Take a Stand Against Bullying for a Safe Learning Environment

Sometimes it is hard for me to speak up on new ideas because they always used to shoot me down… So the message? It can’t be ignored. Bullying is a form of torture. Please do something.—EAST student

At EAST Alternative School in Toronto, Ontario, an enriched, arts and project-based school with a focus on social justice and sustainability, we have made it a pillar in our mandate to create a safe learning environment for all students.

We have identified eight key reasons as to why it is essential to focus on this dimension in our educational environments:

  • Students cannot learn when they are afraid; this impacts them not only emotionally, but neurologically.
  • Students come to our schools carrying the trauma of previous bullying experiences and emotional traumas that have not been processed or addressed.
  • The modeling of inclusive, caring, empathetic and safe spaces plants powerful seeds for further entrenching these values within society.
  • As the leaders and authorities within the educational setting, teachers and principals must honour their responsibilities by taking students’ rights to emotional and physical safety seriously.
  • Research shows that bullying causes lasting scars; if we want strong, healthy adults, then we cannot allow bullying to flourish in our schools.
  • The recognition of the wholeness of the human being at emotional, mental, physical and spiritual levels necessitates strong action and validation for the pain that occurs in the psyches of our students when bullying occurs.
  • A school cannot function—students cannot learn and teachers cannot teach—when the community is unsafe for students and teachers alike. Bullying renders the community dysfunctional.

In light of the importance of creating an anti-bullying program, the staff at EAST Alternative School has initiated a three-pronged approach: 1) the cultivation of a safe, inclusive and caring community 2) explicit teaching and modeling of emotional intelligence 3) an authoritative stance.

The Cultivation of a Safe, Caring and Inclusive School Environment

At EAST, everyone in the community must be on board in creating this type of environment and working together for the benefit of everyone within it. The cultivation of a safe, inclusive and caring environment is an educational priority on par with the development of literacy, numeracy and academic success. Integral to this vision is the model of the “three-legged stool,” where school staff, parents, and students are working together with their distinct roles and responsibilities. The mandate of an inclusive school environment must permeate everything that is done within the school community, and be practised within all interactions. Regular meetings with the entire community are essential to monitor and assess the success in creating this type of environment.

Two years [after I was bullied], I came to EAST and I loved it. I thought it was normal not to have so many friends. Now people come up to me to talk and that’s new to me. It wasn’t until this year that I started telling my story…I used to keep things bottled up, and now I’ve smashed that bottle.—EAST Student


At EAST we facilitate a circle for all members of the school. A school circle is a powerful, effective and meaningful way for students, teachers and administrators to come together and address personal, community-based and global issues. In response to the critique that there is “no time” for such an initiative, we would assert that the time spent on reactive incidents that tear at the fabric of the school community and take up everyone’s time have significantly decreased since we have invested in this important practice. The circle reinforces empathy for one another, and strengthens our interpersonal and community connections.

In addition, we hold a circle on bullying for our parent community, and it has been quite moving to hear the stories parents have of the traumas they have endured in their own lives as a result of being bullied, whether as a young person or in the workplace. Our students have also been invited into other middle schools to run circles with their peers, which is a powerful process.

Restorative Practices

By entrenching a culture of restorative justice within the school, we are able to practice a humane approach to personal and community accountability. Using the framework established by Costello, Wachtel and Wachtel in the Restorative Practices Handbook, incidents are dealt with through reflection on the following questions: 1) What happened? 2) What were you thinking at the time? 3) What have you thought about since? 4) Who has been affected by what you have done and in what way? 5) What do you need to do to make things right? When necessary, a restorative justice circle is put in place to respond to wrongdoing between individuals and groups, and fosters an increased capacity to restore the connection between community members in a proactive and healing manner.

Encouraging the Art of “Travelling”

The concept of “travelling” came about when trying to address the issue of cliques that came up within a grade 8 class. One student, after a thoughtful pause, indicated that he did not feel that he belonged to a clique, but he was “a traveller.” We recognized that this epitomized the essence of what we wanted all our students to strive for while they were at our school. Travelling is defined as “getting to know and care about as many people in your community as you can.” At the end of each year, students also vote on a “Traveller’s Award” which is given to a male and female student in each grade.

Fostering Healthy Personal Competition and Cooperation

Competition can be a very healthy approach to certain tasks and challenges. We encourage students to do their best at all times; however, we attempt to avoid pitting one student against the other. In athletics, we offer a diverse, noncompetitive intramural sports program. Another way in which we emphasize cooperation is through the formal teaching of group roles. We are also careful to choose student groups (often with student input), rather than allow students to choose their own. A classic and hurtful mistake that is often made by teachers is, “Get yourselves into groups of three.” There are always students who cannot find a group, and this leads to a very hurtful experience of exclusion and undermines community safety.

