The online messages were cruel, stupid and disgusting.
Several of them suggested that the target of the bullying, an EMCS student, take her own life.
“F*** off and f***ing die”, read one.
Another simply read, “Stop breathing please”.
Many other messages, about 25 in all, simply resorted to vulgar name calling, including the use of racial epitaphs and language so repugnant that any normal person would recoil in horror.
And there were threats.
The victim was forced to finally delete all her social media accounts and now doesn’t see any additional comments aimed at her, although she fears that she probably continues to be the subject of messages between the bullies and wonders what rumours are being spread.
The target was a 14-year-old girl and the bullies were a collection of students at the school in the same age range who, for some reason, had decided to mount a sustained attack on their victim.
Ironically, the attacks took place during the week when the school participated in Pink Shirt Day, a celebration of anti-bullying.
But as repugnant and disturbing as the cyber attacks were, it’s the response of the School Division that has raised concern on the part of the victim’s parents.
According to the victim’s father, it took repeated phone calls for anyone to take the situation seriously. Nearly a week passed before his daughter was introduced to a school counsellor and there was little effort made to regularly check on her well-being.
And, although they had apparently been “talked to”, the bullies, including the main ringleader, continued to attend classes and ride the same school bus as their victim.
(The father has now been forced to adjust his work schedule to drive his daughter to and from school to ensure her safety.)
To make matters worse, the harassment has spread to the school hallways where the victim is frequently approached by students who have labelled her “a rat” for reporting the cyber attacks.
While the administration at EMCS has declined to comment on the specific case, SD62 School Superintendent, Scott Stinson, said that he is aware of the situation and is satisfied that the school is dealing with the case.
Asked whether it would have been appropriate to suspend the bullies pending an investigation (printouts of the messages had been provided to the school), Stinson said that the core of any reaction has “some discretion about fairness and equity of response”.
“If there is repeated behaviour, we engage in progressive discipline,” said Stinson.
“Cyberbullying is problematic because they don’t originate in the school, but we recognize that we have a duty to react if it has an effect on the school environment.”
It’s a response that Dr. Bonnie Leadbeater, an internationally acknowledged expert in bullying and professor at the University of Victoria, characterized as “a very poor handling of the situation”.
“Schools should have a strict protocol that responds to cyber-violence. The victim’s well being and comfort should be the first consideration. What is this victim supposed to do… what are her options…is she supposed to leave?” said Leadbeater.
In reviewing the bullying messages in this case, Leadbeater observed that, in her opinion, they had crossed the line into illegal behaviours.
“The RCMP should be involved when it gets to that point. This is a real outlier and is part of the four or five per cent of bullying that reaches that level of aggression.”
“And beyond police involvement, this girl should immediately have received counselling and should be protected from her attackers.”
Margot Swinburnson, a SD62 school trustee, said that she had been made aware of the case and the complaints of the victim’s parents, but wanted to remain neutral because the situation may ultimately come before the School Board.
In general terms, however, she acknowledged that it was important that schools take extreme bullying behaviour very seriously and that she had some concerns about what she has heard about this situation.
“We’re not looking for revenge or anything extreme,” said the victim’s father.
“My daughter would like to get an apology, and some explanation of why she was targetted in the first place. And, of course, she wants it to stop.”
Leadbeater agreed that some form of resolution is critical.
“People do some very stupid things at that age, but this is the kind of extreme bullying that simply can’t, and shouldn’t, be tolerated. And the school clearly needs to do a better job in their response. They’re sending the wrong message in their luke-warm approach.”
According to Stop A Bully (a Canadian registered charity that specializes in the issue), bullying can lead to loss of self-esteem, depression and even suicide. One in seven children aged 11 to 16 are victims of bullying and 38 per cent of girls who go online report being bullied.