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Unravelling bullying at the roots

Premier restores funding for empathy training

Premier Christy Clark (left) announces $800,000 in restored funding for the Roots of Empathy Program, which aims to teach young children to empathize with others by interacting with babies. Credit: Jeremy Hainsworth photo

Two programs to teach young children empathy and preempt homophobic and racist bullying from an early age will get $800,000 annually for five years from the province, Premier Christy Clark announced in Burnaby on June 13.

The Roots of Empathy and Seeds of Empathy programs are about bullying prevention rather than intervention, says founder Mary Gordon.

“Homophobic bullying is one kind of very prevalent bullying that is out there,” Clark notes. “What we need to do is make sure that every school in the province is armed with the information on how to deal with bullying better.”

Gay educators say the programs are a start, but more needs to be done to specifically target the homophobia already in schools.

While the programs may help decrease homophobia down the road, they do nothing to help queer kids in higher grades right now, says gay Vancouver West End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert.

The programs actively promote respectful, kind behaviour and address aggressive behaviour such as bullying, harassment, violence and intimidation by bringing families with young babies into elementary classrooms 27 times over a school year, Gordon says. Students are coached to observe the baby’s development, celebrate its milestones, interact with the baby and learn about its needs.

The Roots of Empathy Program is for kindergarten kids, while the Seeds of Empathy program focuses on four- and five-year-olds in preschool and childcare.

Gordon says the Roots program already runs in 239 BC schools. Clark says that should be expanded to 360 kindergarten classrooms this year. The Seeds program should be in 22 preschools or daycares in 2011/2012, they say.

“Bullying has no place in our schools, and parents deserve to know their children are safe in school. Roots of Empathy will help accomplish that goal,” Clark promises.

Gordon tells Xtra the programs help children understand the humanity and vulnerability of others. “A little baby is a theatre of emotions,” she says. “The children develop a vocabulary for their feelings. It’s like a break in aggression against people.”

And that, she says, helps people better understand the feelings of others and reduce bullying.

“There are serious issues of bullying and homophobia issues, not only in BC but globally,” Gordon says. “Research tells us that the thousands of BC children who receive the program will bully less, be more cooperative, caring and kind. This investment in children’s social and emotional development is an investment in a more caring, peaceful and civil society.”

It was in January that Liberal leadership hopeful Clark promised the gay community she would prioritize dealing with homophobic bullying if she were to become premier.

“Today is the beginning of that,” she says.

Pride in Education Network member and retired teacher Faune Johnson says the programs are good, but she wants to see more from the government on homophobia policies. “I wouldn’t be able to make a judgment until I see the next step and the step after that,” she says. “You pretty much need to have specific programs to educate people. Unless it’s specifically taught, I don’t know if there’s any influence there.

“There are kids in kindergarten using homophobic slurs. I don’t know if this is going to wipe that out. There has to be a more coordinated effort,” Johnson says.

Chandra Herbert points out that the funding is not new, rather it’s a restoration of money taken away under former premier Gordon Campbell.

The restored funding will come jointly from the Ministry of Children and Family Development and the Ministry of Education.

Clark made the announcement at Morley Elementary School in Burnaby, the suburb at the centre of recent controversy around an anti-homophobia policy developed by the local school district.

A large group of parents have objected to the Burnaby School Board’s proposed Policy 5.45 to protect queer students. They say the policy promotes reverse discrimination, is an infringement of parents’ rights and privileges a certain political ideology.

“Discrimination against children and violation of parental and religious rights and freedoms will not be tolerated in BC even if it is camouflaged as an anti-bullying measure,” Parents’ Voice spokesperson Charter Lau says in a news release. The group says it has a petition signed by thousands that it plans to present to the premier tomorrow.

However, Clark told media on June 13 that the issue is not hers to deal with. She suggested the group take the petition up with the Burnaby board. “They have an issue with their school board. They have to resolve it at the school board level.”

Johnson and Chandra Herbert disagree. Both say Clark should have taken the opportunity to openly declare her support for the school board.

The Burnaby School Board is expected to vote on an updated version of the policy on June 14.

The Roots of Empathy program was founded in Canada in 1996 by Gordon, and is now offered in Canada, New Zealand, the United States, the Isle of Man, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.