Top legal mind to tackle cyberbullying

From the Halifax Chronicle Herald
May 26, 2011

Gone are the days when bullying simply meant being pushed around at school, according to the man who will lead a provincial task force on cyberbullying.
The Internet has opened the door to a whole other level of harassment, Wayne MacKay told reporters Wednesday.

"Getting beat up on the school ground is not a lot of fun," said MacKay, a Dalhousie University law professor, noted legal scholar and former president of Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B.

"It’s somewhat of a different order of having your reputation damaged worldwide by having comments made or things done on the Internet."
MacKay admits the five-member task force faces a huge challenge in tackling what he considers to be an ever-growing problem.

"It’s rarely three or four individuals who can be identified as bullies and responded to," he said at the news conference at the Education Department’s offices in Halifax. "It’s a culture that finds it acceptable to defame people and make horrible comments about people to the extent where people commit suicide. That’s the scope of the problem."

On Wednesday, Education Minister Ramona Jennex named MacKay as chairman of the cyberbullying task force. Jennex announced the task force in April, and it will make recommendations to her in December.

Jennex said the province has an obligation to bring people together to protect young people from cyberbullying.

"Since we announced the formation of the task force, we have received a tremendous amount of support from Nova Scotians who want to be involved," she said in a news release announcing MacKay’s appointment.

Cyberbullying has been blamed in the recent suicides of at least two Nova Scotia teenagers.

The parents of a 17-year-old girl from Parrsboro say their daughter killed herself this spring after she was bullied for months at school and on Facebook, while the mother of a 15-year-old girl from Truro says her daughter was harassed at school and through a social networking site before she took her own life in January.

The task force aims to produce practical solutions, not more "gnashing of teeth" about the problem that has gripped Nova Scotians, said MacKay, who will be paid $20,000 to head the group.

"I don’t think anyone really expects that we’re going to totally solve the problem, either in Nova Scotia or elsewhere.

"The challenge is not simply to redefine and offer the opportunity for people to tell stories, although that’s important, but to come up with some concrete recommendations, which we’ll pass along to the minister and the government. Hopefully, they will then act on them to try and reduce the problem and make it better for everyone."

Besides MacKay, the task force consists of Mat Whynott, ministerial assistant for youth, Rola AbiHanna, an Education Department guidance consultant, Wendy MacGregor, a parent from Halifax, and Breanna Fitzgerald, a Grade 12 student from New Waterford.

The core members will be supported by a 20-person working group, including parents, teachers, sociologists and police officers. That larger group will do research and background work on factors such as intervention, education, assessment and policy.

Asked what kind of recommendations would be possible, MacKay said the Education Act or codes of conduct at the school board level could be changed to deal with cyberbullying.

Whatever policy changes are recommended, he said it is crucial the focus not just be on the bully and the victim. For example, the role of parents in supervising their children’s activity on the Internet should be part of the discussion.

"It’s not all about institutions and governments. It’s also about parent-child relationships, and not just the parents of the victims of bullying.

"What about the parents of the bullies? Or the people who stand idly by while they watch somebody being bullied? The media, all of these kinds of things, play a role."

 

(jmcphee@herald.ca)

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