Months of homophobic and racist bullying have pushed a young student in New Westminster, BC, to switch schools, after his mother alleges his school failed to sufficiently protect him.
Victor, whose name Xtra agreed to change to protect his identity, is an 11-year-old student at Queensborough Middle School where he enjoys social studies, math and exploratories (which includes cooking, drama, and sewing classes). He also loves basketball, watching Vine videos and video game recaps, and is a big fan of the new Beauty and the Beast film. He says school is fun, although things changed last fall when he became the target of an older classmate’s bullying.
“So in the beginning of the school year he started calling me names. Like, the n-word. A faggot,” Victor says. “It was weird because I’d never felt like that in a long time . . . I just hate it.”
Victor’s mother, Jodie Ortega, says she was unaware of the harassment until an incident after school in February, when Victor’s classmate stole his wallet and used it to buy pizza for himself and his friends. It was only then she learned about the homophobic and racist slurs Victor was routinely subjected to.
“The way [Victor] was explaining it to me that evening, he had normalized it so much that he said it so casually,” Ortega says. “I remember he took his headphones out and he was like, ‘Well, honestly Mom, I hear it all the time and it’s like I’m so used to it by now.’“
She also learned the bullying had gotten physical on at least one occasion when Victor was knocked to the ground, called a racial slur and then stuffed in a recycling bin.
Ortega contacted Queensborough Middle School principal Lisa Nasato immediately with her concerns. What followed, she alleges, was a lacklustre response that included long wait times between meetings, a lack of transparency, and an insufficient apology that only came after months of pressure.
Though the racist and homophobic bullying stopped in February and the bully was temporarily suspended then moved to a different class — with rules imposed that require him to keep his distance from Victor — Ortega feels the school has routinely failed to keep her updated on developments in her son’s case.
Nasato says for privacy reasons she cannot discuss specific cases at her school. But, she says, when any situation involving bullying is brought to the attention of staff or administration they seek to address it right away.
“We’re dealing with students, we’re in the business of education, and we deal with that on a case-to-case basis based on what has happened,” she says. “We of course work with the students involved and we make it an educational learning experience.”
In a June 14, 2017, letter from Nasato to Ortega (provided to Xtra by Ortega), Nasato says she “deeply regret[s] that [Victor] has experienced discriminatory and hurtful behaviour at our school.”
When the incidents were brought to her attention, Nasato writes, she “investigated them promptly and thoroughly,” adding that she takes “behaviours such as these seriously.”
But Ortega says the apology is insufficient because it uses vague terms such as “discriminatory” and “hurtful behaviour,” rather than specifically acknowledging that Victor was targeted with homophobic and racist harassment. “Name the shame. Spell it out. That’s how we grow,” she says.
Ortega also questions why the province’s School Act protects bullies under 16 from getting expelled, leaving kids like Victor to suffer or change schools.
“How can you flourish in an environment where you’re supposed to learn and develop your social development when you’re around your perpetrator?” she asks.
New Westminster’s superintendent of schools, Pat Duncan, says this is a natural response from a parent, but says expulsions are becoming less common even among students not shielded by the School Act.
“Our job is to teach children what the appropriate behaviour is and help them understand that. Removing them from the scene is not necessarily going to help them,” he says. “But obviously we also have to protect the victim, so it’s a real balance. Sometimes you’ll see class changes. Sometimes it’s school changes. But that’s the difficulty — there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for any of these.”
Because Victor’s bully will continue to attend Queensborough Middle School, causing her son much anxiety, Ortega says the family decided to move Victor to Fraserview Middle School, which is also part of the New Westminster school district.
With its gay-straight alliance and gender-neutral washroom, Fraserview will hopefully provide a better overall environment for Victor, his mother says.
“It’s all about embracing inclusiveness . . . It matches the dialogue and the values that Victor and I have at home,” Ortega says of the tour they recently took at the new school. “When he saw the gender-neutral washroom and his face lit up, I cried. He was getting it. The sense of belonging.”
Ortega says Victor had previously expressed an interest in possibly wearing dresses, but being called a “faggot” likely halted any further exploration of his gender expression at Queensborough.
No matter how Victor identifies, it doesn’t change the fact that the bullying he endured was homophobic in nature, Ortega notes, citing the case of Azmi Jubran, the North Vancouver high school student who was tormented for years with homophobic language and violence, even though he was straight. Jubran sued the North Vancouver school board and eventually won in 2005.
Queensborough Middle School does not have a gay-straight alliance or a gender-neutral washroom. But superintendent Duncan says it will be getting a gender-neutral washroom and a GSA next year, and says the New Westminster school board’s Gender and Sexual Diversity Committee — soon to be renamed Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee — was among the first in the province.
“This is for us very important and a point of pride,” he says. “What we’re really trying to do is make sure every student, regardless of orientation, race, or religion feels very welcome in our schools and is seen as part of the community.”
Duncan says he cannot comment on specific cases like Victor’s, but says each case is unique, which makes it impossible for administrators to offer parents a set timeline in terms of when an issue will be resolved. He acknowledges that some situations take longer than others.
“I can guarantee you that every time there is a complaint put forward, there is an action that goes with it. Nothing gets put off,” he says.
He also says the process may seem opaque at times because schools must ensure they protect the privacy of all students involved.
“The harasser or the bullier, that child has the same rights as the victim does as far as privacy,” Duncan says. “That frustrates some parents because they want to know everything they can. And unfortunately what we can only share is the little we’re allowed to.”