Despite parental complaints spanning two years, the Surrey school district did nothing about homophobic taunting, bullying and assaults on a mentally challenged 12-year-old girl, a complaint accepted with the BC Human Rights Tribunal alleges.
The girl’s father alleges Surrey’s Erma Stephenson Elementary School discriminated against her in the provision of a service customarily provided to the public, on the basis of mental and physical disability, contrary to the province’s Human Rights Code.
The decision to hear the complaint does not constitute a finding of fact by tribunal member Marlene Tyshynski.
The father alleges three students made “derisive, insulting” comments to his daughter, including calling her a lesbian since 2008.
His daughter, referred to simply as T in court documents, has cerebral palsy and a mental disability.
In September 2008, the father alleges one of the bullies hit T on the head with a music stand. He says he spoke with the students, their parents and the principal to no avail.
“He alleges that there has been no meaningful discipline of the three students and, at the time the complaint was filed, the three students remained in T’s classroom,” Tyshynski writes in her decision to hear the case.
“He states that this bullying behaviour has had a significant impact on T, causing her to suffer serious depression.”
Spokesperson Doug Strachan says the school district cannot comment on the case, as it is before the tribunal.
“If it reaches a hearing stage, those details can come out at that stage,” Strachan says.
Erma Stephenson principal Johane Fortin, who signs notes to parents “Be Safe,” could not be reached for comment.
Strachan did not know how long Fortin has been principal.
Faune Johnson of BC’s Pride in Education Network says whoever was principal should have taken action to protect the child if the allegations are true.
But, she adds, “the administrators take their orders from the district level. It’s the district administrators and the board level that should be dealing with this.”
The district’s Safe and Caring Schools policy, last revised in June, says school environments should be free from acts of bullying, cyberbullying, harassment, threat and intimidation; violence of any form; verbal, physical or sexual abuse; discrimination in any form; theft; and vandalism.
Strachan says the case is being handled by district lawyers.
In its response to the allegations, the district’s legal team says there is no continuing contravention where there is a significant gap in time between separate sets of allegations.
The district further argues the allegations respecting T being hit on the head with a music stand could not, if proven, constitute a contravention of the code.
However, Tyshynski writes, if it can be proven that it was one of the students who repeatedly bullied T who intentionally hit her with the music stand, it could amount to a contravention of the code.
Overall, Tyshynski ruled the allegations could constitute a continuing contravention of the code and agreed to hear the complaint.
Eleven school districts in BC have anti-bullying policies that specifically include homophobia. Surrey is not one of them.
A search for bullying documents on the district’s website produces several documents adapted from the BC Block Parent program.
“If your child is being bothered, intimidated or threatened by any other student, it is very important to inform the principal,” says one. “Bullying is much more than teasing. The evidence and incidence of bullying varies, but the effects are always the same. It is humiliating and very often devastating to the innocent victim.”
School cases at the Human Rights Tribunal are not new.
Azmi Jubran, then a Grade 10 student at Handsworth Secondary School, filed a complaint with the tribunal in 1996.
Jubran’s classmates taunted and bullied him all through high school with homophobic epithets. In 2002, the tribunal awarded Jubran $4,000 in damages. That ruling was overturned in 2003 and then overturned again in April, back in Jubran’s favour.
The school board’s unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2005 was its last chance to deny responsibility for curbing homophobic harassment on playgrounds and in classrooms.
Johnson says the case is similar not only to Jubran’s but also to that of Jeremy Dias who, in 2002, took Sault Ste Marie, Ontario’s Sir James Dunn Collegiate and Vocational School and the Algoma District School Board to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, alleging staff members would not allow him to start school clubs to encourage a more positive environment for non-heterosexual students.
He settled out of court with the school board.