Lords of the playground
In the wake of the Dufour bullying case a community searches for answers
"Here — let me go!" His voice rose to a shriek of terror as Jack snatched the glasses off his face. "Mind out! Give ’em back! I can hardly see!"
By Robyn Cubie
Remember Piggy? The fat bespectacled kid that nobody liked in William Golding’s 1954 classic novel, Lord of the Flies — the kid who got pushed around, laughed at and excluded because he just did not fit in. Everyone knows or can recall someone like Piggy when they went to school, or maybe they were themselves that lonely figure.
Bullying is nothing new and has certainly not been invented by the current school-going generation. However a wave of publicized bullying incidents throughout British Columbia in the past few years has people asking if the problem is getting worse.
The most high profile case was the 1997 beating and killing of Reena Virk by a group of fellow students in a Victoria park. This was followed by the suicide of 14-year-old Hamed Nastoh due to bullying at a Surrey school earlier this year. Azmi Jubran’s claim for the bullying he allegedly suffered at Handsworth school in North Vancouver is currently before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. But the case that has really brought the issue home for Whistler people is the 1998 attack on former Whistler secondary school student, Jamie Dufour.
On Monday, Oct. 16, Jamie Dufour along with her parents Bob and Leanne Dufour filed a lawsuit in the B.C. Supreme Court against Whistler high school principal Rick Smith and the Howe Sound School District. They are suing the officials for allegedly failing to prevent bullying and harassment against Dufour while she was attending Whistler secondary. The authorities are accused of gross negligence, wilful misconduct and breach of statutory duty. Damages are being sought relating to injury, loss and expenses.
The case dates from Aug. 31, 1998, when Jamie Dufour was beaten by three girls in a Whistler park while two boys watched. The incident left her with a concussion, two black eyes and bruising around the neck. Two girls were subsequently convicted of assault. However the bullying and threats allegedly continued at school after the initial attack. Police have also come under fire from the Dufours for their role in the incident, for allegedly not enforcing the ‘no contact’ order on the offenders in the period between the attack and the sentencing.
The Dufour family said their "incredibly difficult decision" to go through the courts was tipped by their disappointment with the school board’s internal investigation into the matter. Upon receiving a copy of the board’s confidential report in July, the family said it fell well short of the expected full disclosure, with substantial sections missing. Since going public on the issue, the Dufours say they have been inundated with calls and faxes from other parents all over B.C. who also say they received no help from other school authorities in relation to bullying. Leanne Dufour said families have been forced to send their children to other districts or boarding school to escape the bullying problem. Her daughter was no different, eventually relocating to Pemberton secondary school and even periodically living with another family to escape the incessant bullying in Whistler.
Not surprisingly, the case has created a media storm in the province and an unflattering image of violence and intimidation within a picture-perfect resort town. It is not an image that fits easily with a community that prides itself on providing a positive environment for its youth and has evoked intense examination of anti-bullying practices.
A balanced version of what unfolded over the months between the initial attack on Jamie Dufour and her subsequent departure to Pemberton unfortunately cannot be told at this stage. In fact the full picture may be years away from being made public. The defendants have been advised by their lawyers not to comment, while television, newspaper, radio and online media channels have repeatedly carried the plaintiffs’ story.
At a meeting of the Parent Advisory Council this week, Rick Smith re-assured parents that education was still carrying on in a positive way, despite the difficulties created by the court case. "It is a very difficult and stressful time in the (school) building at the moment but the kids are holding up and dealing with the issue pretty well."
However the issue isn’t one that students are taking lightly. In a letter to the editor last week, the student council at Whistler secondary expressed anger at the media’s coverage of the case, claiming it to be one-sided and incorrect.
"No one should be subjected to any degree of bullying. However, what we don’t understand is why the press is magnifying this one issue to include all members of the school. Our small school of approximately 345 full-time students is one of the safest and friendliest that one could attend."
Whistler parents have also been quick to action. Within two days of the case being filed in B.C. Supreme Court, local concerned parents invited the Dufours to a public meeting to explain their decision to seek a court settlement. Despite the short notice, more than 40 people attended the morning meeting addressed by a visibly nervous Leanne Dufour. Over a two and half hour period, the atmosphere at the meeting changed from standoffishness to open support for the Dufours and horror at what they had been through. Other stories of bullying also emerged.
One parent who did not wish to be named said "many" children had relocated out of Whistler because of bullying problems and said "a whole bunch of kids are being ostracized — being physically or mentally beat up."
