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Ontario Student’s Death Shines Light On Bullying Issues Within Canada's School System

Phoenix Acero was the type of person who would stand up for anyone.

11/30/2017 09:26 EST | Updated 11/30/2017 09:26 EST

Phoenix Acero was a friendly, free-spirited teen from Haliburton, Ont., who loved music and skateboarding. The 14-year-old had a big heart that went with his big plans — he hoped to be a lawyer or a rapper one day. He was the type of person who would stand up for anyone, even strangers.

That's why the teen's sudden death in May stunned his family and friends.

"He was our life. Our world. My first true love," Acero's mom, Dulce, told HuffPost Canada.

Dulce Acero
Phoenix Acero.

Because Acero had a strong moral compass, he defended vulnerable students from bullies — and that turned him into a target, says his family.

"Phoenix always stood up for people, especially the special needs students," close friend Maddie Phippen, 17, told HuffPost Canada in an email.

In May, after Acero defended a peer at Ontario's Haliburton Highlands Secondary School, a bully allegedly told Acero to go kill himself. The teen died suddenly the next day.

"He wanted to scare [the bully] for saying those things," Dulce wrote in a recent Facebook post. "As dramatic teenagers do, he went too far. And now he's gone."

The bully was not held accountable for his words.

"[The bully] admitted saying it, and students said he was bragging about it at school. He was never punished or suspended," Dulce said. "[The school] said 'He didn't mean it' and 'It was just an offhand comment.'"

Trillium Lakelands District School Board declined a request for comment. According to the board's communications manager, Catherine Shedden, they do not comment on incidents regarding staff or students owing to privacy concerns.

Haliburton Highlands referred to their handbook to defend the decision not to punish the student, Dulce said.

"They said he's not a bully because he only said it once to Phoenix," she said. "I say, the first time you utter the words, 'Go kill yourself' to someone ... you are a bully."

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Acero's death sheds light on problems within Canada's school system. Although great emphasis is put on initiatives such as Bullying Awareness Week and Pink Shirt Day, there are still many factors that cause bullying to go unreported, meaning victims don't always get the help they need.

This year alone, three students have died by suicide in the Sydney, N.S., area owing to bullying, and last year a "suicide contagion" shook Woodstock, Ont., when five teens took their lives in the first six months alone.

Canada's suicide epidemic in Indigenous communities has also gotten worse. Last year, after 11 young people attempted suicide on the same night, Ontario's Attawapiskat First Nation reserve declared a state of emergency.

A study by Yale University found that bullying puts young people at an increased risk of suicide.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among today's youth, and a study by Yale University found that bullying puts young people at an increased risk. Not all bullying conflicts are resolved, and 47 per cent of parents report having a child who has been a victim, the Government of Canada website reports.

As a result, some students have resorted to suing their schools. Last year, 17-year-old Winston Karam successfully won his case after Ottawa's Broadview Public School failed to acknowledge or resolve the physical and verbal bullying he endured from other students.

Cole Froese also launched a lawsuit against the school board and his high school in Gimli, Man., contending that administrators did nothing to intervene in physical, verbal and online bullying against him, reported Global News.

Schools' standard response to bullying


Each province and territory has its own policies regarding bullying, but the main goal is to maintain a safe learning environment for all students.

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Specifically, Ontario's provincial code of conduct requires a bullying prevention and intervention plan at all schools. This includes putting the onus on staff not only to discuss bullying with students in class, but also to respond to every bullying incident and report it to the principal.

Additionally, "school staff are expected to make every effort to fully investigate [parents'] concerns, while protecting students' privacy," Ontario's Ministry of Education website says. If parents are unhappy with how the school has handled a situation, they should refer to the school's bullying-prevention policy before contacting the school board.

If this is the standard procedure, then why do some schools' efforts to address bullying come up short?

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One reason may be the very definition of bullying. The RCMP defines it as an "imbalance of power; where someone purposely and repeatedly says or does hurtful things to someone else." And while bullying has many forms — physical, verbal, social, cyber — its key attribute is that it is done repeatedly and with the intent to do harm.

Bullying is not "disagreements within a peer group, a fight with a friend or being left out of activities," Gail Bell, an expert at parenting website Parenting Power, told Global News. Therefore, unless a child is a target of repeated attacks, public schools do not consider the incident bullying. (Private schools set their own policies and procedures).

Ignoring the fact that our children are struggling will not encourage them to 'man up' and move on. It will only leave them feeling more alone than ever.

While single run-ins can fall under that definition depending on the school and province, the point is that defining bullying as multiple attacks can pose problems, such as in Acero's case where the isolated incident was felt to be played down and overlooked.

When this happens, it can leave students feeling helpless and alone.

"We should never pretend not to notice that there is a problem," clinical psychologist Lisa Firestone wrote in Psychology Today. "Ignoring the fact that our children are struggling will not encourage them to 'man up' and move on. It will only leave them feeling more alone than ever."

