Bullying victims are taking schools to court

Fed up with ineffective policies, parents are suing for millions

Taking schools to court

Ward Perrin/PNG/Vancouver Sun

In 2009, Daniela Cervini, a Toronto-based lawyer, was approached by a group of parents whose children were bullied at an elementary school in Owen Sound, Ont. For years, the parents claim they had been trying the prescribed channels—meetings with vice-principals, principals, police, board superintendents—with what they perceived as no results. They turned to litigation, “just because they weren’t being heard,” says Cervini. This year, four claims were filed in Ontario Superior Court against the Bluewater District School Board involving three schools, five teachers, three principals and one vice-principal. All are for gross negligence—the failure to protect students from bullies. Each lawsuit is for $8.5 million, well above the $1-million standard in personal injury claims. Together, at $34 million, the Bluewater suits are the biggest of their kind in Canada. As Cervini puts it: “You hear so much of this talk in the media and current culture of zero tolerance and bullying. It would seem that the schools have this under control. They don’t.” She expects them to deny the allegations; so far they have filed only a notice of intent to defend.

Bullying lawsuits have appeared in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Waterloo, Ont., as parents turn to the civil courts for justice. And while policies may be consistent in some school districts or provinces, how effective those policies are remains open to debate.

Bullying may have found its way into Ontario courts because the province’s approach has been more focused on discipline. “The easy fix to school boards seems to be you just suspend a kid that did the bullying, which doesn’t fix anything,” says Martha Mackinnon, executive director of Justice for Children and Youth, a Toronto-based legal-aid clinic for children. In Ontario’s initial anti-bullying legislation, the Safe Schools Act, vice-principals and principals were recast as police, required to conduct formal investigations of bullying complaints and penalize offenders according to a gradated system. It’s also known as the “zero tolerance” act.

Mackinnon says the act led to more suspensions—penalties that the Ontario Human Rights Commission later found to disproportionally discriminate against racial minority students and students with a disability—and did little to change the school culture. Zero tolerance has since been refined—for example, Bill 157, introduced in 2010, emphasizes communicating bullying incidents with parents. But Mackinnon says in many ways it remains the philosophical backbone of bullying prevention programs, and it’s been hard for school administrators and teachers to back down from zero tolerance and contemplate alternative approaches.

“I’ve been involved with a few families over the last year, and the inability of principals and teachers to do something constructive is depressing to me,” says Debra Pepler, a psychology professor at York University and co-director of PREVNet, a Canadian bullying prevention think tank. “We haven’t trained them adequately in understanding children’s development. You hear principals saying to get thicker skin, just ignore it, walk away.”

If the policy breaks down, says Naeem Siddiq, president of the Ontario Principals’ Council, it’s when adults aren’t on the same page. “It’s our job [as principals] to be leaders and to make sure that everybody is living up to their responsibilities,” says Siddiq, “but how that plays out can be very different depending on the information, the needs of students involved, the school culture.”

Alana Murray, superintendent of education at the Bluewater District School Board, declined to comment on the lawsuits, but did say in an email to Maclean’s that schools alone cannot eliminate bullying. “Legislation is most effective when school, home and community work together to address issues.”

On the home front, there have been high-profile suicides, like Dawn-Marie Wesley, 14, from Mission, B.C., who in November 2000 left a suicide note after being bullied by three girls at school that read, “If I ratted they would get suspended and there would be no stopping them.” There have been other court cases, notably School District No. 44 (North Vancouver) vs. Jubran, (2005), where the B.C. Court of Appeal and Supreme Court of Canada ruled the school board was liable because it had not done enough to stop the harassment of a student, Azmi Jubran.

Overseas, it’s different. In the past 30 years, Norway has reduced bullying in its primary, elementary and secondary schools by 40 per cent. In 1983, when three young boys committed suicide after being bullied, the Norwegian government commissioned Dan Olweus, a psychology professor at the University of Bergen, to develop a prevention program. Instituted nationwide in 2001, his program is preventative rather than punitive.

In 1998, the Olweus program was introduced to the U.S.; now there are 7,000 schools using it. At first, “it was kind of like, ‘what are you talking about? Bullying is the least of our problems. I was bullied as a kid and it made me stronger,’ ” says Marlene Snyder, director of development for the U.S. program. “But then along came Columbine.” (On April 20, 1999, two social outcasts who had been bullied killed 12 fellow students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., before killing themselves.)

Now the Olweus program appears to be having an effect. An internal report of the U.S. Olweus program, collected from 56,137 students in 39 Pennsylvania schools from 2008 to 2010, found as much as a 41 per cent reduction in bullying incidents two to three times a month or more. After the program, high schoolers were 32 per cent more likely to feel a peer would intervene.

Since the first school in Canada adopted the program in 2006, over 12 schools in Alberta have used it, four in Ontario, two in Quebec, and one in Labrador.