Another parent expressed concern at an emerging polarization within Whistler over the Dufour case, with many students seeing one of the convicted offenders as the victim. "A lot of the kids here are in denial and don’t know the sequence of events or the severity of the events," she said.
Local parent Bernard Casavant said no parent wants to hear their child could be a bully, but such issues need to be open, so the community can deal with them. "When I was at school drunk-driving was the issue and now pictures showing the terrible results of this are visible everywhere," he said. "We will probably see the same zero tolerance policy with bullying."
Apparently the Howe Sound school district has already taken a zero tolerance stance on bullying but enforcement of anti-bullying practices is largely left up to individual schools. School board chair Amy Shoup said the board is reviewing the recommendations of its report into the Dufour case. She did not rule out the possibility of a district-wide anti-bullying policy.
"A lot of things are being looked at. I am not aware of a district-wide program for dealing with bullying but we already have codes of conduct for students, school rules and expectations of behaviour."
Whether Whistler parents are prepared to wait for the often-slow grinding wheels of bureaucracy to bring about changes is questionable. At this week’s PAC meeting, some parents said students need help now in understanding what has happened. Alex Kleinman said students are going through a very disruptive time. "It is the kids that are being impacted. Grown-ups can deal with it but it is the kids that are caught in the middle of the issue."
At the same meeting the PAC announced a special action plan, headed by Patti O’Reilly, to specifically look into bullying education initiatives in schools. O’Reilly said lots of people want to get involved and the PAC will work with Whistler secondary’s existing Safe Schools Committee on bullying issues. A joint meeting is scheduled for Nov. 6, 2000.
The chairperson of the Safe Schools Committee is Whistler secondary teacher, Gail Rybar. She said the Dufour case has put bullying under the community spotlight. But she said school authorities were already responding to an identified need for anti-bullying programs.
"Violence is now entertainment in so many ways and lots of kids don't have the compassionate back-grounding traditionally provided at home or by the churches. Schools are increasingly having to pick up that role."
Rybar said the committee aims to promote the school’s existing student conduct code which openly discourages bullying or harassment. She said the Attorney General's anti-bullying programs which bring together police, schools and volunteers also reflect a greater community effort to stop bullying.
"Ever since Columbine there has been a greater awareness in North America of the need to get nets in place so we don't run into these violence problems. No-one is pretending it doesn't happen," Rybar said.
At the elementary level, "bully-proofing" is already an established practice in Whistler. School district councillor Jan Derpak provides a ministry-backed program at Myrtle Philip school and Signal Hill in Pemberton. The program puts pupils in a role-playing situation of responding to bullying. She said getting the message through at a young age is crucial.
"Behaviour is learned and they are young enough to still absorb life lessons, particularly with bullying and victimisation. We teach them to celebrate differences, empower themselves and build on self-esteem," Derpak says.
Derpak also runs a community grant-backed peer counselling program called Kids Helping Kids specific to Myrtle Philip. Up to 40 children from Grades 5 and 6 are chosen each year to act as leaders and mentors among their peers. The positions are highly sought after with the chosen group visible in the school in their distinctive Kids Helping Kids grey sweatshirts. Derpak believes kids that go through the program enter the high school with a different outlook.
"Among their peers, I don’t feel they will tolerate too much negative putdowns, teasing or harassment. The program has only been running three years but those that experience peer counselling have more positive self-esteem and are more accepting of others," she said.
The peer councillors themselves are hugely enthusiastic about the program — not least because of the gear they get to wear. Peer councillor Melissa said: "The little ones really look up to you and think you are gods of the school because you are wearing this sweatshirt and you help kids."
The group believes the program has taught them a lot. Peer councillor Eleanor said: "If someone decides to bully someone it is not a good thing, so you can go up to them and say it is not cool. You learn what you should do in different situations and not to get too involved if it is serious. Then you get adult help."
Another councillor, Robert, said it might not be so easy to stop bullying once they move to the high school. "There is nobody really older than us here. It would be hard with deal with someone that was like 20."
Derpak doubts that a peer-counselling program would work at the high school level because of the greater pressure to conform. She believes role models of a similar age are the key.
"Kids at the high school don’t want to listen to adults. It’s just the nature of that pubescent time period and their need to find answers for themselves. If you could get a former bully and victim who could tell their story they would probably find an audience that could appreciate that."
Derpak said teachers would welcome a tougher stance on the school district’s zero tolerance policy so more students take it seriously.
"Educators have enough to do. If we expect them to change behaviours or intervene in situations where children are not getting on or conflict resolution or administer drugs, we take away what they do best, which is teach curriculum."
