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  • Writer's pictureLisa Dixon-Wells

Bullying cannot be resolved with typical discipline strategies

Conflict versus Bullying

Conflict and bullying are not the same

In recent years, educators have moved away from “zero tolerance” discipline policies in favor of “restorative practices,” in an effort to improve school environments. Proponents of a restorative approach to discipline in schools will often point to ”Can Restorative Practices Improve School Climate and Curb Suspensions? An Evaluation of the Impact of Restorative Practices in a Mid-Sized Urban School District, a 2018 report by the Rand Corporation, an internationally known think tank.

Fast forward to 2023, and we are hearing parents – in particular parents whose children are being bullied – voice frustration about the restorative approach. In their experience, restorative justice looks an awful lot like no consequences for bullying behavior. When parents and schools face off as adversaries, students’ best interests are sure to suffer.

The confusion is understandable. The 2015-17 study that is the basis of the RAND report found that a restorative approach can contribute to lowering student suspension rates and can promote, overall, an improved school climate. The study also found that the schools that participated in the study did not achieve improved academic outcomes, nor did arrest rates decrease. And while the study was interested in addressing “severe misbehavior” and “management of conflict,” it does not address the specific and unique nature of bullying.

We are in favor of discipline philosophies that help children and youth develop the ability to cope with conflict in positive ways. But bullying is a very particular misbehavior that falls outside the typical understanding of conflict. In conflict situations, restorative justice can offer a viable path to resolution. In bullying, however, there is an underlying imbalance of power between perpetrator and victim that demands a different response on the part of the adults in charge.

Because of the unequal power dynamic at play, attempting to put a bullying individual and their target at a table together, especially as a first step in ending the bullying, is never a good idea. Before any strategy, including restorative justice, can be successful in a bullying situation, the target must feel supported and safe, the perpetrator must be held accountable, and the entire school must know their role in all of it.

The Dare to Care program begins with the understanding that the balance of power must be shifted away from the 2% who are the cause of bullying, and into the hands of the 98% caring majority. Comprehensive and practical, the Dare to Care program enables schools, sports organizations, community groups, and workplaces to work together to maintain a caring community. Through in-person workshops, webinars, materials and resources, Dare to Care addresses the roles and concerns of everyone in the community.

And that’s important, because bully prevention is everyone’s responsibility.

Since it began in 1999, Dare to Care has delivered its three signature programs to more than 2,000 schools across Canada. Our programs for students and student-athletes are engaging and age-appropriate. Our extensive professional development programs prepare teachers, support staff, administrators, coaches, officials and management to identify bullying behavior and to take effective action. Support and information programs for parents teach them how to be active partners in preventing bullying.

The Dare to Care model is more than a workshop or webinar or two. It is a year-long program of instruction and practice that helps everyone in a school or sports program navigate the complexities of bullying behavior. We include social media, discrimination, racism, and sexual harassment. We dig into the fears that surround bullying, and help participants build the confidence to take appropriate action. Even after the subscription has ended, we provide ongoing access resources like downloadable posters and videos.

When a school or program completes the Dare to Care program, everyone – students, parents, teachers, coaches, administrators, etc. – understands that they have a role to play in preventing bullying behavior, and that they must all work as a team to achieve a positive environment. “Graduates” of our program can tell the difference between bullying and normal conflict between children. Furthermore, everyone leaves the program knowing what their role is and having practiced their part so that if bullying occurs, the community is ready to mobilize and take positive action.

We appreciate the concerns of parents who are naturally very worried about their child’s welfare. We are aware as well of the increasing demands placed on teachers, school and district administrators, coaches, and youth program managers to ensure students’ safety and wellbeing. And we feel for children and youth who are suffering at the hands of bullies – or who fear that they may be next. No child should ever be afraid of a classmate or teammate, and no child should be in such pain that they are compelled to cause harm to another.

At Dare to Care, it is our mission to support children, and we are committed to building communities where everyone works together to make kindness a priority. The Dare to Care program gives children the tools to help themselves and each other and ensures that they are supported by adults who are united in providing a safe and nurturing environment.

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