Only bullies benefit from legislation: victim
After years of being bullied, one York Region student says school boards do little to help victims. Daniel Sebben, formerly a Huron Heights Secondary School student, dropped out of school after persistent bullying that began in elementary school. A group of his peers began to make comments about his sexual orientation, uttering the words “gay” and “faggot” in the halls, on the bus and even in the classroom.
He was afraid to attend school after having been told to “watch his back” and had difficulty concentrating in class as he was constantly thinking about running into his aggressors in the halls. “It was horrible,” he said, slumped in a wooden kitchen chair. I tried my hardest to ignore all of it, but, eventually, after so much, it takes its toll on you.”
The harassment continued to escalate and one incident even resulted in violence. In a classroom, Daniel stood up for himself when one of the bullies called him gay. His peer picked him up from his seat, pushed him three times and then slapped him in the face, he said.
The parents were called into the school, but Daniel’s mother, Karen, chose not to press assault charges against the other student. “It was the biggest mistake I ever made,” she said, fidgeting with a piece of paper at the kitchen table of their Newmarket home. I thought I didn’t want to take it that far because it was just a kid with his own problems, but I should have.” She didn’t know the bullying had been recurring until one day after school when Daniel returned home and broke down emotionally, revealing all he had been keeping to himself.
The next year was tough as Daniel continued to attend school, but was becoming more emotionally distraught. He began cutting himself and using drugs to cope with the situation, which, he said, was not dealt with by teachers or the principal to whom he confided. “I was looking to relieve the pain and escape anyway I could,” he explained. “It really made me hate school.”
The bullying ripped the family apart as Mrs. Sebben tried to help her son manage, but soon felt overwhelmed. Both sought professional help, where Daniel was diagnosed with a disorder similar to post-traumatic stress syndrome.
At least one of the students was suspended and disciplined, but it did little to change the behaviour, Mrs. Sebben said. Instead of inconveniencing his tormentors, Daniel was moved to an alternative bus stop as a partial solution to the harassment. “I was the one who was put aside,” Daniel explained, crossing his arms on his chest. “I had to change bus stops and I was the one who had to change my class schedule so I wouldn’t be in the same class as them and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
With the recent approval of Bill 212 — an education amendment act on progressive discipline and school safety intended to promote a more progressive and constructive approach to student discipline — Mrs. Sebben and Daniel are angry it states nothing about protecting or offering services for victims. The bill outlines when a suspension or expulsion should be considered, when investigations should be conducted by the principal, and when programs, such as anger management, should be offered by the board to rehabilitate the offender and get him back into the classroom.
The goal is to get students who have done wrong, including bullies, to sort through their issues and rekindle the relationships that have been broken to minimize the loss of instructional days, public school board spokesperson Ross Virgo said. “We find it far more beneficial to restore those relationships than to simply apply a punishment,” he said, adding three-day suspensions make it hard for students to catch up with lessons.
A restorative meeting was offered to give Daniel the opportunity to confront his bullies and talk through the situation to find a solution, but he refused the opportunity because he was terrified at the thought of facing his bullies, since he always tried to avoid them. An independent psychologist also advised against it, considering Daniel’s emotional state at the time.
The policy in the public board is there for the teacher and, if needed, the principal to deal with the reported situation before it escalates. If the situation is more serious, for example assault causing harm, the police are called. “We don’t throw up our hands and give up when addressing any situation,” Mr. Virgo said.
Mrs. Sebben disagrees. After attempting to follow the appropriate steps to get help, she was repeatedly told by staff, principals and trustees, “My hands are tied”, even though discipline is outlined in Bill 212 as at the discretion of the principal. A parent cannot go directly to the board as privacy laws do not allow her to know how the other student was punished. She has sent numerous e-mails to school trustees and the school board and has had a meeting with her MPP, but still hasn’t found a solution or answer to her question as to why there is no legislation for victims, but there is a 22-page bill outlining programs for aggressors.
There is no legislation outlining programs for victims, but rather the help is in the form of policies and funding, Ontario Education Minister Kathleen Wynne admits. The province has funded bully prevention programs, provided money to hire more child and youth workers and funded the Kids Help Phone, all which are for victims, she explained. “We provide the money so the schools can support these students,” she said. Psychologists are on staff for students who need help, Mr. Virgo confirmed, but Mrs. Sebben and Daniel were only offered services after he had been seeing his own professional for one year.
As for a family such as the Sebbens, who are dissatisfied with the solution, there are other paths to take, depending on the severity of the bullying, he explained. If there are clearly legal ramifications of harassment, the case can be taken to the Human Rights Commission, Mr. Virgo said.
Daniel tried his case with the commission and a settlement was reached, although the details cannot be discussed, according to the commission.
The ministry is also working with a safe schools action team that will present recommendations to the minister regarding gender violence and homophobia, Mrs. Wynne said. “When they make their recommendations, it may change the way we handle victims and bullying,” she said.
Daniel and his family have put the pieces back together and have been able to overcome the situation, but would hate for another family to have to go through the same situation. Daniel will head back to school this fall, but urges the ministry to create more equality for victims through legislation.
“I would like to see more support for kids like me who really need it,” he said. “It was terrible and I don’t think it’s fair for victims to not feel safe going to school and not being able to get help when they need it.”
26 June 2008