A Richmond couple have pulled their young son from his neighbourhood school, saying he was repeatedly tormented by a classmate and the administration refused to acknowledge the bullying.
Giles and Sandra Slade said they were treated as chronic complainers for their efforts to stop the harassment, which began in spring 2011 when their son was targeted by a larger boy who hit him and chased him around the school grounds.
Administrators at Dixon elementary agreed the situation was troubling and told the Slades via email that efforts were being made to stop the boy from hitting anyone “no matter how frustrated or angry he may feel.” But they wouldn’t call the behaviour bullying.
When school reopened this September, the classmate struck again, but this time the Slade boy hit back. More emails were exchanged, tempers flared and principal Bill Juhasz wrote a letter to Giles Slade ordering him to back off or he would be barred from the school grounds.
Juhasz and school superintendent Monica Pamer would not comment on the case because of privacy concerns. But despite the current deadlock, Pamer said she still hopes the differences can be resolved and the Slades, who have enrolled their son in an online program at a neighbouring school district, will bring him back to Dixon elementary. “We’d love to have this little boy with us,” she added.
The case raises questions about when it’s appropriate to ban parents from school grounds and where families can go for help when they’re in conflict with school administrators. Giles Slade said it also points to a shortcoming in the government’s new anti-bullying strategy: If schools refuse to acknowledge bullying, they don’t have to do anything to stop it.
“Our schools discourage ongoing complaints by belittling them and by punishing repetitive complainers,” he told The Vancouver Sun in the days leading up to Premier Christy Clark’s anti-bullying forum on Tuesday, which brought together students, parents, educators, police and others to discuss new approaches to bullying following the suicide in October of Port Coquitlam teenager Amanda Todd.
Pamer admitted school officials often have difficulty distinguishing bullying from ordinary playground altercations. “Is every bump in the road, every conflict, potentially bullying, or already bullying? Those are the questions that we’re struggling (with).”
She’s not the only one asking that question.
Bullying expert Shelley Hymel, a professor at the University of B.C.’s education and counselling psychology department, said there is widespread confusion about what is bullying and what is simply aggression. She offered this distinction: Bullying is ongoing aggression — not a one-off situation — where the perpetrator has more physical or social power than the victim, and the victim becomes anxious about what might happen next.
“Bullying gets a lot more attention than aggression because bullying is an abuse of power, so we all feel sorry for victims of bullying,” she said. “We don’t necessarily feel as sorry for victims of aggression because it takes two to fight.”
Richmond district has a similar definition, describing bullying as a pattern of persistent, unwelcome behaviour that tends to make others uncomfortable, scared or hurt. While the Slades’ description of what has happened to their son fits that definition, Pamer said the district doesn’t connect the events from last year with the altercation in September.
The family had appealed to Pamer to intervene, but she urged them to continue working with school administrators. “It’s really helpful if both sides can talk,” she explained in an interview. “We certainly want to make sure parents feel heard, and I don’t think this parent does, obviously, and that’s a concern. We do want to work this out.”
There’s no easy answer. Recently, a Salmon Arm mother filed a lawsuit alleging the North Okanagan-Shuswap school district failed to protect her son from bullying. There have been similar lawsuits in B.C., including a high-profile case that saw Azmi Jubran hold the North Vancouver district to account for the bullying he experienced at Handsworth secondary school in the early 1990s.
In response to a question about what she would do if her child was being bullied and she was dissatisfied with the school’s response, Hymel said she would take her complaint up the chain to the superintendent. “I would be persistent and if that didn’t work, I would get my kid out of that school.”
Slade, who has had two books published and is writing a third, says his fourth will be about bullying in B.C. schools
More stories at www.vancouversun.com.