VICTORIA – When Tad Milmine walks into a classroom, students don’t know anything about him.
They don’t know he’s an RCMP officer. They don’t know he’s gay. They don’t know he’s been bullied and abused.
But within minutes, students know he’s there for them, especially in their darkest, most vulnerable moments, Milmine said.
He speaks to them through the spirits of Ontario’s Jamie Hubley, Nova Scotia’s Rehtaeh Parsons and British Columbia’s Amanda Todd — all teen suicide victims mercilessly bullied by their peers before killing themselves. Todd died one year ago Thursday.
“I’m up there, just a guy named Tad,” said the Surrey, B.C., RCMP officer during an off-duty interview. “That’s how I get introduced. While I’m speaking they don’t even know I’m a police officer until about halfway through.”
Milmine said he started talking to students across Canada last October, at about the same time the country was emotionally shaken by Todd’s suicide.
The 15-year-old, Grade 10 student from Port Coquitlam, B.C., posted a video detailing her anguish over the sustained harassment she endured at school and on the Internet about images of her body posted on the Internet.
At one point in Todd’s video, which now has received over 28 million views, she holds up a handwritten note that says, “I have nobody. I need someone.”
Milmine said he heard Todd’s, Hubley’s and Parsons’s cries for help and decided to offer young people a safe, compassionate and non-judgmental place, creating his www.bullyingendshere.ca website that promises to respond quickly to every youth message.
“I could easily just make a video and send it out to every school, but that defeats the entire purpose of what I’m trying to do,” he said. “I’m trying to be the person that I didn’t have in school. The person to look up to, to talk to — to be there.”
Milmine said whenever he visits a school he expects messages that night from 10 per cent to 25 per cent of the students.
“It’s a human being that they’re messaging, that they know, they trust,” he said. “That’s why what I’m doing is absolutely exploding because the youth are responding by the thousands. I have so many emails, you’d be bawling, as I do when I’m reading these, thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, these are innocent kids.'”
Carol Todd, who met Milmine recently, said the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s death falls on World Mental Health Day. Amanda Todd struggled with mental health issues, she said.
Todd said over the past year she’s realized that confronting the issues of teen bullying and suicide goes beyond laws, websites and school programs. The issue requires constant vigilance by authorities, teachers, parents and young people themselves.
“The truth comes out, I guess, in the data and if the bullying aspects are indeed changing,” she said. “But how do you measure that? Measurable versus non-measurable, how do we gather data to see if what we are implementing works?”
Todd said collecting data on teen suicide, bullying and cyberbullying represents only one piece of the complex puzzle to ultimately prevent young people from harassing their peers to the point where they give up and take their own lives.
The British Columbia Coroner’s Service recently released a study of 91 youth suicides that recommended keeping records of the victims sexual orientation, their social media use and whether they experienced bullying in their lives.
“There has to be many approaches coming at this problem and that has to come from the community,” said Todd. “It has to come from schools. It has to come from parental teaching. It’s one problem, but we all have to target it like a community village. We have anti-bullying day. We have a pink-shirt day. Every day should be pink-shirt day.”
Cyberbullying expert and Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay said high-profile teen suicides connected to cyberbullying have spurred government action across Canada, but the issue stretches beyond government and law enforcement.
“Definitely, it’s bigger than just government,” said MacKay from Halifax, N.S. “Governments are doing a lot more, unfortunately it seemed to take the tragedies like Amanda Todd or Rehtaeh Parsons, and many others in between, to get them to that place.”
MacKay served as chairman of a task force that submitted a report in February 2012 to the Nova Scotia government — Respectful and Responsible Relationships: There’s No App for That — that made 85 recommendations.
“I was under no illusion that we would solve the problems of bullying and cyberbullying but I do think that our recommendations, if implemented, will make lives better for many young Nova Scotians,” said the report.
MacKay said the task force discovered surprising and disturbing reasons why adults are often the last to know children are subjected to bullying.
“We found the No. 1 reason that victims of bullying and cyberbullying don’t tell trusted adults like a parent is (they think) they (the adults) might cut me off the Internet,” he said. “The No. 2 reason: it will only get worse.”
Parsons, from Dartmouth, N.S., was taken off life-support after a suicide attempt last April that her family said was brought on by months of bullying. The family said she was tormented after a digital photograph of her allegedly being sexually assaulted in November 2011 was passed around her school.
Nova Scotia’s Cyber-Safety Act, introduced in April, includes the creation of an investigative unit dedicated to pursuing and penalizing so-called cyberbullies and makes parents liable for their child’s bullying.
The RCMP in Nova Scotia originally said there wasn’t enough evidence to lay charges in Parsons’s case, but after her death the investigation was reopened and one man was charged with two counts of distributing child pornography, and another man faces charges of distributing and making child pornography.
A suicide note left by Jamie Hubley, an openly gay Ontario teenager, spoke of the pain of bullying.
Charges were not laid in connection with the deaths of Todd or Hubley.
MacKay said anti-bullying initiatives must go beyond declaring bullying an offence. They must become complete community efforts.
“There needs to be education, prevention and legal responses,” he said.
Most provinces already have laws that make it a duty for anybody involved in the education system, from teachers to janitors, to report possible bullying issues to school officials, he said.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark said Todd’s death was a tragedy that should never happen to any family, but out of her personal anguish poured nationwide emotion that prompted commitments to seek to protect young people from threats and intimidation.
“Amanda’s loss was a terrible loss for her family and her community and her school and everybody who loved her, but I hope her family knows that her death did give a real impetus to politicians and leaders and school officials across this country to address bullying with real new agency,” said Clark from Toronto.
In June 2012, Clark announced a $2 million, 10-point strategy to address bullying in schools and ensure students feel safe, accepted and respected.
B.C.’s www.erasebullying.ca program allows students to report bullying anonymously.
Glen Hansman, B.C. Teachers’ Federation first vice-president, said teachers have been pioneering anti-homophobia and anti-racism initiatives in schools, but they are awaiting a more co-ordinated approach from the provincial government that links programs with schools, school districts and the education ministry.
Milmine, who is visiting Vancouver area schools this week, said students are remembering Amanda Todd with all their hearts, but he wants adults to always remember to take the time to hear what young people are saying.
“A youth doesn’t go from simply having the perfect life to all of a sudden being suicidal. There’s a big grey area and we don’t have anything focusing on that big grey area.”
A 2004 study published in the medical Journal of Pediatrics found that about one in seven Canadian children aged 11 to 16 are victims of bullying.