The Mission School District is taking the first steps to address bullying after a series of assaults earlier in the month sparked outrage in the community.
Following the assault of a transgender student on Jan. 11, the district sought to handle the immediate situation, said the board of education’s chair, Tracy Loffler, but are now working to address the issues on a community-wide level.
She said the board has always been unified in creating inclusive and safe environments, making the recent events “disheartening to see.”
“There is a gap,” she said. “We have these programs in school, we have this education. Kids know that it’s not okay. Why is it still happening? That’s what we need to get to the bottom of.”
Superintendent Angus Wilson penned a letter to parents and the wider community on Jan. 21, setting provisional plans and assuring reviews of current practices, policies and protocols around bullying.
The administration has been offered support and guidance from many organizations, including the RCMP, the ministry of education, Safer Schools Together, Indigenous organizations, SOGI Collaborative, Out in Schools, UBC and UFV, the District of Mission, and others, Wilson said.
Wilson had meetings with different departments at UFV that focus on anti-bullying and reached out to specialist organizations, who are coming in to do support work, he said.
In the near future, a virtual forum will be held with parent representatives from every school and a panel of experts. Informally, parents are being encouraged to contact Wilson directly with ideas and suggestions.
But he said it’s not as simple as expelling every student involved in a physical altercation, as some parents have suggested.
“I understand the sentiment behind that, I really do, but then what?” Wilson said. “It doesn’t get rid of violence in school by doing that.”
Saying the school district does not tolerate violence is not the same as having a zero-tolerance policy, according to Wilson. “Zero-tolerance” in educational parlance is decades old and out of date, Wilson said, adding it’s been massively misinterpreted.
For example, if a student was being verbally picked on everyday, then snapped and physically lashed out, a strict zero tolerance rule could see the victim expelled, Wilson said.
While he said the assault on Jan. 11 was “cut and dry,” but many bullying incidents are filled with nuance and complications. He said they’d rather work on finding constructive solutions for the majority of the cases.
“When a child is in Grade 2, or even Grade 8, are we really cutting them off from education and interaction with human beings?” he said.
The assaults have triggered a mostly positive response from the community: Anti-bullying events are starting conversations, parents are forming groups to share experiences, and a parade of thousands of cars drove through Mission’s waterfront to show solidarity with the assaulted teen.
But the reactions have also gone to the extremes, Wilson said, such as posting the names of two middle girls accused in the bullying to social media, parents have showed up at playgrounds to yell at others, and support staff have receiving threats and accusations.
“Some of the things that they think are the solution or not the solution,” Wilson said. “The response should not be to bully others.”
Cindy Gale’s daughter, Dawn-Marie Wesley, committed suicide in Mission in 2000 after being bullied by her peers. She said people are quick to blame the education system, but the issue of bullying is often at the community level.
“We need to do this as a society. We have to look at this like a societal issue.”