Voices are coming forward with stories of abuse haunting the hallways of Mission schools.
Nearly two dozen parents and former students – who the Record is keeping anonymous – have reached out following a series of alleged in-school assaults last week, both of which were filmed and posted online. The parents describe a “culture of bullying” within some schools.
Monday’s attack on a transgender teen by two fellow students sparked outrage in community, but many parents said the footage only captures a snapshot of what some local youth live through.
“‘You don’t know what it’s like to walk down the halls in Mission,’” said one mother, quoting her son. “He’s become a different person. He’s hard on himself. He thinks he’s a loser. He always puts himself down. He has no confidence at all. He used to do very well in school, and now, he just doesn’t care.”
That mother pulled her son out of school and moved away – an action some might call drastic, but one that seemed common among the parents to whom the Record spoke. Eight other parents said they had done the same.
They describe their children being subjected to physical violence by groups of bullies, continuous online harassment, and permanent trauma causing personality changes, depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and other mental health deterioration.
One mother said her son suffers from PTSD as a result of the bullying, leading to ongoing counselling years after graduation.
“He is still waking several nights a week with nightmares about the assaults he suffered,” she said. “He now chooses to do his online school work during the night and sleep during the day, as he is less likely to have these troubling dreams.”
These cases – the majority ongoing or from recent years – shed light on a long-unaddressed issue, according to many parents, leaving most with the opinion the current anti-bullying procedures in schools are inadequate and need to be reworked.
Of the parents the Record spoke to, with children currently attending schools in the district, the most extreme cases (but not all) relate to École Heritage Park Middle School (EHMS).
Last week’s assaults led to the arrest of three girls who attended the middle school.
The teen who was attacked on Jan. 11 was being targeted because they identified as transgender, according to the victim’s mother.
She said the bullies frequently used homophobic slurs, and they were all from the same social circle – one of them had a long history of abusing her child.
A common theme among the parental worries about EHMS is the group aspect of the abuse.
One said there are at least 20 bullies terrorizing the rest of the student population, and her child’s situation was not unique.
“They’ll pick on anyone. Every single kid probably has had something happen to them.”
The students know there will be repercussions if they “snitch,” said one parent, and many fear they will be targeted if they don’t passively participate.
“Friends are now more influential, and [my son] refuses to tell me who’s doing what,” she said. “[He fears] he will then be ostracized and a victim himself.”
Students are threatened to end friendships with the victims, according to one parent, who said her child was told to “cut them off or get jumped.”
Some said physical violence and intimidation occurred in the wider community outside of schools.
The number of out-of-school suspensions at EHMS for assault, fighting, physical aggression, and dangerous behaviour do not indicate the school is more violent than others (or show an increasing trend), according to data provided by the district.
There have been 14 out-of-school suspensions at EHMS this year and 22 at Hatzic Middle School (HMS). Over the same time period last year, there were 13 and 20, respectively, and the year prior showed similar numbers.
Superintendent Angus Wilson said that cases of fighting and assault, however, were up 50 per cent at the middle schools. He said he’s heard from the ministry of education these numbers are up 40 per cent across B.C.
But Wilson said suspension statistics can be misleading. For instance, an absence of them in one school could indicate bullying issues are going unaddressed.
Examples of these punishments range from mandatory counselling to in-school suspensions, partial re-entries (half days), school community service and restrictions of movement, Wilson said.
Up until the assault on Jan. 11, he said the district did not realize a problem might exist at the EHMS.
“There’s a sort of onion-peel effect with this; once you start digging in you find more stuff” Wilson said. “That doesn’t give us an excuse … but it’s an ongoing process.
“You put a program into a middle school and you have to keep at it, because three years later, those kids are done, they’re somewhere else. There’s no one shot that fixes everything.”
The proliferation of new, hard to monitor social media platforms has created virtual hallways for abusers to follow the victims home. Tik Tok, Instagram and WhatsApp have all been mentioned by parents as tools of harassment.
Many said their children are filmed being assaulted, confronted, harassed and humiliated on these platforms.
“He’s told to kill himself … They love to create group chats together and then threaten other kids,” one parent said.
A local Instagram account, which appeared to be frequented by Mission students, lends credence to the parents’ claims. Numerous videos of students assaulting and bullying their peers were posted on the account before being taken down.
And last week’s alleged assaults are not the first time in-school violence in Mission has been caught on tape and shared online. In July, 2019, a video of a student from being knocked unconscious by another student was reported widely around B.C.
In fact, prior cases of bullying in Mission have set a precedent in Canada’s legal history. In 2000, following the suicide of 14-year-old Dawn-Marie Wesley, bullies were held accountable in a court of law for the first time.
Cindy Gale, Wesley’s mother, has spent the last two decades speaking with the families of bullied youth, educating them on warning signs and how to find assistance.
“I feel like Mission should have been – and was when I left – a leader in anti-bullying. I feel like they’ve gone backwards.”
A common thread among parents who’ve made complaints to the district include concerns about insufficient communication from administrators regarding in-school incidents, a lack consequence for bullies, and solutions that seem to punish the victims.
Children are told to eat their lunch inside the school office, are assigned special supervisors to watch them at lunch, are advised to arrive early or late to class, and offered alternative methods of travelling home to avoid confrontations with bullies, according to parents.
One mother said the solutions are “reminiscent of the days of victim-blaming in rape cases.”
“[It] places the focus firmly on them, sending the message that they are fleeing the problem, and that the bullies are untouchable,” she said. “I have never heard of anything exceeding a short-term suspension for bullying, even in instances where this has been sustained and targeted over a prolonged period, with endless documentation.”
These measures are just practical considerations, according to Wilson, and typically, bullies are the ones receiving consequences that restrict their freedoms.
Parents also complain about a lack of information about the specific incidents, consequences that are handed down to bullies and what the school is doing to address the issue.
Gale said she’s seen school districts not notifying parents when a child is being bullied. In her case, she wasn’t aware her daughter was being bullied until two days before her suicide.
Wilson said that unless there’s physical danger, they tend to not tell a parent what happened to the other student because it violates privacy legislation, but they do make exceptions.
He said that reporting incidents is very important. The district has an anonymous reporting tool call ERASE ,which brings the issue directly to Wilson. He said inquiries will then be made “downwards rather than upwards” in the system.
“I totally understand the frustration – it’s a really difficult issue. There’s no silver bullet with bullying,” Wilson said.