For some, bullying lawsuits like Bluewater could be the beginning of education reform. In Toronto earlier this spring, at a conference hosted by the Canadian Association for the Practical Study of Law in Education, a team of psychologists and lawyers presented a paper titled “Education’s perfect storm,” which advocated more lawsuits against schools. “We don’t want to blame the bully,” says Bob Konopasky, a psychology professor at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, and co-author of the paper. “What we want to do is hold someone responsible who has the resources to act and dampen bullying. That’s the school board and the school.” For the moment, the struggle is for parents, teachers and administrators to make the current system work. In Toronto, Cervini receives a call a day from parents across Ontario seeking advice. The personal-injury lawyer is now handling 10 bullying cases, which have already inspired urgency in schools. “All these people wanted were to be heard,” she says of the parents, “and it’s the dollar amounts that made them be heard.”




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Bullying victims are taking schools to court

  1. Ms. Murray’s comment is ridiculous.  Of course legislation works better when school, home and community work together… we’ve been begging you to work with us for years, Bluewater!  The problems are pervasive and systemic; this is just a small sampling.  Yet the board continues to shut out the public and hope all of these issues will fade away.

    Jan 2010- Bluewater school board critics call on provincial Ombudsman: http://www.owensoundsuntimes.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=2264315&archive=true

    May 2009 – Board probe to take months: http://www.owensoundsuntimes.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=1582038&archive=true

    March 2009 – Bluewater boardroom erupts in shouting: http://www.saugeentimes.com/Bluewater%20Board%20Room%20erupts%20in%20shouting.htm

    2009 – BWDSB head quits following criticism - http://www.shorelinebeacon.com/ArticleDisplay.aspx?archive=true&e=1493367

    • I think Ms. Murray is just trying to hint that poor parenting has stood in the way of efforts to deal with the bullying.  I can just about imagine the reaction of a parent (defensive) when they hear their child is accused of wrong doing (my Johnny, who I think the sun sets on would never behave that way – that OTHER KID must have provoked him).  Once the parent feels defensive, there is no way to engage them in problem-solving.  It is amazing to me, how many people feel that the schools are solely responsible for changing the behavior of children.  What is the saying…it takes a village to raise a child.   Where is the village?

    • Why aren’t you suing the parents of the bullies? Have you absolved them of any responsiblity for their childs behaviour?

  2. This article started out being interesting, especially when it mentioned the successful “Olweus program ” in Norway that’s being implemented in the U.S.and some places in Canada,but the article provides absolutely no explanation on what this program is about.

    • You can look the program up on google.  However, it is a patented program so it is for sale.  That means that Macleans likely can’t offer any information.  It looks like you can download the program for under $150.00 and buy additional materials for around $140.00, certainly affordable for any school board.

  3. Some studies have shown that students with higher socio-economic status, or more popularity are more the bullies than the victims. Their parents probably have more influence on the administration at the school. Those kids from more disadvantaged homes may be easy for the principals to ignore.

    • These parents are likely better educated so more knowledgeable about how to advocate on behalf of their children.  Those in lower socio-economic situations also are likely to feel that their children have to just “take the bullying” because they have few options with regard to switching schools or home schooling.

  4. So Norway is our new lodestar of all things good and progressive? 

    • Apparently so as it’s been cited to me twice today on two different subjects–and today is only two hours old!

  5. I give this woman the courage for taking the school to court and standing up!  We need more parents to stand up for the victims…All thumbs here for her!  If the schools and police don’t do something about these bullying then the parents of the kids and the kids themselves need to pay for what these victims are going through and to prevent these kids from suicide where they feel they are helpless..  These people should be charged for the damaged done to the victims.  We need our court system to see this and act on it as a criminal offence and be charged as a crimal offence.. 

    • I totally agree! We expect the school boards to protect our children from bullying..well..how can this happen when educators, with licences to their names who have a huge impact on our children’s future, are unfortunately, often “bullies” themselves! I so whish that was not true.. but it is. I, myself, was a victim of total bullying from co-workers and I work in a high school. I am so disappointed with the fact that we, as educators are supposed to act as role models for your children and be trained to recognise the “bullies” and recognise the signs of the victims that more than often, wont say nothing! I can totally relate to that. I myself did not say anything for the longest time. But time, is your worst enemy! The damages that “bullying” does on victims is humongous. NO matter how strong you are, how determined and ambitious you are. Bullying will “affect” you in a big way! After the “time” goes by, who you were, you will surprisingly no recognise anymore! Your whole beautiful personality will change. Personally, I hold “management”, “principles” responsible for the outcome of “bullying” in their schools..
      They are the ones getting paid the big money and with that, comes big “powers”! They need to be held responsible for any outcome, damages that the victims of bullying in “their” school suffers. I completely encourage all the victims to come forward no matter what! Make them do something, make them responsible for your protection and especially, make them responsible to make the bullies “accountable” for their actions. After all, they act as if they are in control of their school, then, Mr / Mrs principal, whatever happens in your school is your responsibility, now is the time to use your “power”, now is the time to “control”. Brake the silence.. they say! I know, been there, seeing it, done it ! And, let me tell you, it is not obvious. This “brake the silence” quote is so “over rated” it is not what it seems! Fellow victims of bullying, I totally understand what you are going through! But regardless, keep “braking it” and Parents, do not quit, ever! Make them responsible no matter what! Please don’t be intimidated, because “intimidation” is also part of “bullying”. If you feel that they are trying to intimidate you, that will give you a good idea of what kind of individual you are actually facing. They are responsible for your children when your children are at school, so they are also responsible for their “victims”. And, please Mr / Mrs Principle, would you please stop protecting are making excuses for “bullies”..by doing so, you become a “bully” yourself! stop playing games and please GROW UP!

