Forty children singing in harmony led by a woman strumming a pink ukulele may sound like the opening act for an elementary school talent show. But the subject of this particular ditty is anything but funny.
St. John’s children’s author Debbie Hanlon, who is also a city councillor, is at Cowan Heights Elementary on this particular day, hosting a “Miss Debbie I’m No Bully” show. She’s wearing pink boots, purple stretch pants and a sweater covered in purple owls.
“I want to raise awareness of bullying by getting people talking about it,” she says.
“The more people talk about it, the better we can deal with it. If I can save one child from being bullied, one child from becoming a bully, or one child from committing bullycide, then it would have been well worth it.”
Hanlon has been visiting schools for several years spreading an anti-bullying message. “I focus on empowering the children and highlight the role of the bystander,” she explained.
“As young as they are, they have the power to help stop bullying. They can let the bully know it’s not cool — turn away from the bully and go get an adult.”
A national survey by Ipsos Reid commissioned by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Canada and Invesco Canada Ltd., found that 72 per cent of bullied Canadians said they were teased in a manner designed to humiliate; 71 per cent experienced verbal abuse and taunting; 43 per cent were slapped, shoved, hit or beaten; and five per cent experienced online ridicule and humiliation.
According to the website Stop a Bully (stopabully.ca), a Canadian non-profit organization, bullying occurs once every seven minutes on the playground and once every 25 minutes in the classroom.
Hanlon said she hopes to change those statistics by empowering primary children to recognize bullying and have the confidence to stop it. She uses tools to engage children in the discussion without them even being aware that they are participating in what could be a life-changing experience.
Using her book, “The Adventures of Gus and Isaac: Backyard Bullies,” her ukulele and several other props, Hanlon has taken her show on the road to so many schools she says she’s lost count. She’s gone as far as Twillingate and hopes to do a western Newfoundland tour next month. She has reached thousands of students locally and has even read her book and presented her show to students in Korea, China and Japan.
On this day at Cowan Heights Elementary, Hanlon videotapes the children singing and will send the video to a Korean school.
“Some of us may be different, some of us may be scared, as long as we have each other, there’s no reason to be afeared,” they all sing as Hanlon plays her ukulele.
School principal Andrea Cook said bullying is something every educator has be aware of and her school addresses the topic frequently during Safe and Caring Schools assemblies.
“The benefit of stories being read by an outside person brings back to the school the things we already talk about, so it’s confirming the process that we’re following,” Cook said.
“We spend a fair amount of time in our Safe and Caring assemblies and cover how to respond to bullying, how to recognize bullying and how to report bullying. So any kind of a different approach that sort of says the same thing just helps our message stick.”
Cook, a veteran educator, said the technical age has created extra challenges for schools and it is important parents are in tune with what their children are using through social media. “I can’t stress it enough,” she said.
“Oftentimes, things that have absolutely no bearing on school will happen outside school through (social media sites) and the children are upset by it and we have upset children to deal with.
“Children are inundated with technology and sometimes lack a sophistication to keep themselves safe, so it’s a really big call to parents to step up their vigilance on their children’s use of this medium, which has great advantages, but there can be a tremendous downside if not carefully monitored by parents.”
Hanlon said since she’s been doing her show, she’s heard horror stories from children and parents.
She recalls one case involving the Internet. A mother told her how her daughter was bullied so badly she refused to go to school. The daughter’s marks began to drop and she became withdrawn, wasn’t eating and wouldn’t leave her bedroom. It was later discovered a group of girls were making her the joke of the school and using social media to spread the word.
“It was awful, as the child could not escape the terrible words, pictures and other mean things being said about her. This 14-year-old girl attempted to take her life,” Hanlon said.
“That is bullycide — a permanent solution to a temporary problem. We need to continually reach out to our children and let them know we are here, give them the strength, and empower them to help stop bullying.”
Hanlon said she’s also been contacted by adults who are experiencing bullying at work.
Roughly three-quarters of Canadians polled (76 per cent) by Ipsos Reid said stronger anti-bullying legislation and the stricter enforcement of those laws would be an effective way to reduce bullying. Ninety-four per cent of respondents said that teachers and school administrators share responsibility for the prevention of bullying.
NDP MHA Dale Kirby agrees, but says they need help. In May 2012 the member for St. John’s North, who is also the NDP’s education critic, attempted to pass a private member’s motion in the House of Assembly seeking to enshrine anti-bullying into the province’s Schools Act, but was unsuccessful.
“I still want to do it,” he said Friday. “Making a definition clear and putting it in legislation to make the importance of it clear to people is needed and we need to make sure there are clear guidelines for teachers and administrators to follow, ” Kirby said.
He said even though his motion was unsuccessful he helped create renewed interest in the subject.
“When you shine the light on these social issues it helps create a better understanding, and it’s important people from all different walks of life be able to relate to young people that this sort of thing happened to them — they experienced difficulty, but persevered and survived and found a way to deal with the problem of bullying.”
Hanlon can relate. She said she uses what she went through as a victim of bullying as motivation, though she doesn’t share her experience with children.
“For years I was bullied by a business partner so much so that when I look back on that stage of my life I hardly recognize myself, but I know this is helping, as I often hear back from children and parents telling me how my show has affected them. I also believe that the more people talk about bullying the better.”
The Ipsos Reid survey was conducted in December and sampled 1,008 Canadians. The poll results are accurate to within plus or minus 3.5 per cent.