School officials in Durham region say they had no idea that a 13-year-old boy who hanged himself in October was being bullied for being gay.
Shaquille Wisdom, who killed himself on Oct 20, was being bullied at his high school in Ajax and via websites students set up to target fellow students.
But Phil Matsushita, the principal at Ajax High School, says the school had no idea there was any problem. He says Wisdom should have told a teacher or staff member.
“It’s difficult to support any student around any issue if we’re not told there is an issue,” he says. “No one knew there was an issue. He was really well-integrated into the school. He was part of our student council and our improv group.”
Wisdom’s problems apparently began after he told a friend over the summer that he was gay. The friend outed him in June and students began tormenting him via websites. Matsushita says the bullies did not use school equipment or premises for the cyberbullying.
“They began calling him names and sending him ugly emails,” his stepmother told the Toronto Sun. “He couldn’t hide from them and he didn’t let others know.”
When Wisdom entered Grade 9 at his new high school, he began to face physical bullying at the school. His stepmother told The Sun she didn’t find out about it until after his funeral, but Wisdom had been stuffed into a garbage can by students days before his suicide.
Matsushita says he was not aware of any homophobic bullying against any student.
“I’m new to the school but I’m not aware of anything,” he says. “Nobody has brought it to our attention.”
Andrea Pidwerbecki, the communications manager for the Durham District School Board, says officials only became aware there was a bullying problem from the media.
“All of that came to the school from the media,” she says. “There weren’t any of the classic symptoms in this case. He was really engaged for a Grade 9 student. He was a very popular, well-liked kid.”
Kathleen Wynne, the provincial minister of education, would not comment specifically on the Wisdom case but she says that bullying outside school is usually mirrored in school.
“If a child is being bullied at home, there’s probably something going on at school,” she says. “There’s only an artificial distinction between technology at school and technology at home.”
Matsushita says Ajax High is a school that has always believed in supporting minorities.
“The school has always had support programs that promote tolerance,” he says, pointing to the school’s gay-straight alliance (GSA) as an example. “The school has always tried to be proactive.”
Citing privacy concerns Matsushita would not put Xtra in contact with any teachers or students from the GSA.
Matsushita says the school is making a greater effort to promote its support programs and anti-bullying programs, and staff have been talking to students about harassment issues.
“It was nice to hear from students’ perspectives what the issues are at school.”
Matsushita says he is also trying to get a representative from Kids Help Phone to talk to staff.
Pidwerbecki says the board hasn’t decided whether to review its policies. She says the province’s Safe Schools Act already has provisions to deal with bullying beyond the school.
“If you engage in conduct that can have an effect on school safety there can be consequences.”
Wynne says the province has provided funding for school boards to hire more psychologists and counsellors and to institute antibullying programs. The province is also providing $1.7 million for police in Toronto, Hamilton and London to tackle bullying in Grades 6, 7 and 8.
“My expectation would be that every school in the province should be at least setting up an antibullying program, if not actually already have one in place,” she says.
Wynne says queer children are especially vulnerable to bullying and its effects.
“There’s still homophobia in our schools,” she says. “There’s research that students who are homosexual or who are perceived to be homosexual are more vulnerable to bullying. There’s a higher suicide rate among those kids.”
In a bitterly ironic note the webpage of the GSA on the Ajax High School website — which does not contain any contact information for the GSA — has a sign agreeing with Wynne’s assertion.
“The suicide rate of gay/lesbian youth is three times higher than heterosexual youth,” it says.