When Pink Shirt Day arrives on Feb. 26, Saseenos Elementary School principal Gord Johnson anticipates the school will be a sea of pink.
“Absolutely. The students here really get behind the message of Pink Shirt Day and we’ll see them wearing pink and showing their support for the concepts that are at the root of the day,” Johnson said.
But what that message is has shifted over the years.
It all started in 2007 when a student in Nova Scotia was bullied for wearing a pink shirt to school. Other students saw the bullying and responded by wearing pink shirts themselves. By the end of the week most of the students were wearing pink, and the bullies got the message that their behaviour wouldn’t be tolerated.
But the day and the message of standing up to bullies represents only part of the school’s approach to create a safe environment at Saseenos, Johnson said.
“It’s certainly an emotionally charged day (and story) but for us there are two messages that we take from the whole thing,” Johnson said.
“We emphasize kindness – the Golden Rule – but also acknowledge that, if that fails, then everyone will stand together to support the principles that we believe in.”
Those principles are based on teaching the children that it’s important to consider what kind of person they want to be, even when no one is watching.
“We have regular assemblies all year long where we talk about values and emphasize the value of kindness, respect, and honesty. We don’t leave it to one special day a year to get that message across.”
As one might expect, no amount of values discussions will ever eliminate bullying entirely and when it happens, Johnson comes at the situation by trying to understand what is happening in the bully’s life. (Johnson does not like using the term bully, and prefers to deal with each student without slotting them into a category.)
“It may be that there’s something missing in that little person’s life and we work hard to help them acknowledge their behaviour and take the opportunity to change their approach. Reconciliation is also a big part, and that’s not just saying ‘sorry’. It means that you find ways of making up for the negative thing that you’ve done.”
At times, Johnson has found that it’s necessary to make a call to the parents of a child who has bullied a fellow student to try to work with the parents to resolve the situation.
“That doesn’t always work, of course. I’ve seen situations where it’s the parents who have told their child that they have permission to punch someone in the nose. That’s obviously not acceptable,” Johnson said.
“In those cases, you just have to work harder with the child.”
For Johnson, Pink Shirt Day is a celebration of the belief that a culture of kindness, coupled with a message that everyone will stand up to bad behaviour, can serve to reduce bullying behaviour.
“We have a chance to get that message across to these children and, hopefully, it’s a message they carry with them for their whole lives.”