Peaceful schools spreading
September 27, 2006
On February 21,1991, Hetty van Gurp’s life changed forever.
Her 14-year-old son, Ben, harassed for months by another student, was pushed to the gymnasium floor in an unsupervised after-school activity. Already suffering from a condition called neurofibromatosis that can weaken bloodvessel walls, his heart stopped en route to the hospital and he died after emergency surgery was performed.
The student, who was never charged, was eventually transferred to another school.
“We never pursued criminal charges because it was for my own personal healing at the time,” van Gurp said of the student, whom she later learned came from an abusive family environment.
The former Nova Scotia teacher and school administrator instead turned her energies to helping schools deal with bullying, realizing that many schools shared the same kind of problem as her son’s school. After travelling internationally, which took her to the troubled country of Serbia — just coming out of a bitter civil conflict that ended in the late 90s — she started training teachers in peaceful conflict resolution and eventually in 2001, formed Peaceful Schools International (PSI) with a Canadian International Development Agency grant.
Now, Peaceful Schools International has more than 200 schools from Canada, the U.S. Russia and Serbia, among others, as part of the network. Twenty-seven of those schools are from the Lester B. Pearson School Board, thanks to the efforts of van Gurp and Judy Grant, a retired administrator and part-time Faculty of Education teacher at McGill who co-ordinates the Peaceful Schools program for the board. The board has invested in the peaceful schools program with the endorsement of LBPSB Council of Commissioners and board officials. Grant has been the regional co-ordinator since November 2002, trying to include all 65 of the board’s elementary and high schools.
“We ran three-day workshops in all the schools,” said Grant. “Most are on the road to becoming peaceful schools, but 27 have the Peaceful Schools International flag flying. We would like our schools to be peaceful, positive, and safe environments for our staff and students. The program just helps schools to focus on what they are doing right and expand on that,” she added.
At Beaconsfield High School, students dealt with the aftermath of the Dawson College shootings with a minute of silence, prayers for the families and students of the C.E.G.E.P., and encouragement from principal Rosemary Patterson to be kinder, more helpful.
“I think being part of the peaceful schools network helped us get through that difficult time. We wanted to let students know that peaceful living is a day-to-day thing.”
BHS will have its official PSI flag-raising ceremony in the spring, but activities are planned for each month of this academic year. At the beginning of the year, Patterson and the school’s teachers had students put two peace promises — things they would do for themselves and others — into an envelope, which will be re-opened later in the year. “We’re planting the seeds for the future,” said Patterson.
Many of the LBPSB schools in the PSI network have peer mediation programs, which along with professional development for teachers and a collaborative approach to school-based decision making, are part of PSI membership criteria.
Thorndale Elementary in Pierrefonds, a Peaceful Schools International member since 2004, held Pinwheels for Peace to recognize last Thursday’s International UN Peace Day. Students from all grade levels made pinwheels that were arranged on the school playground to spell out the words PEACE and LOVE, as well as the international symbol for peace. Thorndale has set a number of peaceful school initiatives, according to PSI activities coordinator and integration aid, Suzannah Bartlett.
“This year we are training about 20 grade five students to become peer mediators and we’ve got over 50 grade six students who act as safety patrollers, said Bartlett. “Both our playground activities and physical education program encourage co-operative playing. And a zero tolerance policy towards any bullying.”
In Hetty van Gurp’s hometown of Granville Ferry, Nova Scotia, someone is smiling