On the Job with… Christine Bibby, Safe and Inclusive Schools Lead

A specialist sits at a laptop while consulting with a principal

Right: Christine Bibby consults with Principal Cheryl Innes.

It’s first thing in the morning and Christine Bibby is talking about cannabis. As Grand Erie’s Safe and Inclusive Schools Lead, and with recent legislation legalizing the sale and use of the substance, it’s one of many things her job requires her to consider in the context of the learning environment, student safety and well-being, and staff resources and support.

“We understand the complexity and the intersection of a student’s behaviour compared to what’s going on in their life,” Bibby says of the research and evidence-based approaches her team takes with students and cannabis, and on all matters. “Any discipline should be with the end result of helping to support a student, and helping support a behaviour change.”

She’s meeting with Piyali Bagchee, Mental Health Lead, and the two are planning the roll-out of information and supports for teachers in dealing with student cannabis use. Traditionally, there might not be much discussion on the topic: teachers and administrators once followed zero-tolerance procedures that generally resulted in a suspension or expulsion. With increased knowledge and understanding about just what students need to succeed and achieve, however, times are changing.

“Knowledge evolves, and we keep evolving,” says Bibby.

“And our practices have to be the same,” says Bagchee, completing the thought.

If youth cannabis use seems like a heady topic, Bibby’s day is just getting started. Following this meeting, she’s off to Centennial-Grand Woodlands School, where Principal Cheryl Innes has requested increased supports for her students around online safety and cyberbullying. There are a variety of supports Bibby can apply, and a consultation with Innes has determined that a presentation to students will be the most effective. Bibby has grade-appropriate presentations on a variety of topics at the ready, and adjusts them according to each school’s unique needs.

“The middle-school years can be a very hard age,” reflects Innes during her conversation with Bibby. “Developmentally, there’s so much going on, and things that occur online, outside of school hours, have a huge impact on both well-being and achievement.”

Bibby and Innes work together to determine the best approach, and moments later, Bibby is hooking up her laptop in the gym as groups of junior and intermediate students file in.

“Giving young people smart phones is a bit like sending them on a trip to New York City by themselves,” she says. “Trouble awaits, and digital literacy is needed to ensure they can make smart decisions.”

The presentation opens eyes and minds to the realities of online communication, including cyberbullying, scams, sexual exploitation, addiction, and the effects screen time has on sleep cycles and brain development. Bibby also uses the opportunity to talk about how students can identify and report risky behaviours they witness in friends’ online activities.

“Students in Grand Erie have literally saved other kids’ lives by reporting what they see online,” states Bibby.

By the end of the presentation, students have all kinds of intelligent and thoughtful questions that demonstrate they’ve understood the content and are taking it seriously.

A woman presents at the front of a gym

Right: Bibby presents to students on the topic of internet safety.

Bibby started as a social worker in Grand Erie 28 years ago (at that time, it was the Brant County Board of Education), and came from a background working with children with complex developmental needs, young offenders, and in the field of children’s mental health. She and one other social worker built the department from the ground up.

“It was a really exciting time because we were able to do a lot of interesting work – informal research, and collaborative group work – and really figure out how social work and education could make a difference in kids’ lives and support teachers at the same time,” she says.

When the area boards amalgamated, Bibby had the chance to expand her knowledge in terms of the community resources and supports available to students, and also to work with both urban and rural schools.

“What I found was that in areas where there weren’t a lot of support agencies, schools were fulfilling roles above and beyond just educating students,” she says.

Eleven years ago, the government tasked school boards with coming up with a model for the delivery of a Safe Schools suspension and expulsion program. Bibby jumped at the chance to be on the committee that began developing what is now the Safe and Inclusive Schools team.

“What we decided to do with our funding was hire a team that would be able to travel our geography in order to be viable for everybody; we needed to be able to go to them,” she says of the diverse region and populations Grand Erie serves. “This work has evolved to model a progressive discipline approach, working with restorative practices to resolve harm, and a focus on prevention and risk assessment. We’ve learned quickly which strategies are the most effective, and which interventions make the biggest difference.”

Following her presentation at Centennial-Grand Woodlands, Bibby is off to another meeting. At some point, she’ll find the time to sit down and have lunch. But for now, she’s meeting with the wider Safe and Inclusive Schools team, which includes Itinerant Teachers Tina Vankuren, Allison Rustan, and April Crabb, Social Worker Julie Seldon, and Child and Youth Workers Tanya Haist and Michelle Hodges. The team is focused on the development and implementation of various procedures and protocols around violence threat risk assessment, progressive discipline, and traumatic events systems models, among others.

“Seeing the processes working is really rewarding,” says Bibby. “No one is an island, and everyone plays a role in working together to solve problems.”

Safe and Inclusive Schools works with the central premise that all students deserve to be safe and feel safe in school. The team’s primary function is to provide academic and counselling supports to students who are suspended, expelled, or excluded, with a goal of intervening to address identified risks, connect them with supports they need to be successful, and returning students to school. The team partners with community agencies to provide a wrap-around approach to best help students and their families. As the team has grown, it’s brought consistency of practice across the board, and is a vital resource for both school administrators and teachers.

The work of the Safe and Inclusive Schools team is essential to Grand Erie meeting the goals of its Multi-Year Plan, directly supporting Well-Being, Equity, and Environment, and working with community partners to enhance its ability to meet increasing needs. And all of that, of course, ties in to a student’s ability to achieve.

“Keeping schools safe builds a foundation of stability, and that’s essential to student success,” Bibby stresses. “Safety underlies everything.”

At any moment in the day, Bibby’s plans can change. A call can come in alerting her to a student suspension, or a crisis could arise. Her ability to change on a dime and harness resources is integral, but not being able to control all of the variables can be frustrating. There are also heartbreaking situations within the team’s caseload that involve lack of parental support and involvement, violence and abuse, self-harm and suicide.

“The work is never done and that can be very overwhelming” Bibby says. “But knowing, realistically, that I can’t do it all and understanding where I fit into the big picture – that it’s not all up to me – is comforting. I know I work as part of a team, and as part of the entire Grand Erie team. I also know we’re all supported by an even bigger community team.”

Bibby has been thrilled to see some of the changes that have taken place over the years she’s been in the social work industry, such as increased understanding around mental health, a more open dialogue around issues such as suicide prevention, and a willingness to un-silo education to build fuller supports. All of this helps shine a light in what can be a dark world.

“A sense of humour is important – we laugh a lot in Safe Schools – and we look for the good,” she says. “At the end of the day, you have to be happy about the good that you achieved for students.”

Photos by Grand Erie Communications

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