Education

How to React?

The jailing of a young author illustrates just how difficult it is for schools to deal with bullying

Julian Beltrame January 22 2001
Education

How to React?

The jailing of a young author illustrates just how difficult it is for schools to deal with bullying

Julian Beltrame January 22 2001

How to React?

Education

The jailing of a young author illustrates just how difficult it is for schools to deal with bullying

Julian Beltrame

From the beginning, it was a story too incredible to believe. In November, a gentle, sensitive boy, subjected to taunts and a vicious beating at the hands of school thugs, reads out a story for his Grade 11 drama class. Titled Twisted, it is a story of a boy “at the brink of insanity and sanity,” who envisions blowing up his school. A couple of weeks later, the 16-year-old is arrested for uttering threats, kept in jail for more than a month, while the thugs who his parents claim beat him up go unpunished. Meanwhile, his 14-year-old brother is also arrested for issuing threats after being taunted on a school bus about his sibling. With little else known, the older brother becomes a cause célèbre. PEN Canada, the organization of writers, declares it is “shocked that a piece of fiction” has landed a teenager in jail. Adds the boy’s lawyer, Frank Horn:

“We’re living in a scary world.”

Last week, the world got a litde less frightening for Canada’s most celebrated anonymous author. Cornwall Justice of the Peace Basile Marchand released the youth, who cannot be identified, into the custody of his parents while he awaits trial. One condition of the release was that he steer clear of Tagwi Secondary School

in Avonmore, a small town 15 km north of Cornwall where he has been registered since September. But the case that on its surface appeared to be an Orwellian overreaction by police and school officials got more complicated. There were also allegations that the youth graphically threatened three classmates after he wrote his now infamous short story. Insisted school-board trustee Art Buckland: “We were not going to bring in the police simply because of a dramatic monologue of fiction.”

Even the boys’ father concedes school officials were handed a terrible situation. He told Macleans both his sons were receiving psychological treatment for anger management before the arrests. He described his sons as troubled teens who feel like outcasts. His eldest son, who he said had no friends in the new school, was subjected to taunts because of a slight speech impediment. In mid-November, he added, his son came home bloodied § after being kicked and punched by a 1 group of bullies. Both sons had spent al| most a year in a foster home in 1987 after è he was convicted of breaking his daughI ter’s wrist, an incident he believes con| tributed to the Crown attorney’s reluc| tance to release the boys to his custody. I On the other hand, a police search of the

home found no weapons or explosives. “I think [the school officials] were afraid if they made the wrong decision and this is that one-in-a-million case where something happens,” the father said, “they’re going to be on the hot seat.”

The Avonmore incident clearly illustrates the damned-ifyou-do, damned-if-you-don’t dilemma facing schools today. Following a spate of shootings in U.S. schools in the 1990s— culminating in the slaughter of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine high school in Colorado in April, 1999, and the killing of a youth in Taber, Alta., a week later—most schools in Canada adopted zero-tolerance policies towards violence. Noting that many students had exhibited warning signs of antisocial behaviour before striking out, the policies call for school officials to intervene at the first indication of trouble. “In todays world, we have to take every sign, every complaint, every issue seriously,” says Michael Jordan, principal of Ottawa’s Cairine Wilson high school, where last April a 15-year-old stabbed four classmates and a staff member. In some cases, in-school counselling may be sufficient. In others, students can face suspension or the involvement of the police. “The bottom line in our school is if you hit somebody you’re suspended,” Jordan said. “No question.”

Still, the record of zero-tolerance policies is sketchy at best. Violent incidents continue to mount, from the fatal stabbing of a 17-year-old student in Calgary last November to last month’s incident in Collingwood, Ont., where a seven-yearold threatened two classmates with a knife. Invariably, school officials say they are left to defend their failure to anticipate

violence, or, as in the case of Tagwi, fend off charges of overreaction. Doug Fladley, spokesman for the Halifax regional school board, recalls the ridicule directed at school authorities when a Halifax-area student was suspended last year for throwing snowballs. “We have 58,000 students and we have to balance the individual’s rights with the overall rights of the students to learn in a safe environment,” he said.

The problem with zero-tolerance policies is not the intent but the execution, says York University psychologist Debra Pepler. Often communities lack the resources to counsel troubled students who exhibit antisocial behaviour. And in most cases, she adds, authorities fail to detect the underlying cause of school violence—the bullying and teasing that drives victims to lash out against their tormentors. “Bullying is a serious problem in every school and the tragedy is that victims feel they have no place to turn,” says Pepler. “In most cases, they’re right, because if they report it, they can be subjected to more bullying.” Dawn-Marie Wesley felt that way. But instead of striking back, she chose an extreme and tragic response. In November, the Grade 9 student at Mission Secondary School in Vancouver wrote her parents a short note, then hanged herself “If I try to get help, it will get worse,” she wrote. “They are always looking for a new person to beat up and they are the toughest girls.” She was not alone in believing suicide was preferable to continued victimization. A British Columbia study of 15 teenage suicides in 1997 and 1998 found that five had been victims of bullying. Pepler, director of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution, says her study of about 200 students in schoolyard situations found that teachers detect and halt only about four per cent of bullying incidents. Yet adult intervention is critical, she says. “Children are incapable of solving the problem because it’s about power, and each time a bully picks on someone, the bully’s power is enforced,” Pepler explained. “It’s understandable when victims strike back.”

Was the young author of Twisted near the breaking point? Horn says a trial will reveal his young client is guilty at most of an overactive imagination, and that allegations he made death threats will prove unfounded or exaggerated. “This is a typical kid,” he said. “If they’re going to put him in jail, there’s a lot of other kids who will go to jail.” Either way, the father vows to leave the community as soon as he can sell his home. He wants to move somewhere where his family will feel accepted, and his son can resume his passion for writing: “We need a fresh start.”

Ken MacQueen

John DeMont