Region parents worry about anti-bullying watchdogs
By Kim Zarzour
August 3, 2010
A fledgling group of parents, worried about the safety of their school children, are concerned no one is watching over the province’s boards of education, and they have launched a three-pronged attempt to change that.
With help from several anti-bully groups including York Region Anti-Bullying Coalition, the parents are sending letters to trustees, MPPs and the Ontario Ombudsman to persuade them to take the job of student safety more seriously.
Karen Sebben, founder of the York Region group, said parents hope to make safety and accountability key issues in the upcoming municipal and provincial elections.
“All the parents who contact me don’t know where else to go,” she said.
“Everyone we’ve spoken to makes reference to moving up the chain of command, but nothing gets resolved. So many families are being destroyed. We need an outside, independent investigative organization.”
Ms Sebben, a Holland Landing mom who became involved in student safety after her son was bullied for several years in Newmarket schools, is compiling submissions from parents across the province who wish to complain to the provincial ombudsman.
While the ombudsman doesn’t have oversight of school boards, the public watchdog does keep a tally of complaints which is published in the annual report. Ms Sebben, and others including Georgina resident Jason Koblovsky who launched Ombudsman for Ontario Schools Facebook site, hope a spike in submissions will make clear the need for better checks and balances.
The action stems from a meeting in Guelph last May when parents from across the province met to explore the possibility of creating a province-wide anti-bully coalition. It became apparent that while the group had a variety of concerns with respect to the province’s schools, they shared a concern over accountability.
“No one seems to know who is responsible,” said Corina Morrison, with the London Anti-Bullying Coalition. “Parents find they get the run-around.”
The ad hoc group decided to send out two mass mailings, to trustees running for re-election in the fall to remind them that they represent their constituents — not the board — and to MPPs pushing for greater transparency and public consultation by boards.
The next step was to tackle the issue of a public watchdog to oversee schools.
Currently, school boards fall under the MUSH sector — municipalities, universities, hospitals, long-term care facilities, children’s aid societies and police — off-limits to the provincial watchdog.
Ontario Ombudsman André Marin has been trying for years to expand his mandate to include MUSH. Spokesperson Patricia Tomasi said Mr. Marin supports the parents’ efforts.
“The number of complaints about school boards has risen over the past few years,” she said. “Parents feel they have nowhere else to turn. There’s really a lack of oversight in that area now.”
Ms Tomasi points out that five Canadian provinces allow their ombudsman to investigate school boards. “It’s not like they’re asking for something extraordinary or new. “
Peter Shurman, MPP for Thornhill, agreed. The Tory admits his opinion sways from the rest of his political party.
"I don't see why school boards should be out of bounds. It's a reasonable thing, subject to certain rules of engagement."
But Oak Ridges-Markham MPP Helena Jaczek disagreed. The Liberal MPP said she had not received any correspondence from parents concerned about the issue and said there are adequate mechanisms for complaints already in place — the Ontario Public School Boards Association and Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association.
Tory MPP Frank Klees said parents should be able to turn to their individual trustees and minister of education.
“If the trustees do their job, and the minister does her job, there’s no need for the ombudsman,” the Aurora-Newmarket MPP said.
Some critics say trustees have outlived their usefulness altogether.
“Today’s elected school board trustees are basically limited to advocacy and rubber-stamping monthly staff reports,” education consultant Paul W. Bennett writes in his Canadian education blog, Educhatter.
Doretta Wilson, executive director with The Society for Quality Education agreed. “More and more people are upset with the responsiveness of school boards,” she said, especially in large “bureaucratic institution” boards like York Region, Toronto, London and Hamilton. “Everyone’s afraid to say anything.”
If there were more accountability and choice at the school level, she said, the advocacy group believes school boards could be eliminated.
While neither the public nor separate school board chair of trustees in York Region were available for comment, Chris Cable, communications head with the Catholic board, suggested schools go out of their way to reach out to parents, pointing to various initiatives including tours of schools for newcomers, and making it clear to parents schools want to hear from them when their kids have difficulties and challenges.
Catherine Fife, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, says most trustees are “extremely accessible” — but the group is aware of the growing concern about school board accountability.
The association looked into the ombudsman issue after parents in Waterloo brought bullying concerns to small claims court, but the group decided a public watchdog was not the answer, she said.
The best approach, the association decided, was to keep track of official complaints, share school board “best practices” in the fall, and to focus on communication with parents.
“Trustees do make a lot of difficult decisions,” she said, “and that doesn’t make us very popular.”
London’s anti-bully head Corina Morrison thinks stronger steps are called for. If the parents’ ombudsman and accountability appeals aren’t heeded, they are considering a “Sunshine List”: publicizing the names of each school that has had student safety complaints, and whether parents are happy with the resolution.
“If that’s what we have to do, shame them in the media every year, then so be it. We’ll do whatever it takes to keep kids safe.”