      • Educators and parents.. lets give a “voice” to the young victims, they seriously “need it”!

  6. No, it’s quite all right to blame the bully too. The little sociopaths have to learn how to behave in society at some point.

  7. Strange that the lawyer cites the problem as the school board and the staff…..have we absolved the parents of the bullies of any responsiblity in raising a violent child? 

  8. https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Fight-School-Bullying/175931725824302?sk=info

     

    Check this out Then check out the Wall :) Comments
    welcome

     

     

              Like so
    many I was deeply affected by recent teen suicides due to bullying. I had a
    high school reunion and a classmate said he owed me thanks for defending him.
    It was some time ago and I don’t recall all the details; but, looking back I
    can see he was a boy who might be a target. He used to commute 45 minutes with
    one of our teachers. When he first came to our school the teacher introduced us
    and asked me to keep an eye out for him. A few days later someone from an older
    class had him in a head lock. I told the fellow not to pick on my friends. This
    fellow classmate went on to a PhD. Another time I had a job as a surveyor
    assistant for the summer. A young man at our church was developmentally
    challenged. I saw some kids chasing him . I spoke to him and he said in a
    trembling voice , “They are making me nervous”. I was a football
    played in our town so kids knew me. I went up to them and used some revers
    psychology. “Hey guys, someone is picking on my friend, can you imagine
    that ?” “If you see them tell me who they are” That ended that :)

        Later in life I
    served in the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus. And these three events gave me
    the idea of having schools appoint and / or elect kids as school yard and
    school Peacekeepers. TGhey would wear plastic wrist bands in UN Blue to show
    their role. They would have to be trained, the school would have to be
    encouraged to join in, and non Peacekeepers could wear Blue string wrist bands
    as a show of support.

     

              I have had
    great feedback from around the world ina 
    few days so if this is of interest check out this site, write a comment
    and pass it on. I think what ahs been done to fight bullying needs to include
    the kids involved in every aspect. It worked for me and should here as well

     

    Thanks

     

    Mike

     

     

     

     

    Michael Pilon CD 
    BSc DDS DDPH

     

     

    http://www.drmichaelpilon.com

  9. Both Jennifer and I were heartbroken when our daughter Savannah was the victim of a bully’s attack this past week.

    The incident, in which the bully without warning hit Savannah at the base of her skull from behind (yes the proverbial sucker punch), has resulted in our daughter missing the past 2 days of school with headaches, dizziness and nausea. She was later diagnosed with a concussion as well as a hyper-extended neck injury.

    We immediately filed an official complaint with the Police Department. As of today, we are still waiting to hear back from the school as to what disciplinary action will be taken against the other student. This is not the first incident involving this student, nor has Savannah been her sole target. Given Quebec’s recent passing of anti-bullying
    legislation (Bill 56), as well as the fact that this month is anti-bullying month, we would like to see at minimum the school take the following action:

    1. Suspend the offending student for at least the same number of days that Savannah has been/will be absent as a result of the assault and,

    2. Provide Savannah with the opportunity with teachers and parents present to deliver a personal impact statement directly to her attacker.

    3. Implement and adhere to a go forward plan that will ensure our daughter’s as well as other student’s safety.

    It is clear that what has been happening with this one student’s conduct has violated the
    conditions outlined in Bill 56. This, as well as all other bullying MUST STOP IN OUR SCHOOLS!

  10. I live in Vancouver and my daughter has bee bullied for the passed 2 years and school has done nothing looking to hold school accountable cause girl pulled knife out off school grounds had to call police and make report, this girl is still at school

  11. if anyone has ANY info about how to report a school for neglecting bullying concerns that have been ongoing for 2 years now, PLEASE contact me, ive reported it to the school repeatedly, including the vice principal, and was completely blown off…i cant find anywhere to report it to the simcoe county board, or any sites that could help me get the school to get involved. HELP my son PLEASE, he was kicked in the face today and came home with a big scrape across his fresh new black eye (that none of his teachers seemed to notice had appeared during recess). my email is kmarie3@live.ca any advise or assistance would be very appreciated.

    • Call the police and press charges against the bully.

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