Provinces across Canada are seeking to adopt anti-bullying legislation after a series of high-profile cases in which bullied students committed suicide. In light of these recent developments, a new report by the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada evaluates the overall effectiveness of anti-bullying legislation. “The limits of anti-bullying legislation” by senior researcher Peter Jon Mitchell warns that lawmakers are introducing such laws with little evidence that they work and without adequate ways to monitor their outcomes.

The report acknowledges that bullying is a significant issue which is no longer seen as a “part of growing up” and “is now broadcast publicly” thanks to social media. But the problem is not as simple as often portrayed by the media and government: being a bully, victim, or bystander is not mutually exclusive. A 2010 World Health Organization study reported that 41 per cent of subjects involved in bullying identified themselves as both victims and bullies. Therefore, it is difficult to create laws that respond to the complexity of the situation.

The report oultines province-by-province anti-bullying policy. Recently, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Alberta, and Quebec have all introduced bills directed against bullying. Alberta’s Bill 2 (The Education Act), which died when the provincial election was called, threatened not only bullies, but bystanders with suspension, including witnesses to cyber bullying. “In practice, this could have made students who simply viewed a Facebook post liable for suspension,” states the report. Quebec’s Bill 56 demands that boards send lists of reported bullying incidents to the Ministry of Education.

New Brunswick and British Columbia announced upcoming legislation, while Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories presented motions to further investigate the issue. Overall, most provinces already have a “safe schools” policy that targets bullying and violence. In some cases, significant sums of money have been invested in such initiatives. Ontario Auditor General Jim McCarter noted in 2010 that the $150 million Ontario spent on these measures was not being distributed efficiently and the province could not track whether the policies worked.

To assess the efficacy of anti-bullying laws, Mitchell turns to anti-bullying legislation in the United States, which proliferated after the 1999 Columbine school shooting. The U.S. laws were similar to the Canadian ones in that school boards were held responsible in implementing codes of conduct, awareness initiatives, bullying response policies, suspension, and expulsion. Like in Canada, U.S. policies have not been adequately evaluated and there is debate over whether suspension and expulsion over bullying produces more harm than good.

According to the IMFC report, “Laws cannot be a substitute for the community level involvement needed to address bullying.” While legislation is useful in terms of laying out expectations for student behaviour, it cannot change it. Ultimately, “the success of policies and programs will come down to those at ground zero: students, parents, teachers and the community.”

With this in mind, Mitchell makes a series of recommendations for how provincial governments should respond. First, they should evaluate existing policies and funding before proposing any new legislation. Next, more research should be gathered about what sorts of anti-bullying programs and approaches work. Moreover, legislation should be minimal in extent and provide a lot of room for local communities to implement what seems best to them. Lastly, policymakers should make clear that bullying is better addressed at the local level and that the law itself will not put a stop to bullying. “While many Canadians favour legal intervention, policymakers must champion local community level solutions as the first line of response aided by sound, proven policy.”