British Columbia

School officials failed to stop harassment of transgender teen by 'pack-like' bullies, parents say

The parents of a transgender student in Kelowna have pulled their 13-year-old child out of a public school, saying district officials failed to stop ongoing, targeted harassment from other students.

Parents pulled 13-year-old out of Kelowna middle school after months of negotiations with officials

Melanie Willson said she pulled her child out of a Kelowna middle school after they faced months of torment from large groups of boys. (Chris Walker/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.


The parents of a transgender child in Kelowna, B.C., have pulled their 13-year-old out of middle school after the student was repeatedly bullied and harassed, despite promises from officials to address the situation.

Melanie Willson and the child's father made the decision to remove Taylor — not their real name — from Grade 7 at École K.L.O. Middle School after what they describe as months of torment from groups of boys.

"There would be large groups of boys standing around in circles … barking and jeering, and at times yelling things like 'kill yourself,'" said Willson.

"The implication is, 'You're a dog, you're not conventionally attractive like you're supposed to be.' It's a judgment on physical attractiveness, but done in a pack-like behaviour, which is kind of awful."

While Taylor has independently consented to coverage of their story, CBC is not using their real name in consideration of their age and in order to protect their privacy.

School response

Willson says the decision to remove her child from school came after months of negotiating solutions with teachers and administrators. 

Taylor's parents temporarily took them out of school in March while seeking changes following several incidents of bullying.

Taylor tried returning in early April, at which point they were once again surrounded and harassed, Willson said. 

"They actually ran away from school that day," she said.

Correspondence provided to CBC by Taylor's parents show extensive consultation with school officials on how to respond to the problem.

In early April, the school's principal agreed to several requests, including moving Taylor to another class, and not interviewing Taylor about the harassment without a trusted adult present.

However, when it came to explaining exactly how the school was holding students accountable for the bullying, the school would not say, citing privacy regulations.

A file picture of a trans Pride flag. A 2021 study from UBC found more than 80 per cent of transgender boys and 60 per cent of transgender girls had been bullied in the previous year. (Travis Kingdon/CBC)

"We hope you will understand that we do not share our private conversations with students and their families to other families," the letter to Willson reads.

"The focus of our consequences is based on continuous learning and support for all learners." 

Failure to apologize

Documents show the situation culminated in a meeting held April 12 that included Taylor, their parents and seven school officials.

Willson says Taylor used the meeting as an opportunity to ask the school to apologize for failing to stop the bullying.

"Taylor said so clearly and so bravely that they really wanted the school to acknowledge the abuse and acknowledge the frequency and intensity of the abuse," Willson said.

And although Willson says her family felt "well supported" during that meeting, the officials didn't apologize. 

"I think we really saw that the school was not recognizing the severity of the issue. They didn't take up Taylor's request for an apology," Willson said.

After that, Taylor's parents decided to start homeschooling.

"We didn't trust that the school could manage this," Willson said. "They've repeatedly asked us to trust them, but their responses haven't worked."

'These are hate crimes'

In a phone call, a spokesperson for the Kelowna school district discouraged the CBC from reporting this story, citing concerns over Taylor's privacy. 

The spokesperson later provided an email from School District 23 superintendent Kevin Kaardal outlining the district's policies toward harassment and bullying. 

"School staff work hard to develop inclusive cultures, with a deep understanding and respect for the student code of conduct," the statement reads. 

"Some students struggle to meet these expectations, and there are supports for that, including school-based behaviour intervention teams and the district's social emotional learning team."

Carrie Broughton, the founder of a support group for parents of trans, gender-diverse and two-spirit people in the Okanagan, says educators need to make a special effort to protect children like Taylor and to take effective action when their safety is compromised.

"We know that trans and gender-diverse kids are targets of bullying, harassment and abuse at way higher rates than their peers," she said. "These are hate crimes, these are violations of human rights, and it is not normal teasing.

"I believe the district has an obligation to respect and enforce the human rights of all their students." 

A 2021 study from researchers at the University of British Columbia and the McCreary Centre Society found that more than 80 per cent of transgender boys had been bullied in the previous year, as had 60 per cent of transgender girls and 70 per cent of non-binary children.


Support and resources are available for those who have experienced bullying, harassment or abuse, including:

To learn more about gender identity, listen to They & Us, an award-winning CBC podcast that explores first-person stories of transgender and non-binary Canadians, available now on CBC ListenApple Podcasts and Spotify.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated that Taylor returned to school following a meeting with school administrators. The story has been updated to clarify that Taylor's parents removed them from school prior to the meeting.
    May 05, 2022 10:13 AM PT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Walker is a journalist based in Kelowna, B.C. He is the host of the morning radio show Daybreak South.

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