Having a special day for grade school students to reflect on ways to treat each other with respect is great, said School District 60 teachers and staff, but eliminating bullying is a year-round job.
Today is Pink Shirt Day, Fort St. John City Council proclaimed Monday. The day is observed on the last Wednesday in February across Canada to remind students to stop harassment of peers. Students are invited to wear pink to school to participate, and may attend assemblies and presentations on bullying.
“This is a great opportunity to make it a learning experience for the young person who might be struggling with how to engage friends,” said Dan Davies, a city councillor and teacher at Duncan Cran Elementary who proposed the Pink Shirt Day proclamation to council.
The theme originated in a Nova Scotia high school where two teenage students distributed 50 pink tank tops for classmates to wear in protest of the bullying of Grade 9 boy Charles McNeill with homophobic slurs because he wore a pink shirt on the first day of class.
“If I were to go in a school it’s certainly probably a daily occurrence at some level,” said Davies. “That would range in severity. I would say major bullying probably not too often, but some kids are learning how to react in social situations and sometimes it’s taken as, well this kid’s picking on me and he’s been picking on my every day.”
Ashley Prontack, a teacher from Robert Ogilvie Elementary, joined Davies for the proclamation. Davies credited Prontack with spearheading Pink Shirt Day at her own school. Prontack said the message should focus on not only refraining from using bullying language, but also on standing up for people on the receiving end.
“It’s not just bullying, it’s watching it happen,” Prontack said. “And by supporting the pink t-shirt it’s saying we’re all coming together to stop it not just by not doing it ourselves, but by not allowing it to happen anymore.”
Prontack said the curriculum contains programming that tries to reinforce positive relationships with peer students.
“We have a variety of programs against bullying and we include that in our health and career education,” Prontack said. “So we don’t have Pink Shirt Day programs per se, but we teach it all year.”
She said elementary schools use the Second Step program, a series of books and videos that guide children through examples of bullying and how to respond.
“It’s all in healthy relationships,” she said.
Prontack added “bullying” has different meanings depending on students’ age.
“At the younger age level, the big ones are telling a friend they can’t play with you at lunch, excluding someone, saying mean words. As they get to Grade 5 and 6 level, it can be mean texts, Facebook. Cyber-bullying is our big thing – it’s getting way too easy.”
She said the response from teachers must reflect students’ readiness for types of bullying education.
“At the older level you can show actual things happening, but at the younger level you almost want to be careful you’re not putting ideas in their heads,” Prontack said. “And you need to be sensitive because that’s shocking to them. So we want to expose them while being sensitive. At the higher level, say in high school, then you can show them an example of, say, racism and ask, ok, what’s wrong here?”
Prontack said role play is an effective tool and can get students brainstorming about how to be comfortable standing up for harassed peers. Education works better than discipline, Prontack said, because students often do not understand what they are saying when they hurt each other’s feelings and often regret doing so once they have learned more.
School District 60 superintendent Larry Espe said the philosophy to which staff try to adhere is one of positive student citizenship.
“The one downside of making anti-bullying a week or an event is we’d like to think of it as just the way we do things,” Espe said.
“It’s about proactively talking to kids and teaching them appropriate behaviour,” he said. “A great example is the Energetic Learning Campus, the classroom management plan is about community. It’s not a list of things you can’t do on the wall, it’s about being good citizens.”