Ten-year-old Hannah used to love going to school but now the Ontario fourth grader is too scared to return and her mother Nicola can't blame her. On Monday, Hannah experienced the second of two incidents of bullying with a disturbingly sexual tone. A group of fourth graders was approached at recess by four Grade 7 students and verbally harassed. One of the boys allegedly told Hannah that he was going to "shove a lollipop up her a**" and make her "suck [his] d***."
Hannah's mother spoke to the school principal, and although the boy admitted to the incident, as far as she knows no further action was taken by the school. As of Wednesday, Nicola's calls to the superintendent and her school trustee had not been returned, and the principal did not respond to a request for comment for this post.
Sexual Bullying Hurts Everyone and it has to STOP.
In frustration, Nicola wrote about the incident on her Facebook page, only to have a friend's comment reported to the police as a threat. A police officer subsequently contacted Nicola and informed her they have determined there was no "malice" in the boy's comment and they have cautioned him about his language.
In the earlier incident, a 10-year-old boy lifted Hannah's skirt and touched her genitals during a soccer game. The school told Nicola this happened accidentally, and Hannah now blames herself for wearing a skirt.
As a child and youth counselor with 20 years' experience advocating for other people's children, Nicola says, "I never thought I would be in this position, feeling so helpless," when it came to her own child. "I have a scared little girl who is refusing to return to school, and I support her decision."
Nicola is adamant this is not about retribution or making an example of the boys involved. "It's the bigger picture of the systemic problem that I need to be addressed." The school offered to assign a teacher to supervise Hannah at all times, but Nicola pointed out that singling out her daughter does nothing to address the underlying problem. "I told [the principal] 'You've created a culture where this behaviour is accepted, and that needs to change.'"
According to the Ontario Human Rights Code, sexual harassment includes "using rude or insulting language or making comments toward girls and women," "bullying based on sex or gender," and education providers have a legal duty to prevent and respond to such behaviour.
Sexual harassment, in person and online, is a serious issue in today's schools. Students who experience sexual bullying can face depression, anxiety; they may stop taking part in school activities or going to school altogether, as Hannah has; and they may contemplate or complete suicide. We have seen the impact of this kind of bullying time and time again in tragedies such as the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons.
The perpetrators of sexual harassment are also affected by their own behaviour. When CityTV News' Shauna Hunt was verbally harassed by men shouting gender-based obscenities at a Toronto FC match, she took action. One of the men has since been fired by his employer, and several may face criminal charges. Hannah's mother points to this incident as an example of the potential consequences of the students involved not being held accountable for their behaviour at a young age.
On Friday afternoon, the school took a step towards a positive resolution to the situation. Hannah's parents were invited to meet with the Board Superintendent and the principal and vice principal. The school apologized for the lack of urgency and communication and has pledged to arrange a restorative justice process with professionals and to institute new protocols for teachers around dealing with issues of a sexual nature. Nicola hopes this process will begin to repair the rifts this incident has caused in the local community.
The 2015 Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum taking effect in September will address gender and sex-based bullying and cyber-bullying starting in Grade 4. To prevent sexual harassment, children need to understand that it is no laughing matter. The new curriculum will teach them about their rights and responsibilities, how to recognize abusive language and situations, and how to respond if someone is being harassed.
Since this will likely lead to increased disclosures of sexual abuse and harassment, it is crucial that Ontario schools have clear protocols in place. Teachers and administrators need to be given the resources to respond adequately or to refer concerns through appropriate channels.
Nicola is just grateful her daughters were able to talk to her. "I am so thankful they are so comfortable and forthcoming with me. I can't deal with issues I don't know about."
The original version of this post appeared at picklesINK.com. It has been updated as the situation developed.
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