The Explicit Teaching and Modeling of Emotional Intelligence

All of these feelings are horrible and bullying all around is hurtful. It is something that can crush someone and make his or her life turn upside down. School is the main spot where a lot of bullying happens. For some people, school is a breeze and for others, school and life are a living hell. No wonder teens commit suicide every year. It is just too hard. —EAST Student

Students need to know themselves and understand and accept themselves for their strengths and their challenges before they can extend this same compassion and empathy to others. Students need to develop the capacity to explore, name, articulate and work creatively and proactively with their feelings so that these feelings do not come out in destructive ways that will impact both themselves, and the community. Fostering healthy relationships is important at the intermediate age; students are very concerned with social bonds. Helping them to create and maintain healthy relationships builds an important foundation that extends into their adult lives. The explicit teaching of emotional intelligence must be embedded in the curriculum, and emotional intelligence must be modeled and valued by all members of the school community.

Exploring Yourself and Your Complex Emotions Through Arts-Based Activities

It is extremely important to provide rich, meaningful and in-depth opportunities for students to explore themselves and their inner lives. At EAST, this is done through a variety of curriculum-embedded art and language projects. At the beginning of grade 7, for example, students are led through an exploration of Jung’s concept of the “shadow.” They are asked to explore those parts of themselves that they do not easily share with the outer world, and translate those into symbols and colour created on their own shadow mask. They also explore their shadow in a written reflection, and a movement piece.

Entrenching Social Justice and Sustainability as a Key Curricular Thread and Theme

Students are acute observers of the world around them. At the intermediate level, their sense of indignation around issues of fairness needs to be harnessed into explorations of society. As we are teaching about emotional intelligence, we need to assist students in reconciling what they see in the world with what we are encouraging them to model. Understandings of power, privilege, injustice and oppression are important tools to help develop their own moral and ethical orientations. At EAST, we have novel studies dedicated to the theme of social justice. We also bring in speakers from community organizations such as T.E.A.C.H. (Teens Educating and Confronting Homophobia) and Integra (an organization supporting students with learning disabilities) In grade 8, students explore the big question: “How do human beings organize themselves to create a more just and sustainable world?”

Grounding Students in Courageous Voices and Helping Them to Find Their Own

In grade 8, students embark on a months-long project called “Courageous Voices” where they study Joseph Cambell’s paradigm of heroism. They then select a hero or heroine they feel passionately about and collaborate on a powerful large-scale dramatic production using the words of their role model. Students select individuals such as Nelson Mandela, Wangari Mathai, and Simon Wiesenthal, among many others. Immersing students in the real-life struggles and victories of courageous individuals is a profound, transformative experience in moral and ethical development, and provides them with an influential template for emotional intelligence, courage, resilience, and ethical action in the world.

Authoritative Intervention

I think that all teachers and parents should deal with bullying the way EAST does. The next day [after students reported the bullying behaviour of my friends and I], I was brought into the teacher’s office about four times. They questioned all the girls over the next week. We were warned that if it happened again, we would be suspended. We didn’t realize how serious it was until the teachers talked to us. If they didn’t deal with it, it would have gotten worse. In the end, I learned that I will never do anything like that again. If all adults dealt with it like that, 300 kids wouldn’t die each year.—EAST student

In addition to efforts to create a community where ethical and empathetic behaviour is internalized, it is unrealistic to think that bullying will not occur. Given this reality, it is essential for a strong disciplinary stance to be taken by school leaders when bullying occurs, and that consequences are clearly communicated and put in place. All reports of bullying must be taken seriously and investigated. It must be clear to the students within the school that the adults do not condone bullying in any way; they must be proactive, consistent, and see this as a priority.

Bullying Writing

A majority of bullying behaviour occurs outside of the “gaze” of adults, which is why it is often quite difficult to track insidious incidents. In order to address this at EAST, we have instituted anonymous ‘bullying writing,” where approximately every two months, students are asked to respond to the following question: “What does the face of bullying at EAST look like?” If a student’s name comes up repeatedly, there are a series of actions taken by the school to address the issue.

Student Witnessing

Some say that the bully should suffer consequences. To me, that’s true. But the witness needs consequences, too. The witness is almost as bad as the bully. You’re the one who is letting it happen.—EAST student

Students are encouraged to step forward, recognizing themselves as not just a bystander, but as a witness, in the same way that an individual is witness to a crime. The language of witness is preferred to bystander because it involves a more active response; it implies a legal responsibility and sense of accountability, which is essential in not fostering a culture of impunity around bullying. This language also challenges entrenched social norms around “ratting.”

A comprehensive, anti-bullying approach can and does work. A safe environment is a necessity for effective learning to happen. School leaders must make this a priority.

Coloroso, B. (2010). The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. Harper Collins.

Costello, S., Wachtel, J. & Wachtel, T. (2009). The Restorative Practices Handbook. The International Association of Restorative Practices.

Smith, P., Peplar, D. and Rigby, K. (2004). Bullying in Schools: How Successful Can Interventions Be? Cambridge University Press.

The authors wish to thank their principal, Kiki Karailiadis, and school superintendent, Mike Gallagher, of the Toronto District School Board for their unwavering support of anti-bullying programming in their schools.


Lynn Heath
Lynn Heath has been teaching for over 38 years in a variety of settings and has made it her goal to challenge bullying in all of them. She is a founding teacher of EAST Alternative School in Toronto, ON.

Maria Vamvalis
Maria Vamvalis has over 10 years of experience in education, with a focus on social justice, sustainability and a holistic understanding of student needs. She is a teacher at EAST Alternative School in Toronto, ON.

This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2014 issue.

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