Education laws prevent schools from informing parents


Parents rely on schools to keep them informed of what's going on in their kids' lives, but this isn't always effective.

According to John P. Schuman, a Toronto-based family lawyer, schools aren't required to tell parents about incidents unless a student has been harmed.

"'Harm' is not defined in the [Ontario] Education Act, but it generally has a pretty broad definition," he explained to HuffPost Canada in an email. "And being the victim of bullying meets the definition of harm under the act."

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Schuman added, "While there are lots of provisions that require schools to raise awareness in the community about bullying, its causes, effects, prevention strategies, nothing requires that a school, principal or board advise parents about incidents or the prevalence of bullying in a school."

Katherine MacIver, superintendent of learning at Trillium Lakelands District School Board, told HuffPost Canada that they follow the Safe Schools Act to determine when parents are called.

According to the act, parents are informed only when a student's behaviour could potentially lead to suspension or expulsion. Besides bullying, this includes possession of drugs or alcohol, committing vandalism, and swearing at a person of authority.

When it comes to calling home about bullying, there is a caveat. Though MacIver confirmed that every reported bullying incident is investigated, she noted that it is only when the school officially determines the conflict to be bullying that parents are informed.

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"What we do find sometimes is that people call things bullying and when we investigate, sometimes it comes out as more social conflict," she explained. "You know, two kids are on the same sports team and they didn't get along or they had a conflict during a game, but then they're friends again the next week. That doesn't really follow the definition of bullying."

While this may be the policy, Dulce noted that there's a definite lack of communication between schools and parents. "I am not aware of [Haliburton Highlands] making any bullying policies clear, or having any assemblies regarding the matter," the mom said. "Not that it would matter. Nothing seems to happen when it is reported anyway."

What we do find sometimes is that people call things bullying and when we investigate, sometimes it comes out as more social conflict.

Acero's aunt, Melodie Acero, who is an educator with a graduate degree in educational psychology, believes this lack of communication is dangerous.

"[These laws] leave parents not knowing what is happening to their children at school and therefore not knowing what they are going through or how to help," she said. "These privacy laws claim to be for the benefit of students, yet in the field of education it is widely known that building partnerships with families is paramount to the success and wellbeing of all students."

Lack of communication among teens, parents and schools


While schools play a key role in keeping guardians informed, parents and adults should also make an effort to talk to their kids themselves — although that's sometimes easier said than done.

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According to Dr. Daniel Seigel, a psychiatry professor at the UCLA School of Medicine, teens are naturally hardwired to turn away from their parents.

"When adolescence comes, we're programmed from an evolutionary point of view to push away from the status quo. In concrete terms, we push away from our parents and parent figures," Seigel explained to ZDNet.

Parenting expert Alyson Schafer further explained this phenomenon to HuffPost Canada: "Teens want to feel a sense of individuality. When they have their own world without their parents in it, that helps them feel grown-up."

"Parents are often critical of their children," she continued in an email. "They want to fix or correct [them], which results in the child becoming less open and communicative."

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But talking to parents who listen without judgment can actually help teens work through their problems and emotions, as well as give parents the opportunity to spot the signs of suicide, according to U.S. educator Sharon Powers.

Glen Canning, whose daughter died by suicide in 2013 after being sexually assaulted and cyberbullied, also stressed that parents need to talk to their teens about what they're seeing in media to help them better understand the world.

"Kids aren't safe at home anymore. Not in the connected world," he said in an email. "Violence is in music and movies, on TV, and often celebrated in sports. It's everywhere, and access to it is instant. Pay attention to what your child is consuming and talk to them about it."

Listening to teens and taking them seriously


Bullying prevention also requires school officials to take teens seriously when issues arise, according to Debra Pepler, a York University psychology professor.

Pepler, who is also the co-director of the Canadian bullying prevention site PREVNet, spoke to Maclean's in 2011 about the number of bullying victims taking their schools to court.

"I've been involved with a few families over the last year, and the inability of principals and teachers to do something constructive is depressing to me," she told the mag. "We haven't trained them adequately in understanding children's development. You hear principals saying to get thicker skin, just ignore it, walk away."

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Phippen, Acero's friend, can attest to this. The 17-year-old said she experienced physical, verbal and online bullying from Grade 6 through high school.

"How could I possibly ignore being spat on, stepped on, called at, and stared at constantly?" she said. "My teachers would get overwhelmed and somewhat annoyed hearing about my recurring issues, so I started taking these situations to the office.

"We would have 'circle talks' and discuss bullying. But it did nothing. These boys would turn around and do it all again."

Research from 2016 from the University of South Australia confirms that one of the top reasons bullied students don't reach out to teachers is because they don't think they'll be taken seriously.

