Challenge Day a qualified success: report

New numbers show that the controversial Challenge Day program at F.H. Collins does reduce bullying, but could also be a negative experience for some students.

New numbers show that the controversial Challenge Day program at F.H. Collins does reduce bullying, but could also be a negative experience for some students.

After participating in Challenge Day workshops – which involve publicly discussing being both victims and perpetrators of bullying – some students and parents complained that the workshops were too emotionally intense for some students, and made some participants feel too vulnerable.

A survey conducted by the Department of Education after last year’s Challenge Day workshops shows that incidents of physical, verbal, social, and electronic bullying, racial discrimination and sexual harassment were down across the board following students’ participation in Challenge Day workshops.

The majority of students surveyed – 79 per cent – said that the workshops increased respect among students, and 93 per cent of people heavily involved in the program said it was a benefit to the students.

But it also shows that for some students, the workshops can be too much. Forty-seven per cent said they felt embarrassed sharing accounts of bullying.

“We knew going in that we had some school councillors and parents that were concerned by some of the impacts. What the report did was confirm that those are valid concerns,” said Valerie Royle, Yukon’s deputy minister of education.

She said the survey results mirrored the number of complaints from last year, so the department and the school decided to make some changes to the program, including reinforcing the message that participation is optional.

“You know, we felt it was very successful. The numbers who said no this year were less than 10. The vast majority of kids participated. For introverts, this sort of stuff is difficult. We had to make allowances for that,” said Royle.

Christine Klaassen-St. Pierre understands just how difficult opening up can be. She is a vice-principal at F.H. Collins and was bullied herself in high school. She helped get Challenge Day off the ground and said the improvement she’s seen through the program is huge.

“We made a few changes. We just made sure that the kids knew more beforehand that it was a choice,” she said.

There have always been some kids who chose to opt out, but those numbers have been steadily shrinking while positive response from the program grows, she said.

Of the 16 respondents who said they probably wouldn’t participate, 14 were male. Klaassen-St. Pierre worries that’s an indicator of lingering gender roles that need to change.

“We call it the ‘Be the man box.’ We often say to boys, ‘Be tough. Don’t show your emotions.’ In Challenge Day we sometimes do show our emotions. That can be more difficult for boys. It doesn’t mean the program’s not good for them.”

The other key to the program’s success is follow-up, and making sure that students who do take the risk to disclose in public have the support they need once Challenge Day is over.

“If someone said, ‘You have to do this program without the follow-up,’ I simply wouldn’t do it at all,” said Klaassen-St. Pierre.

With so much recent media attention to bullying, Klaassen-St. Pierre said it might seem like things are getting worse, not better. She doesn’t believe that. Instead, she said she feels that people are simply becoming less tolerant of the bullying that has always existed for kids.

“It’s the new smoking. We’re starting to understand the dangerous impacts it has. With smoking, we know you can get lung cancer. We know the damage it can cause. We’re saying that it’s not acceptable anymore,” said Klaassen-St. Pierre.

Rather that punish or shame bullies, Challenge Day seeks to create an environment where their actions can be discussed and understood. It’s a model built on the tenets of restorative justice and developed by two school counsellors from California who oversaw rehabilitation efforts after the Columbine school shooting in 1999.

Contact Jesse Winter at jessew@yukon-news.com