Fed up about repeatedly raising alarms their children are being subject to ongoing bullying, a group of mothers wants an overhaul of how staff in the River East Transcona School Division address incidents.
A handful of parents in the northeast corner of the city have disclosed similar concerns about the school division’s response to bullying — in particular, protocols around sharing information about consequences and transparency — to the Free Press.
Carrie Johnson said she is tired of comforting her son because he is a constant target on the playground and, at the same time, being told teachers are doing everything they can to ensure his safety while unable to disclose exactly what that action is.
"My boy has missed a whole lot of school because of the ongoing issues. It’s a constant fight to get him to school," said Johnson, whose fourth grader attends Bernie Wolfe School.
Several weeks into the academic year, one particular student in the 10-year-old’s class started verbally abusing him for having autism, she said.
Johnson said incidents are almost daily and have become physical, including the student punching her son in front of the class and bringing a toy gun to school to intimidate him outside a bathroom.
Police have been involved more than once, but aside from the school reassuring her the students are being monitored and separated, although they remain in the same class, Johnson said staff will not share details about disciplinary measures taken, due to privacy reasons.
"I can ask until I’m blue in the face," the mother said, noting the incidents have become more severe and commonplace throughout 2021-22, leaving her to believe interventions are insufficient.
Manitoba requires principals who believe a student has been harmed by bullying to contact their guardian as soon as reasonably possible.
A principal cannot disclose the name or any personal identifying information about the pupil who engaged in unacceptable conduct, according to the Public Schools Act. However, the legislation states a school leader must provide information about the type of conduct that resulted in harm and "the steps taken to protect the pupil’s safety, including the nature of any disciplinary measures."
RETSD staff typically investigate an incident after it occurs, collect data on it, and implement an intervention plan that is monitored and updated, said Tammy Mitchell, assistant superintendent of student services.
The division must respect privacy legislation and cannot release details about any student’s individual plan or its contents without their parent’s signature, Mitchell said.
Families can be assured school teams are following the RETSD code of conduct and implementing proactive and reactive intervention strategies, she said, adding it can take time to find the right intervention that works.
"We encourage families who are involved with bullying on either side to work with their school team to trust that appropriate actions are taking place," she added.
While Mitchell acknowledged chronic problems are frustrating for families, she noted every student has rights and schools are always working to ensure all children are safe.
Sarah Bishop said her family has found the policies protect perpetrators rather than victims.
"We feel at a complete loss. We don’t have trust in the administrators at the school. We don’t trust the school board. They are not dealing with things in a serious matter and continuing to cite confidentiality," said Bishop, who has a daughter in Grade 6 at Arthur Day School.
Since autumn, her daughter has been subject to body shaming, violent threats made both in-person and via social media, property damage, and physical intimidation, the Winnipeg mother said.
One student in her daughter’s grade has been the ringleader, Bishop said, noting police have gotten involved due to the severity of incidents.
During one incident earlier this month, the mother said her daughter was harassed when she was walking home from school by peers and told the ringleader would stab her.
Ongoing intimidation has resulted in the student missing a significant amount of class, according to her mother, who said the family is frustrated the school’s safety suggestions — for instance, paying for cabs, requiring the student enter the office upon arrival and always having a buddy present — put onus on her as a victim.
As far as Bishop is concerned, it is not fair her daughter is being alienated from peers due to the bullying.
Debra Pepler, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto who studies bullying prevention, said addressing chronic issues requires more than a safety plan for a student who is being intimidated and an individualized plan for the student engaging in poor behaviour.
"What’s happening in the classroom to shift the peer dynamics and to build understanding, to build social-emotional development for the children who are witnessing and bystanding?" said the co-founder of PREVNet, an online website with bullying research and resources for educators.
Pepler recommends school staff outline specific steps to address bullying to parents of children on all sides and provide frequent updates so families are confident educators are taking the issue seriously.
There are ways to communicate both incidents and interventions without breaching privacy, she added.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.