A study referenced by PREVNet backs this up, stating, "Teachers' responses may be a key factor in children's choices to tell their teacher about their victimization."

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The PREVNet study, which included hour-long interviews with 13 teachers, uncovered a number of reasons teachers didn't intervene. Some misinterpreted the incident, misunderstanding what constitutes bullying, while others cited a lack of training on how to address bullying.

Today, schools are working to improve bullying prevention, said Sharlene Hunter, a spokeswoman for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), which is the same board that was sued last year by Winston Karam.

In a statement to HuffPost Canada, Hunter noted that in the past six years, the OCDSB has made significant additions to its bullying prevention policies. "This includes professional development for staff, learning opportunities for students and the introduction of anti-bullying programs," she said.

The Fourth R and Roots of Empathy — which are both backed by PREVNet and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) — are examples of these new programs. Additionally, the school board conducts surveys to better gauge student safety, understand their perceptions of bullying, and help schools develop better anti-bullying strategies.

Schools need to correct bullying behaviour


Many Canadian schools resort to suspension to punish bullies, but do not address the issue further — and that's a problem, according to Schafer.

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"Zero tolerance policies don't work," she told HuffPost Canada. "Research cited on PREVNet shows this. Children who bully have relationship problems, and it requires relationship fixes. They need skills and training."

Kids Health supports the notion. "In some cases, kids bully because they have trouble managing strong emotions like anger, frustration, or insecurity," the site notes. "In other cases, kids haven't learned co-operative ways to work out conflicts and understand differences."

In this day and age where social media can deeply affect mental health, it's not hard to believe that some teens have a hard time learning to deal with their emotions. Some schools in North America have now introduced meditation as a way to teach kids how to manage them.

Support services lacking


Since Acero passed away, a number of his friends have confided in his mother about the bullying they have experienced at Haliburton Highlands, and how they fear coming forward as victims.

"Administration blames the students for not reporting the bullying, but the kids have reported things so many times or seen others report, and nothing happens," Dulce said. "They have no faith in [the school's] punishing the bullies so they don't bother. And they fear retaliation, which happens."

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Studies have linked bullying with a higher risk of mental health problems. Dulce argued that there needs to be more support services available to students. "We need real counsellors at the school, every day," she said. "Kids can't schedule their crisis into your Monday, Wednesday, Friday timeslot."

Christine Duchene, head of guidance services at Haliburton Highlands, told HuffPost Canada that the school does offer mental health services to its students, Monday to Friday.

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However, in Canada, not every child in need has access to mental health treatment.

"The reality is that most kids don't get access to these services or they have to wait a very long time to procure those services, and that, to me, is a shame," Jeff Moat, the president of Partners for Mental Health, told HuffPost Canada.

Moat noted that there's typically a one-year waiting period for a young person to get an appointment with psychological support services. "Unless they're in a crisis or an urgent situation where they'll go into an ER," he said. "During this waiting period, their mental health in many cases can deteriorate, and, in many cases, quite dramatically."

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Families with financial means can get help quickly, but for many, that's not a possibility. Indigenous communities, in particular, have a hard time accessing services, since the programs available to them are "under-resourced," according to Minister of Indigenous Services Jane Philpott.

"The fact is that about 1.2 million Canadian youth are affected by mental illness and only a quarter of them will receive the appropriate treatment," Moat said. "So the more we can do to help young people earlier, the better outcomes we're going to see later in life."

Holding parents and schools accountable


Curbing the bullying problem also means parents need to lead by example. "If parents know their child is bullying and they choose to take no action, then they are willing participants and should be treated accordingly," Canning said.

"Bullying doesn't happen in a vacuum. Parents are the standard kids follow, and if there's no standard, there's no guidance."

Bullying doesn't happen in a vacuum. Parents are the standard kids follow, and if there's no standard, there's no guidance.

Dulce added that schools should also be held accountable. After all, "we are trusting them to keep [our kids] safe while they are in their care," she said.

One way parents can make sure this happens is by being an advocate for their child. "Know what's being said and done," Canning advised parents of victims.

"Some [bullying] can be incredibly violent and dangerous for a teenager. Go to the police and the school with screen captures if it's possible. If talking doesn't work, show them. Don't take no for an answer. Know what your rights are. Fight until it stops or you've lost your voice. It could be the most important fight of your life."

Dulce Acero
Phoenix Acero and his sister, Anabel.

Five months after Acero's death, his mother is still grieving. "Not a day goes by that I forget or don't think of him," Dulce said. "Everything is a constant reminder."

But while she will forever miss her son, she hopes everyone can learn from his story.

Dulce has a message for teens today: "Stop being so mean to each other. Your words matter. Be kind. Be sensitive, even though as boys you're told not to be. Do it anyway. Take care of each other.

"Even if you're just not mean to one person that you don't like today, it's a start."

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