Calgary·Q&A

Anti-bullying expert says if a school doesn't create a safe environment, call a lawyer

Former Saskatoon police officer Brian Trainor says that if a principal doesn't ensure that students have a safe environment, parents can — and should — sue.

'The principal is the boss of that school,' says former police officer Brian Trainor

Former Saskatoon police officer Brian Trainor now lectures about bullying in schools. (CBC)

Calgarians were shocked recently at the news that nine-year-old Amal Alshteiwi took her life after bullying at her northeast Calgary school reportedly went unchecked for months.

That was followed by a second Calgary family coming forward, saying their daughters were bullied at the same school, and that the school had taken no action to prevent it. 

The family eventually switched schools.

Brian Trainor is a former Saskatoon police officer who has been speaking about bullying for more than 20 years. He spoke to CBC's Rob Brown on Wednesday.

Q: How rare is it for a nine-year-old to commit suicide?

A. That is rare, nine years old. I just can't imagine it happening. I speak a lot at First Nations schools on reserves in northern Saskatchewan and northern Alberta, and we've had some suicide crises on some of the reserves, but not as young as nine.

Q: What do you think about how the school has handled the situation?

A. The situation involving the parents that are complaining about their two girls being harassed and bullied a short while ago where they had to change schools is disturbing but not uncommon, unfortunately.

I've heard and seen it and sometimes parents think that's the only recourse available.

And in many instances, that's probably the easiest solution to the problem, but there are other recourses available for parents with children who are bullied.

Amal Alshteiwi, 9, took her own life at her northeast home in March. Her parents say the school and Calgary Board of Education downplayed the bullying and ignored the problem. (Nasra Abdulrahman)

Q: Technically, who's responsible when something like that happens? The principal? School board?

A. The principal is the boss of that school. If you think in broader terms, the children are almost workers or employees going to a place of business and the principal is the boss.

It's up to the principal to provide a safe, caring, responsible school that is also welcoming. A lot of workplace situations where such an environment doesn't take place are open to all kinds of legal issues and legal problems.

Q: Where do you see this story going?

A: The thing people don't understand is there's a history in Canada going back to 2010 or before where parents have sued school boards civilly for not providing a safe and welcoming environment for their students.

All a person has to do is type into Google, "Canadian school boards sued for bullying," and you'll find a wealth of information where school boards — a lot in Ontario — have actually been sued successfully. They were sued in small claims court by parents … who have gone to the principal and they've complained and complained and nothing's happened and they got fed up and went to court.

Warimu, left, and Wangui, right, were bullied for months but multiple complaints to the school weren’t taken seriously, says their mother, Nancy Kamau. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

Q: The board in Calgary has initiated an independent review of its processes and policies related to student safety in school. What do you think of that approach?

A. It's a good idea. Sure, they can review it. They just did an amendment to the Alberta School Act and came in there with Section 45.1, which is the responsibility of boards and schools. The responsibility says that it is to ensure access to a welcoming, caring, respectful, safe learning environment and that it requires an intentional focus on the environment of the school. Simply having processes and consequences in place is no longer enough.

Anti-bullying programs alone are not enough. Creating and maintaining a safe, caring, environment is required.

That's where I think maybe this school needs to take a step forward.

Q: What's your advice for parents?

A. I would go to the principal and face them. I would not be phoning and leaving messages. I would be in there, pointing my finger in the middle of the desk. Maybe a little thumping, and saying I want some answers here or the next option is to go see a lawyer. And that might just be enough to get you some action.


With files from Rob Brown, CBC News.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca

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