Lisa Dixon-Wells BPE’84, BEd’87, MEd’97
Community Commitment Award
Lisa Dixon-Wells is founder and executive director of the bully prevention program, Dare to Care; former captain of the UCalgary Dinos swim team from 1981-84; won 36 Canadian national championship gold medals.
How many of you would like to apologize to someone? asks Lisa Dixon-Wells, looking at a gym packed with hundreds of students at St. Ambrose School. They line up obediently and the roster of 16 questions that focus on bullying begins. The rules are straightforward: if the question applies to them, they pass over the centre line — close to 100 per cent cross over at some point. This group “power shuffle” activity — just one of many in the program that has impacted students at more than 1,200 schools in eight provinces — is a powerful cue that illustrates how pervasive the culture of bullying actually is.
“What gets us every time is the lineup that forms behind certain people and the tears of guilt that follow,” confesses Dixon-Wells, who created the Dare to Care anti-bullying program 18 years ago. “We are not in schools to shame anyone, but we do know that lots of people get caught up in the wrong group, or they want to project a certain image, and they carry that guilt with them. Sometimes forever.”
Nobody know this better than the three-time alumna and former Dinos swim-team captain. Dixon-Wells grew up across from a boy who was tormented in school. It was only when he was in her Grade 8 homeroom that she realized the severity of the bullying, yet she did nothing to stop it.
“In fact, I would giggle when they pushed him down the stairs,” she admits, slowly. “I so wanted to be part of the ‘in’ crowd that I was part of the silent majority.” According to Dixon-Wells, some 79 per cent of school-age kids witness bullying, but do nothing to stop it.
To this day, she wonders what, exactly, happened to that boy — now a middle-aged man.
She’ll never know, but what Dixon-Wells does know is that the program she conceived and now operates with three former teachers will never change the two per cent of people who bully. “Our focus is on the silent majority who don’t know what to do,” she says, explaining the K-9 program that reaches about 65,000 individuals a year involves a full cultural shift that equips not only students, but parents, teachers and other stakeholders with bystander training and a code of conduct — as she explains it, a “full tool belt of skills.”
Although the message is grade-specific, it never takes a sharp detour: Everyone has the right to feel safe and welcome in their schools and communities.
That may sound pat, but experts such as Dixon-Wells (who was a teacher and school counsellor before she created Dare to Care) believe the alarming numbers: 150,000 Canadian students miss school each day because of bullying; seven out of 10 Canadian youth drop out of sports by 13 due to a bullying culture; 60 per cent of kids who bully and do not get intervention have a criminal record by the time they reach their early 20s.
Besides impacting students, Dixon-Wells has recently expanded the program into amateur sport, beginning with an area that is near and dear to her — the University of Calgary Swim Club. Since last September, she has facilitated workshops for more than 600 youth swimmers, 40 varsity swimmers, 38 coaches and 750 parents.
“Wherever we are, whether it’s a classroom or a swimming pool, we need to be able to identify bullying behaviours before they escalate,” she says, “so we can deal with them quickly and effectively. We all need to be accountable.”
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