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Bullying, School Violence and Youth Crime

by The Honourable Marvin A. Zuker, Ontario (Canada) Court of Justice

Courtesy of www thelawjournal co uk!

We at The Law Journal (UK) welcome a new contributing author, Judge Marvin A. Zuker of the Ontario (Canada) Court of Justice, specialising in Family Law. Your comments are welcome on this and any of our articles -- contact Brian Risman, Publisher, The Law Journal (UK) regarding your thoughts.

Considerable attention has been paid during the last few years to issues of aggressive behaviour by students towards one another at school, often under the label of bullying. (see e.g. Dickinson, G. (2000) 12 “Education and Law Journal pp 349-352, Gladden, M. (2002) 26 Review of Research in Education, pp 263-297, Jull, S. (2000) Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, 17, and Roher, E 12 Education and Law Journal pp 319-347).


Recently, a 15-year-old in Cold Spring, Minn., killed a fellow student and wounded another; SWAT officers shot and wounded a student wielding a pistol in a high school in Spokane, Wash.; three students were stabbed in a high school parking lot brawl in Oakdale, Calif.,; a teenage intruder stabbed a 13-year-old student at a high school in Annapolis, Md.; and a 16-year-old boy died after a fight at a Tucson school.


The issue of school violence and bullying has come to the fore throughout North America in the past decade.  In November of 1997 a group of six girls were convicted of aggravated assault in connection with the beating death of Reena Virk in Victoria, British Columbia.  In April of 1999, Jason Lang was shot to death while another student was critically injured at a school in Taber, Alberta.  The perpetrator in this case had seen himself as a target of bullies since he first entered elementary school. In response to the Columbine School shootings that had happened two weeks before, he planned his shooting out of revenge even though he did not know his eventual victims.  On November 10, 2000, Dawn Marie Wesley from Mission, B.C. hung herself with a dog leash in her bedroom.  In her suicide note she spoke of the torment she experienced by her female perpetrators saying that “If I try to get help, it will get worse”.  A young girl involved in this incident  was convicted in the first case in Canada targetting bullying and criminal harassment.


Under the Youth Criminal Justice Act, the term “child” (see Gibson, Murphy, Jarman & Grant, (2003) All About Law, Exploring the Canadian Legal System  

5th Ed,  Thomson at page 286) refers to a person under 12 years of age.  “Youth” (p.286) refers to a person 12-17 years of age, and 18+ years is considered an “adult” (p. 286). 


Bullying has been defined as “the tendency for some children to frequently oppress, harass or intimidate other children, verbally, physically or both, in and out of school”  with repeated and systematic harassment and attacks on others.  Bullying can be perpetrated by individuals or groups.


Bullies are aggressive.  They may be quite self-confident, but they lack empathy for their victims.  They feel a sense of entitlement and have little tolerance toward what is new or different.  A more pervasive form of bullying is cyber-bullying.  Threatening text messages, breaking into e-mail accounts to spread malicious messages, spamming victims, creating mean-spirited web sites have all become ways for bullies to harass or exclude their victims.


Bullying is a pervasive problem.  It starts at an early age—toddlers can exhibit aggressive behaviours akin to bullying and research shows that by 30 months boys and girls start to exhibit bullying behaviours that differ according to gender.  As bullying and violent behaviours are identified in very young children, more recognition needs to be placed on parenting practices towards children who are not yet in school.  Either this, or providing schooling for children aged two or three.  In this way, young children may be consistently taught “right” from “wrong”. Perhaps this may reduce the number of young people experiencing overwhelming challenges, with intervention more consistently sought.  See Giguere, D., Professionally Speaking Magazine, pp 16-19, June 2003.


The Youth Criminal Justice Act is the current legislation governing youth crime in Canada.  Within the parameters of this Act, classifications by age of the young offender determines criminal responsibility.  The following table summarizes this classification.


Table l:  Ages and Degree of Criminal Responsibility see (Gibson, Murphy, Jarman & Grant 2003, supra at page 286)




0-11 years



12-17 years







Recognizing that bullying is a power imbalance over one’s victim, elementary school students know what they are doing when they deliberately exclude their peers or engage in verbal abusive language. 


We know that under the Youth Criminal Justice Act young people under 12 years of age are not criminally responsible for their actions.  This means acts of bullying and violence concerning children under 12 years are dealt with by the school system and/or other legislation such as child protection.  Critics of this legislation prefer the minimum age of responsibility for criminal activity to be seven years.


For cases of bullying with younger children it is noticeable that these children do not “suffer” any consequences in the same manner as older children.


The lack of legal accountability puts the onus on the school system to deal with such infractions.  The question remains as to the degree that these younger children “ought reasonably to have foreseen the consequences of his/her actions".   It is speculated that this accountability of young children will be paralleled with societal demands that place the school in the forefront of teaching children the fundamental skills of what it means to be a human being.  One aspect of whether or not children have the capabilities to foresee the consequences of their actions, is whether or not they have been taught this by their parents before entering school.


It is speculated that identifying how young children form this necessary intent will help to further develop and implement education programs which target this concept.  For boys and girls twelve years and older, the criminal code becomes relevant and the accountability for their actions becomes more apparent. 


There is convincing data that warrants the attention of bullying and violence prevention education programs in schools beginning with very young children.  While “educators can increase their ability to spot signs of trouble by establishing caring, responsive, and supportive relationships with their students” (see Cohen, J. (1999), 57 Educational Leadership, pp. 70-75), there also needs to be recognition of the troubled state of mind of some young people which prevent them from accepting such caring and support from educators.  Although it can be argued that over time such troubled boys and girls will alter their thinking given the opportunity by dedicated and committed educators, unfortunately for some boys and girls other influences may be too overwhelming.




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