry, but we need to channel that into constructive influence.
3. Protests, t-shirts, and buttons will not change the system. Those things make us feel better in the short term because they make us feel like we're doing something. But raising awareness is not the solution. Everyone in the system is already fully aware there is a problem. More awareness won't fix the system.
4. The teachers and administrators who are succeeding in making a difference elsewhere actually have to break the rules in order to get results, so the existing rules aren't working.
5. One of the problems with bullies is not that they need more awareness of bullying, it's that they don't understand that what they're doing is bullying.
6. Changing the system will require using the relationships we have and developing new relationships with the people inside the system who have the power to make a difference. Real change has to come from within the system. We have the power to influence that.
7. Changing the system will require being an ally, not an adversary to the system.
8. Just punishing bullies doesn't work. It just shifts them to be somebody else's problem. And it actually makes the bullies worse, by robbing the bullies of the power they have to change themselves. Remember, they're still children. Our goal is not punishment. Our goal is to change them into productive human beings so they don't grow into adult bullies.
9. Changing the system requires a comprehensive approach. It requires protecting victims, but also teaching them how not to be further victimized, because bullies can't bully without a target. It requires teaching bystanders to be upstanders, because bullies thrive on an audience. It requires coaching bullies how to use their power in helpful ways instead if hurtful ways. It may require crafting new rules that allow teachers and administrators to be empowered to make a difference. It may require new accountability systems. And it will require support from us in the parent community to bring resources beyond what boards are capable of providing in a climate of budget cutbacks.
Some of you may feel frustrated because you're not seeing enough action yet. The time for action will come, but knee-jerk action will not change the system. We are in this for the long run, for as long as it takes to actually make Hamilton schools safe for our children.