'We felt really alone': Kitchener mom opens up about son's experience with bullying
As students, school staff and parents across Ontario are being encouraged to learn more about the effects bullying can have on learning and well-being this week, a 10-year-old boy from Kitchener opened up to his classmates earlier this year about his own experience with bullying, and the impact it had on him.
A CHILD SPEAKS UP
“It was the worst pain I had felt in my entire life,” said Ahilan in an audio recording of a speech he gave in class in February 2021. “My bully called me a turd and he said he was calling me that because I have brown skin.”
Ahilan shared more of his experience during an interview with CTV News at his Kitchener home.
“I thought it was important that people understand bullying can affect a child,” said Ahilan.
Ahilan and his mom said the bullying began when he was seven years old at the start of his Grade 2 year at JW Gerth Public School in Kitchener. He said the bullying intensified both physically and verbally.
The bully was a year older than Ahilan.
“He said that if I told my parents he would kill them with guns,” recalled Ahilan.
“He said a lot of things like I shouldn’t be in this world. Or like I suck.”
“He said them like they were true. So I believed it for quite a while.”
Ahilan admitted he kept quiet about it for months.
According to researchers, victims of bullying often suffer in silence.
“Bullying affects all aspects of functioning,” said Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert in bullying and children’s mental health. “It has a traumatic toll on children’s wellbeing.”
Vaillancourt noted children who are bullied can become depressed, anxious, and sometimes consider suicide.
“It also affects their ability to learn,” added Vaillancourt. “We’ve done studies where it shows it impairs their memory.”
Ahilan’s mother, Mekalai Kumanan, said she became worried when she noticed his grades slipping, and that he was coming home with cuts and bruises.
Kumanan said Ahilan eventually told her everything in April 2019.
“One [student] in particular had been calling him names and pushing him and kind of shoving him against a brick wall,” said Kumanan. “Ahilan was really struggling emotionally with it.”
Kumanan said the night her son opened up to her, she sent an email to Ahilan’s teacher and copied the school’s principal, Marc Laurente. A copy of that email was shared with CTV News.
It included Kumanan’s concerns about the threat of guns. She wrote in part:
“To him, it was a real possibility, and he was very apprehensive to disclose any information to us or you.
Ahilan is clearly shaken by all of this and very concerned about what might happen on the playground tomorrow.”
“We were hoping that the school would address it as quickly as possible,” said Kumanan.
According to Kumanan, the principal met with Ahilan the next day without her knowledge or consent.
“He was placed in a room with the bully the next day. I believe there were other kids who were questioned,” said Kumanan.
It’s an approach not recommended by Vaillancourt, especially without parental permission.
“It’s inherently unfair to put a kid who has been targeted by somebody and who is afraid of that individual in a room with them when the power differential is enormous, and their stress level is enormous,” explained Vaillancourt.
A few days after Kumanan sent the initial email, Ahilan suffered a concussion after an attack by the same student who had previously bullied him.
According to a school incident report obtained by Ahilan’s family and provided to CTV News, “a student yelled ‘toothless’ and shoved Ahilan from behind. Ahilan fell forward hitting his head on the water fountain.”
After that, Kumanan said she was notified by the principal that the other student was placed on restrictions preventing interactions with Ahilan for a period of time. She said little else was disclosed to her regarding disciplinary measures placed on the other student, citing privacy reasons.
Vaillancourt said she supports the privacy of students, but also acknowledged it adds a layer of complexity when dealing with bullying incidents. She said it often leaves bullied victims and their families feeling left in the dark.
“Maybe he has some special considerations that we are not privileged to knowing about,” said Vaillancourt.
Kumanan said her concerns for Ahilan’s safety at JW Gerth continued the following school year, involving other students, so the family decided to move him to a new school in early 2020.
Ahilan said he now feels safe, happy and supported.
“I’m proud that I’m brown skinned and that I’m smaller. I don’t deserve to be bullied because of who I am,” he said in the speech he gave to his new classmates.
“Always tell a trusted adult. Even though things got worse before they got better, my parents were always there for me,” he said. “Lots of people truly care about you.”
PROBLEMS WITH THE PROCESS
Kumanan believes the situation could have been handled better.
In the initial email she sent to the school, she wrote that Ahilan “sometimes feels like he wishes he ‘didn’t exist’ because of how the other child treats him.”
According to experts, what Ahilan felt is common among victims of bullying.
“This changes the way he views his relationship with others. It changes his sense of security in the world,” said Vaillancourt.
The Waterloo Region District School Board has a written procedure in place for staff to follow when responding to suicidal ideation.
