Nanaimo district adds to arsenal against bullying

NANAIMO – A new website will put tools to combat bullying at students' fingertips.

Tom Piros

Tom Piros

A new website will put tools to combat bullying at students’ fingertips.

Nanaimo school district, with the RCMP and the Vancouver Island Crisis Line, unveiled the Teens Networking Together web and mobile phone site Tuesday, to coincide with Anti-Bullying Day Wednesday.

The site, dubbed TNT, provides students with an avenue to report bullying incidents against themselves or other students – anonymously if they choose – educates them about what bullying is and includes links to 24/7 support if they are feeling scared, worried or suicidal.

“It’s a 21st-century approach,” said Bob Esliger, district principal of student support services. “Students have their mobile devices on them at all times. This gives them a vehicle to report where they’re comfortable.”

Investigating ways students can report bullying anonymously was one of the recommendations from a 2010 review of the district’s suicide intervention and bullying prevention programs, which was launched after a 15-year-old boy killed himself that January.

The idea for a site that enabled youth to report bullying via their cellphones came from Tom Piros, the district’s safe schools coordinator, and he believes TNT is unique in western Canada.

He said the vast majority of behaviour incidents referred to secondary principals have an Internet-based component to them.

“Kids stage fights with texting,” said Piros. “Unfortunately, they often play out in schools because that’s where kids congregate. We want to give them ethical ways to report prior to the fight, prior to the swarming, prior to the harm.”

The district believes the site will get used because students from three secondary schools gave the district feedback on the design, he said, and staff plan to enlist local businesses to offer student discounts on the site as an incentive for teens to visit regularly.

Posters will be placed all over schools with a QR code at the bottom that students can scan with their phones to link them directly to TNT.

“This is a youth-inspired design,” said Piros. “We want our youth, as much as we can, to own the site.”

He said future content could also include student art, polls or music. Once the site’s bugs have been fully worked out, the district plans to launch free mobile apps available from iTunes, Android and BlackBerry.

Rachel Fritz, a Grade 10 student at Nanaimo District Secondary School, said she’s optimistic students will pay attention.

“It’s already on something they’re so familiar with,” she said.

Fritz is part of Empathy NDSS, a group of 16 students trained by the Vancouver Island Crisis Line to assist their peers in times of difficulty.

She said many students are reluctant to formally report bullying incidents, but this site offers teens an easy, safe, anonymous way to do so.

Heather Owen, crisis society spokeswoman, said she believes teens will use the resource because it’s something kids can do privately.

“I know that a lot of kids want to, they might be afraid to, not know how to,” she said. “They really do want a safe place to go to school.”

Paweena Sukhawathanakul, a doctorate student at the University of Victoria working with psychology professor Dr. Bonnie Leadbeater on evaluation of a peer victimization prevention program for elementary school students called WITS, said how well the site is used will depend on how well it is advertised, as well as the school/community culture.

“There really needs to be a norm around getting help first,” she said. “It goes back to how well they think their community supports them. Integrating it with the businesses is a good step because the community reinforces it, too.”

Sukhawathanakul said it is important that the district does something about the bullying once reports are received and that follow through helps both the victim and the bully, as bullies are often victims themselves.

Esliger said the district has also created a guide for school staff that includes steps to follow when investigating a bullying incident, standardizes data gathering and information sharing and gives staff the ability to better track what was reported and steps taken.