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Bullying: When the School Is the Bystander

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"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

- Desmond Tutu

2013-09-28-rita.jpgRita-Clare LeBlanc had reached the darkest moment of her young life. The months of bullying at her high school had taken a toll and she decided to end her life and become yet another statistic of Nova Scotia's abysmal bullying record. She sat alone in her room and started to swallow her father's blood pressure pills. She was going to take as many as she could before passing out and dying. Fortunately, before the point of no return, her mother walked in and made her throw up the pills. She held her, cried with her, and together they vowed to do whatever it took to put Rita-Clare's promising life back together.

Her story sounds so familiar by now. A young life torn to pieces by an unrepentant and merciless tormentor. A school system that is so hell-bent on not picking sides they hold no one accountable and a police force that treats blatant criminal harassment like a social issue rather than a law enforcement one.

I had the pleasure to meet Rita-Clare at Nova Scotia's first anti-bullying leadership conference, "SPEAK UP" in August. I, like most of the people present, sat in stunned silence as she stood on stage and told her story. We listened and shook our heads. We watched as she paused briefly to cry, gain her composure, and carry on with a story she hopes to share as much as she can. She doesn't want this to happen to anyone else.

Rita-Clare LeBlanc was named as one of Canada's Top Twenty Under Twenty in 2011. She took a Christmas cash gift of $72.12 and turned it into $16,000 for a school in Mali. The charity group African Sky awarded her a philanthropy award and made her an honorary Mali village leader. She also received an invite to meet Queen Elizabeth during a visit to Halifax in 2011. This is the person we almost lost.

She had everything to look forward to as she entered her last year of high school but nothing could prepare her for what was about to happen. Her success and popularity had attracted attention. Soon her name was being called out in hallways: "Rita-Cunt!" She was instantly embarrassed and ashamed. Her tormentor, who we will call Mike (not his real name) made sure no teachers or administration would hear him. He knew what he was doing and he knew it was wrong.

Mike made it his purpose in life to tease, harass and scare her. Ignoring him made it worse. She tried that approach only to make Mike more determined. Soon he was blocking in her car at school and would not let her leave. He would sit in his car and stare at her.

Rita-Clare, no longer feeling safe, reported the abuse. She told the administration at school who began the unending promise that if one more thing happened Mike would face consequences. One more thing, one more thing...one more thing.

Well into the school year a break came with the opportunity to go to Ohio to attend a meeting related to her charity work in Africa. The trip left Rita-Clare feeling refreshed and confident. It was the most positivity she had experienced since school started and it was a welcome break from the bullying and the negativity she constantly was experiencing.

Returning home she recalls feeling positive as she walked into school with her head held high, "full of love and happiness." But her new-found desire to put the bullying behind her quickly faded as she realized that there were "so many people looking at me in a weird way as I walked down the hallways, asking me if I had seen the picture that was going around." She was scared. What picture were they talking about?

She found a close friend who had a copy of the photo. It was a photo of Mike, wearing a black life jacket that looked like a bullet-proof vest, an orange hunting hat and holding what looked like a huge rifle. His target, taped to a tree, was a picture of her face. The eyes were shot out.

Surely, the response to seeing such a sickening image would involve handcuffs, detectives, cars with lights flashing, and at the very least the inside of a courtroom.

Rita-Clare hoped this was the final "one more time" she kept hearing about. She had a fellow student text her a copy of the image and showed it to school officials. The police were called. Her parents were shocked and could not believe their eyes. They were furious and felt sick to their stomachs.

An officer arrived at the LeBlanc's home. He looked over the image, listened to Rita-Clare tell her long painful story. He stated he had called Mike already, was going to go over to his house that night. He told her if she wanted this type of thing to stop she should stay off Facebook. On his way out the door he asked if she was aware this could ruin Mike's life.

After the police officer visited Mike, he arrived back at Rita-Clare's home late that night. He told her that Mike and his family were upset and sorry. That Mike would like to apologize to her at school the next morning.

An apology. For months of torment. She found it hard to sleep that night. She was scared and angry but tried to convince herself that everyone makes mistakes. She would give him a second chance and accept his apology, if it was sincere.

Mike's sincerity began and ended with the police officer in his house. By the time school started the next day he had told everyone he could Rita-Clare had called the police on him and embarrassed him in front of his parents. When she arrived at school it was obvious Mike had squandered the opportunity to do the right thing.

She refused to allow this to drop with an apology that was obviously going to be insincere. She informed police what had occurred so Mike's charges were referred to restorative justice.

During her lecture at the anti-bullying conference, Rita-Clare talked about the bystander problem. She experienced it when the bullying started and her friends, people she thought she knew and trusted, stood by or even joined in. She experienced it from the school administration who allowed the bullying to continue unabated for months. The police officer whose comments made it seem like she was to blame. And now she was about to experience it again. Restorative justice with an abuser who was unapologetic and showed not only no sign of remorse, he was openly angry at her for the harm her complaints did to him and his family.

She just wanted to put this mess behind her and finish school. To just get away from Mike once and for all. The restorative meeting was set for April and it consisted of Mike and his family, volunteer moderators, the Police Officer from the Community Office at the school, Rita-Clare and her family. During the meeting everyone sat in a circle.

She soon realized what it was truly like to be a victim of bullying in Nova Scotia. When the moderator began the meeting, he opened with questions for Mike first -- asking him how this experience affected him and his family. Throughout the circle, Mike and his family were consistently addressed by the moderator who was making sure that they were comfortable.

Rita-Clare was asked last about her experience and how it changed her life. She says it felt like "my feelings and my hurt didn't even matter. The whole restorative justice process seemed to only re-victimize me, because at one point, Mike's family told me that I had bullied their son. Can you believe that?"

"That's when I broke down," she said. "I had so wanted to keep it together for this process but the accusation did me in and I couldn't hold back the tears. I proceeded with this restorative process because I just wanted it over. This young man didn't steal my bicycle...he aimed a gun at a photo of my head and shot my eyes out. He joked about it without feelings of remorse."

No one was willing to tell Mike, after all of this, that he did anything wrong.

At the end of the school year Rita-Clare LeBlanc walked proudly across a stage and smiled as she was handed her diploma. She recalls thinking that it was amazing to go through "everything I went through, so many missed classes, the deep depression and a suicide attempt, and that I still made the Principal's List, received Highest Honours in three classes, and won a Humanitarian Award."

Today she is getting ready to start her second year at St. Francis Xavier University. She is getting top marks, is involved in many campus community events, has restarted her charity group MYST (Maritimes Youth Standing Together) and they continue to support education in Mali. This past summer she worked with Prostate Cancer Canada.

She finished her story saying she believes what happened was for a reason. She's hoping that by sharing her experience she can help someone in a similar situation, whether they are being bullied, or are a bystander.

I approached Rita-Clare following her speech to say hello and thank her. I also told her the adults in Nova Scotia owe her an apology. Today, we are not combating bullying, we are not helping victims, and we will not save a single bullied kid from suicide. Not until we are willing to acknowledge that the solution of trying to remain neutral means we've sided with the oppressors.

Sadly, this story is not just Rita-Clare's story. This story of bullying is being repeated in schools across Canada, as is the story of a system that remains uncertain of how to deal with this issue. The headlines bear witness to yet another example just this month in Saskatchewan.

Rest in peace Todd Loik.

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