It states a school administrator should consult with an assigned school social worker or a critical events response administrator.
Kumanan said Ahilan didn’t receive help with his mental health.
“No we weren’t provided with any support,” recalled Kumanan.
Ahilan’s parents eventually sought counselling for him on their own to help him deal with his mental health.
The Ministry of Education also has several reporting and response procedures in place when it comes to bullying. In particular, its website states “staff must provide supports for all students.”
“I think if he had that support, and someone he could see as a supportive adult within the school setting, I think that could have made a big difference,” said Kumanan.
After Ahilan was attacked and concussed, Kumanan received the initial serious incident report where the principal wrote the cause of injury as ‘rough play.’
The term ‘rough play’ was later revised to ‘assault.’
Kumanan said she fought for the change over a two-week period.
“I would hope that when parents are communicating with the school the understanding is we are working together to support a child here,” said Kumanan. “I can say we really didn’t get that. We felt really alone.”
Vaillancourt believes the term ‘rough play’ should not be used when bullying is involved.
“The child did not engage in an equally balanced interaction with this individual,” she said. “He was assaulted, let’s call it what it is.”
Kumanan said the principal attempted to hold a meeting with parents and students from both sides, a process known as ‘restorative justice.’
“We were ultimately told the other child’s family didn’t want to participate in restorative justice,” said Kumanan.
The final issue that prompted Kumanan and her husband to remove Ahilan from JW Gerth happened the following school year, when he was in Grade 3.
Kumanan said she received a phone call from the school in November 2019 stating Ahilan had sustained a head injury. Then, in January 2020, she received another call from the school about Ahilan suffering a neck injury.
According to the WRDSB’s prevention and response to student concussions procedure, “whenever there is a blow to the head, face, or neck, or a blow that transmits a force to the head, a concussion is to be suspected.”
It goes on to say a form called ‘The Return to Learn/Return to Physical Activity Plan’ should be filled out and given to families. After that, families and/or caregivers are to return the completed plan indicating whether or not there is a diagnosed concussion.
In both instances, Kumanan said she did not receive any concussion screening forms.
She said eventually, moving Ahilan to a different school became non-negotiable for her.
“It just became clear to me that I was literally sending him to school every day and not knowing if he was safe or not.”
Kumanan said she fairly advocated for her son, but it was a difficult and trying process that she feels no parent should have to go through.
“I really believe this was a missed opportunity to help both kids,” said Kumanan.
“I really hope it prompts some action.”
Ahilan’s father did not speak with CTV News for this story. At the time of Ahilan’s bullying, he was a vice principal with the Waterloo Region District School Board, and is still currently employed by the board.
CTV News reached out to the WRDSB’s Director of Education and to the principal of JW Gerth Public School a number of times to discuss this case, and specific procedures and policies in place when it comes to bullying that appear not to have been followed, according to Ahilan’s mother.
The board acknowledged receipt of our requests, but we did not receive a response from the school board, the Director of Education, or from the principal, Mr. Laurente.
Instead, a letter from the WRDSB’s lawyers was sent to CTV News.
It states in part:
“[T]he allegations which you propose to advance in the article or broadcast are inaccurate, unreliable, and unsubstantiated. Furthermore, several of the allegations are founded upon a mischaracterization and/or misapplication of certain WRDSB policies and procedures.”
“The WRDSB is bound by a duty of confidentiality with respect to student affairs, and accordingly it is constrained in its ability to respond to the unsubstantiated allegations which you propose to publish.” “However, the WRDSB is satisfied that appropriate, applicable polices, protocols, and procedures have been followed by Mr. Laurente with respect to his duties as principal.”
“It would be irresponsible to publish the allegations of a single individual without taking steps to understand the larger context surrounding them.”
“The WRDSB is prepared to take appropriate measures to respond to the publication of false, malicious, and/or defamatory statements.”
SIGNS TO WATCH FOR
According to a 2019 study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), more than one in five Ontario students (23 per cent) reported being bullied at school.
Bullying can take many forms, including physical, verbal, social, and cyberbullying.
On its website, the Ontario government lists a number of signs to watch for if you believe your child is being bullied. They include:
- Not wanting to go to school or may cry or feel sick on school days
- Not wanting to take part in activities or social events with other students
- Acting differently than they normally do
- Suddenly beginning to lose money or personal items
- Coming home with torn clothes or broken possessions and offering explanations that don't make sense
There are a number of resources available for parents and children to help deal with bullying:
Ontario has designated the week beginning on the third Sunday of November as Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week.