She said children must be accountable for their actions and learning this starts at home. Schools have a role to play, but bullying can be hard to detect as it typically occurs in an unsupervised environment, out of the classroom and off school property.
Bob Daly, principal of Myrtle Philip school, said this is less of a problem with young children who are more willing than older kids to tell adults they are being picked on. He said the extended parenting network within Whistler also helps identify problems that might otherwise go unnoticed.
The Whistler RCMP is also keen to be part of the extended community network and has installed Const. Ray Bernoties as its full-time community-policing officer. Whistler Staff Sgt. Hilton Haider said his main priority, as head of the detachment, is to increase police involvement in community and youth policing projects. He said human nature being what it is means some degree of bullying will always occur in schools.
"Community awareness is the key and once everyone is aware of it and becomes sensitive to the results of it, hopefully we can curb it," Haider said.
Whether steps should also be taken at a provincial or federal government level to prevent bullying is a matter of debate. Leanne Dufour wants anti-bullying protocols put in place at all Canadian schools. She also wants bullying to be made a criminal offence, so that it may act as a deterrent to possible offenders.
Vincent Stancato, the provincial co-ordinator for community accountability programs in the Ministry of the Attorney General, declined to comment on the criminal re-classification proposal. But he said bringing in a scheme for all school districts has mixed blessings.
"Yes, on one level, because anything we can do to combat bullying is a step in the right direction," Stancato said. "The no part is that the solutions need to be community specific. Usually it is the grassroots programs that start from the bottom up that are the effective ones."
He said the ministry has been tackling the bullying issue, with such developments as the Focus on Bullying Guide, the Safe Schools Centre and Youth Taking Action workshops.
Stancato was invited to Whistler in October last year to back the launch of the Safe Schools Safe Communities Committee, a group whose stated aims included the establishment of a restorative justice program. (Pique Oct. 8, 1999). The philosophy behind restorative justice is bringing together parties on both sides of a conflict or minor crime to find an agreeable solution. Offenders must have admitted wrongdoing prior to participating in the family-centred conference.
A year later, the committee members admit the Whistler project has fallen by the wayside. Local parent and school trustee Alix Nicoll said setting up a restorative justice program is a huge task and no-one had the time or energy to devote to it.
"The initiative ground to a halt waiting for direction," she said. "It would have taken tremendous organization to get all the community groups together and one person ready to put in a tonne of work."
However, Nicoll is meeting this weekend with organizers of Squamish's restorative justice program to re-assess the possibility of a Whistler program.
Rose MacKenzie, a councillor at Brackendale secondary school, can testify to the amount of work involved in setting up restorative justice programs. She has been integral to the establishment of the Squamish Restorative Justice Society 18 months ago and underwent training in Toronto to become a family conferencing facilitator.
"It took a long time to get the training in place, which was frustrating, but soon we will be able to accept referrals from schools and the RCMP," MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie will be training the first group of facilitators this weekend. However, she has already used family conferencing techniques for approximately 20 internal cases at Brackendale school, with pleasing results.
"People go in angry, upset and suspicious but as the meeting goes on, revelation occurs because everybody gets to talk, and eventually reconciliation is reached and a sense of peace." MacKenzie said 80 per cent of offenders who go through this process do not re-offend and avoid the social stigma of the courts.
The society’s chairperson, Catherine Dziny, said dealing quickly with first time offenders is crucial, especially for the victim.
"We formed the society because there was a lot of unrest in the community among youth and adults who were being dealt with by the courts over a long time length," Dziny said. "Restorative justice quickly makes amends."
She added the family conferencing could especially help in cases of bullying, because it humanizes the situation and helps the offender see the effect of their actions.
However Whistler eventually tackles the bullying issue, it is clear that parents and the wider community are determined to get involved this time around. Principal Bob Daly said bullying has to be nipped in the bud and the old rules don’t apply anymore.
"The stakes are certainly higher, particularly in cities. Years ago two boys that had a dispute might go behind the barn and duke it out and that would be the end of it, but now there are issues like gangs and weapons and so on, things that we never saw when we were growing up."
Bullying is an issue that leaves a nasty taste in everyone’s mouth but as Derpak says, the Dufour case has provided an opportunity not to be missed by Whistler.
"Awareness of bullying is now at the forefront of our community and we need to use this as a springboard to change, to raise our awareness of these bullying situations and what to do when these situations arise. Only in this way can we ensure it does not happen again."