A mother in Watson Lake, Yukon, says the education system failed her son as he was repeatedly victimized by bullies at elementary school. 

Roxanne Coles said the bullying was so bad that her son ended up missing about a third of the 2016/17 school year. She says one of his worst experiences was when another student choked him with a rope, and threatened to kill him.

Coles and her son moved from Whitehorse to Watson Lake last year. She says she trusted her son would be safe and welcomed at Johnston Elementary School, but trouble began soon after he started.

Johnson Elementary School

Coles says she trusted her son would be safe and welcomed at Johnston Elementary School, but trouble began soon after he started. (Roxanne Coles)

On his second day at the school, Coles says her son was "pushed into the wall, punched by another student in the next grade up." 

The following day, she says students told her son "to move back to where he came from and he wasn't welcome."

Coles says her son became a regular target of a few children who would not stop threatening him.

One day, another parent witnessed Coles' son terrified to leave the school boot room, and informed Coles, who immediately went to pick up her son. Coles says some older children wanted to physically harm her son, and they were telling him to "get outside, where they would be waiting."

Coles says she talked to the school authorities numerous times regarding the bullying incidents, and was assured by school staff that all children involved, including her son, would be closely monitored.

But that night after the boot room incident, her son was in tears and begging, "do not let me go to school tomorrow."

Coles says she should have listened, and kept him home. But she didn't.

'A serious incident'

Within half an hour of dropping him off the next day, Coles says her phone rang. It was the school calling to tell her there had been "a serious incident."

"He put the rope around my son's neck, was tightening it and told him, 'I'm going to f--king kill you.'" - Roxanne Coles

Coles found her son sitting in the principal's office, crying. She says she also broke down in tears, feeling guilty and upset about what happened to her child.

She was informed that her son had been cornered in a storage room at the school.

"When he went into the storage room, another boy went in behind him. He had a rope. He put the rope around my son's neck, was tightening it and told him, 'I'm going to f--king kill you.'"

She says her son was extremely traumatized.

She reported the incident to RCMP, but says because the boy responsible was underage, there was not much they could do. She says police did talk to the boy, though.

Coles says there are serious holes in the education system's approach to bullying, and that's why she wants to tell her son's story.

She says in the weeks after the choking incident they went to counselling, but says no one at the school came up with a safety plan for her son. Eventually, the school provided her son with an education assistant (EA) who would help him through the rest of the year.

She says her son thought of the EA as his "bodyguard."

Coles says it made her feel sad that her son needed an EA that forced him to be segregated from his class. And she says no one at the school was prepared to deal with the bullying situation.

Coles says the Department of Education did conduct a Violence Threat Risk Assessment (VTRA), but it didn't happen until a week after the choking incident, and about three weeks after the department had a crisis training course.

Yukon Department of Education

A spokesperson for the Department of Education says bullying is taken very seriously, and there are policies in place to address it. (Yukon Department of Education)

'It would be hard to think clearly'

Eventually, Coles reached out to Yukon's Child and Youth Advocate, and that's when things started to happen.

Annette King, who is the Yukon Child and Youth Advocate, says she can't talk about individual cases. But she is familiar with school bullying in the territory.

"When children don't feel safe at school, they have a hard time learning. As you can imagine, it would be hard to think clearly when you are feeling threatened," said King.

Annette King

'When children don't feel safe at school, they have a hard time learning,' says Annette King, Yukon's Child and Youth Advocate. (Yukon Child and Youth Advocate Office)

She also says there are counsellors available in every Yukon community.

But Coles says school officials never told her about counselling services, until after she spoke to King.

Jason Mackey, a communications and policy analyst with the Department of Education, also could not speak to Coles' specific case, but said the department does take bullying seriously.

"We do supply that ongoing support, ongoing training to our teachers to help them reinforce positive behaviours in their schools," he said.

"Any incidence of bullying in schools is a serious matter, and the department has in place the proactive approaches we need to promote positive student behavior. We have policies in place that students and staff follow, safe learning environments, and processes to respond when incidents of bullying do occur."

Coles says her son is doing a lot better this year. Two kids that bullied him last year are no longer at the school.

But she's still bothered by what her son had to go through.

"My children, along with every other child, have a right to an education in a safe environment," she said.

"As a single mother, this has been a very stressful topic for me and it has taken a lot of fight out of me. But I won't back down when it comes to my children."