Bullying problem in Harbour Grace

Parents of students at St. Francis School speak out against physical and verbal abuse

Melissa Jenkins melissa.jenkins@tc.tc
Published on February 19, 2014

Editor's note: Names of some parents and students have been withheld due to fear of retaliation and the sensitive nature of the subject.

An 11-year-old boy gets punched in the back of the head on the school bus.

Two Grade 5 boys screamed foul comments and curse words at a young girl in the hallways at school during recess.

A sixth grader was repetitively kicked by another student during gym class.

Getting ready to go home from school, a young boy gets shoved hard into the side of his bus by an older girl.

These were some of the stories that were relayed to The Compass from parents and students at St. Francis School in Harbour Grace when word spread that a seemingly increased amount of bullying was taking place.

Although the bullies and victims varied in age and gender, the parents all agreed it's a serious problem at the school and something has to be done.

Fractured foot

With his foot wrapped in a cast and crutches under his arms, Oliver Harris, who's in Grade 6, struggles to get in and out of his mom's car going to and from school.

But that is how he has been going to school every day for the past two weeks. He had to learn how to walk with his foot wrapped, but learned it's easiest to hobble around.

Oliver still tries to keep a smile on his face, but finds it difficult when he has to come face-to-face with his tormentor on a regular basis.

His mom Jesselyn says Oliver has been a target since kindergarten, but this time it has gone much farther than ever before, and it may only be so long before he tries to take matters into his own hands.

Jesselyn doesn't condone violence, but Oliver has diagnosed behavioural disorders that have led to him hurting himself in the past. He has not hurt other children, but she fears it's only a matter of time before he gets to that point.

Although the school is "dealing with" the issue, Jesselyn feels enough hasn't been done to date, and the result was her son's fractured foot.

Different views on dealing

Four separate parents agreed the school has done very little to assist students who are being bullied.

A mother to a Grade 4 student told The Compass the school isn't doing enough about her daughter's bully. In fact, she explains her daughter is not the only one picked on by the same child.

"The child should have been removed from the classroom or have one-on-one supervision," she explained.

That is one of the options the Newfoundland and Labrador English School Board noted as something to help victims of bullying - giving the bully an in-school suspension.

Jeff Thompson, associate director of education with the school board, said every instance of bullying is handled in a different way, in respect to the severity of the situation.

"Obviously, NLESD takes very seriously, incidences of bullying," he said during a phone interview with The Compass Feb. 10.

Besides the severity of the offense, the age of the child also comes into play when dealing with instances of bullying.

Some reprimands that have been approved by the school board include the in-school suspension, an out-of-school suspension that could last one to five days - or longer pending approval from the board - and behavioural supports where a bully works with people in authority to curb their social issues.

Bully consistency

The school board could not confirm if there were any active bullying reports at St. Francis, or how they were being dealt with. It was, however, noted that some areas of the province and some schools go through spurts.

"Instances vary from time-to-time," Thompson explained. "Schools could have long periods of quietness and then have a series of instances."

The mother of two school-aged children said it has been consistent in the Harbour Grace school system for years and has not seen change during that time.

Most parents had a similar story. Their children or their children's friends have been targets for an extended period of time.

Only one mother concluded her child was only a target this year. Her sixth grader has come home with headaches on numerous occasions after having his head slammed into the side of a bus.

She said the school and RCMP had been contacted, but neither could do more than just speak with the child or their parents.

Safe and caring schools

The Safe and Caring Schools Policy that was revised last year is said to help provide a safe environment for the children. Parents have said they do not feel their children are safe.

The policy focuses on establishing clear expectations for all members of the school community, encourage appropriate action and encourage proactive and preventative endeavours when situations occur.

Many parents who spoke with The Compass claimed they had not been educated on the policy.

The Department of Education declined interview requests for clarification on the policy and how it is being implemented. The principal also declined an interview.

Thompson explained there has been a handbook for a long time on the policy, but it is up to the school to educate parents. Some schools, he said, use parent-teacher interviews as the place to explain it, but parents deny being informed.

Program options

Thompson explained the school board is serious about promoting anti-bullying throughout the province.

But Jennifer Austin of Port de Grave, a 31-year-old mother of two, feels schools have been shutting her out of her anti-bullying campaign, called "banish bullying, be the change."

The campaign includes a short assembly for the school where Jennifer describes the bullying she experienced in school, and gives each child the opportunity to sign a declaration stating they will not bully others.

"I have contacted every school on the Avalon and no one seems to want this," she said. "The kids of this province who are being bullied need hope, encouragement and to be able to see someone who's been through this and survived."

Jennifer has started a blog to tell the story of her own mistreatment (bestrongtakeheart.wordpress.com).

"It's a topic that hits close to home for me," she explained.

The campaign was explained to several parents, and they agreed it would be a good place for anti-bullying at St. Francis, and other schools, to start.