Alberta’s School Act requires school boards to ensure that students enrolled in their schools are provided with a safe and caring environment that fosters and maintains respectful and responsible behaviours.
The Alberta Legislature is concerned with bullying in schools, as evidenced by its recent discussion of Bill 202, Safe and Inclusive Schools Statutes Amendment Act, 2014, and Bill 10, An Act to Amend the Alberta Bill of Rights to Protect our Children. It again is timely to highlight the court’s involvement and the important role school boards have with respect to eliminating bullying in the school environment.
Although Bills 202 and 10 are not currently law, the common law in relation to bullying has developed such that there is a legal obligation on school boards to protect students from bullying. The high profile 2005 British Columbia Court of Appeal case School District No. 44 (North Vancouver) v. Jubran is an unfortunate example of homophobic bullying and the failure of the school to address homophobic insults and harassment.
The B.C. Human Rights’ Tribunal ruled in favour of Azmi Jubran’s human rights complaint of homophobic bullying at school. Jurban, who did not self-identify as gay, had suffered five years of homophobic insults and harassment by other students. Based on the extensive evidence provided to the Tribunal, it found Jubran had been subjected to harassment on a prohibited ground of discrimination and sexual orientation. The North Vancouver School Board was held to have been responsible for the discrimination because it failed to provide an educational environment free from discriminatory harassment. Put another way, it had not done enough to stop the harassment.
Another case reported that a parent was suing an Ottawa school board because her daughter suffered depression and anxiety allegedly as a result of repeated bullying and harassment. She was seeking over $300,000 in damages arising from the school board’s failure to protect her daughter from these events. A settlement was reached. In October, 2010, Law Times reported that four families were suing a school board in southwestern Ontario because their children were allegedly being harassed. They were seeking $35 million in damages.
School Board Duties
School boards owe duty of care to the students under their care and supervision. The law of negligence requires individuals and school boards to take reasonable steps to counter foreseeable risks of injury to those to whom a duty of care is owed. The standard of school boards to its students has been determined by the Court is that of a “reasonable and prudent parent.”
Alberta school boards are also responsible for ensuring that their services do not discriminate against students based on any of the protected grounds in Alberta’s Human Rights Act, and for providing a discrimination-free educational environment. School boards may take the following steps to provide a safe and caring school environment, including providing an environment which is free from homophobic conduct:
- Promote a climate of understanding and mutual respect so that all students are treated equally with dignity and respect;
- Identify inappropriate student conduct, including scenarios where students are not treated with dignity and respect, and address these cases in a timely fashion;
- Continue to educate students about the importance of maintaining a non-discriminatory, tolerant, and respectful school environment; and
- Continue to educate teachers about available tools to educate their students on respectful behaviours, including:
- Teach students about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and equality rights;
- Teach students about the importance of tolerance including sexual orientation and gender expression;
- Promote and talk about the schools’ codes of conduct;
- Work with students to understand that discriminatory homophobic is not tolerated in schools; and
- Invite outside speakers to talk to students and teachers about homophobia and other discriminatory behaviours.
If you are responsible for dealing with bullying or cyberbullying, we recommend you read Nova Scotia’s Task Force Report on Bullying and Cyberbulling: Respectful and Responsible Relationships: There’s No App for That, by Wayne MacKay,CM, QB, Chair Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying.