Ontario Human Rights Commission
Remarks to the Ontario Legislative Standing Committee on Social Policy
Bill 13, An Act to amend the Education Act with respect to bullying and other matters
Bill 14, An Act to designate Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week in Schools
and to provide for bullying prevention curricula, policies and administrative accountability in schools
by Chief Commissioner Barbara Hall
May 15, 2012
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
I am here today on behalf of the Ontario Human Rights Commission to indicate our general support for this proposed legislation.
Let there be no doubt. Bullying is a critical human rights matter.
Ontario’s Human Rights Code is Ontario’s highest law. All schools, including public, Catholic and private, have a legal duty to provide students with an educational environment free from harassment and other forms of discrimination because of their race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability and sex including gender identity.
Bullying is a form of harassment within the meaning of the Code. Courts and tribunals have recognized that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited, intersexed, queer and questioning youth are especially vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, violence and suicide.
Human rights law requires that all schools and boards take steps to prevent homophobic and other types of bullying and harassment, respond to incidents and provide support to students experiencing bullying. Failing to do this effectively may result in the school, the board and even staff being held liable.
The proposed legislation will help everyone meet these legal obligations.
The preambles of the bills “name” the problem, a first key step to systemic change. Recognizing the serious physical, mental and social impacts of bullying is important. So is naming groups that are targeted and marginalized by bullying.
The proposed definitions of bullying are generally consistent with the definition of harassment in the Code. Though keep in mind, under human rights law, “intent” is not a necessary factor. Whether or not a person “intended” to harass or bully, the focus is on the individual and social impact. If a situation does not meet the definition of bullying, the behaviour may still amount to harassment, and the rights and obligations of the Code would apply. Also, harassment and bullying not only happen between two individuals. It may be perpetrated by and against groups as well.
Human rights law expects organizations to take proactive and reactive measures to prevent and address bullying. The proposed legislation would do both.
Individual employees, volunteers and others can be held liable under human rights law and should report harassment including bullying. Schools and boards also have a legal responsibility to respond and deal with harassment, including incidents of bullying that may occur outside of school premises during school related activities such as field trips and other extra curricular, sporting or social activities.
Requiring schools to support student-led Gay-Straight Alliances and other equity clubs is one very good prevention strategy. We also welcome other proposed measures to prevent bullying, including requirements for provincial, board and school-level anti-bullying policies and plans.
Bill 13 in particular incorporates many of the progressive policy changes put in place by the Ministry around safe schools, school discipline and inclusive education. The requirement for school board policies on equity and inclusive education is especially important and would bring the Code’s prohibited grounds of discrimination within the terms of these provisions.
The provisions for supports to students targeted by bullying and those who engage in bullying are in keeping with the settlements the OHRC reached in 2005 in complaints we initiated against the Ministry of Education and the Toronto District School Board. This led to legislative and policy change recognizing the adverse effect that safe school policies can have on racialized students and students with disabilities, requiring mitigating factors related to Code grounds be taken into account when determining suspensions and expulsions.
We support provisions for educating all students, teachers, administrators and the public about human rights and obligations, how to get help, and what the consequences are for those who bully and for those who fail to react.
Finally, we support provisions that require data collection and reporting on incidents by Code ground as well as people’s views and experiences.
All too often, bullying is rooted in stereotype and social prejudice. It is an affront to human dignity and a violation of the Human Rights Code when it takes place in our schools and targets people because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, race, disability and other protected grounds.
That’s why we welcome this legislation and your efforts to create safe and inclusive schools. Unanimous approval would send a strong message to the people of Ontario about how important bullying prevention really is.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I welcome any questions.