Parents vent frustration and fears during first HWDSB bullying review session
Devan Selvey's mother says panel appears 'headed in the right direction'
The anger and frustration that has been brewing since Devan Selvey's death boiled over Wednesday during the first public session organized by the panel charged with reviewing how Hamilton's public school board handles bullying.
Parents stood up, one by one, in the Westmount Secondary School cafeteria to describe what their children have endured, venting months-worth of fears and tension before a crowd of about 90, many of whom felt the same way.
It was a hijacking of the carefully laid plans of the KOJO Institute, a consultant firm called in to support the experts and left panelists suggesting a different format for the meetings moving forward.
The idea was for crowds to sit around tables and work in small groups where they'd discuss the three areas of focus for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's (HWDSB) review: prevention/intervention, reporting and responding.
But it quickly became clear those in attendance weren't satisfied by the approach.
"How many people's kids have not been listened to?" asked a woman named Suzi Spelic.
Hands shot up across the room.
"With all due respect, I don't want to write it on a paper anymore," she continued. "Everything you're asking every single person [here] has already written it on a piece of paper."
Among those who spoke out was Shari-Ann Selvey, Devan's mother, who held him as he died after being stabbed behind Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School on Oct. 7.
The 14-year-old's death was the incident that spearheaded the review, said Dr. Jean Clinton, one of the three panelists leading the effort.
"We're here so no other family has to go through what Devan's family did," she explained.
Tears streamed down Selvey's face as she listened, clutching the hand of a supporter next to her.
The mother was wearing a purple sweater bearing a picture of her son and around her neck was a dolphin pendant holding some of her son's ashes.
"I just hope I'm doing him justice," she said before the meeting, fighting back tears.
"I have to not only be Devan's voice, but I have to make sure it never happens to another child and it never happens to another family. We have to start protecting our children and it takes everybody to protect them not just one parent."
During the session Selvey spoke about the long term effect bullying can have on a child.
She read a post written by her daughter, Devan's older sister, and spoke about the pain and suffering she said she dealt with while studying at Churchill, saying principals and teachers didn't pay attention to what was happening.
"Can you imagine the nightmares this child has? On top of that she has to grieve her brother," said Selvey. "It happened to him and he didn't survive it. How many other kids are sitting there thinking the same thing?"
Format to change after first meeting
The meeting was the first of 15 sessions planned to take place across the city in the coming months to help the experts gather feedback which will be presented to the board in May.
But, following the response to Wednesday's gathering, Clinton said there's "no question at all" that a different format will be used moving forward.
"This group of parents have very clearly said 'We want our stories, our voices, our wisdom known," she explained. "It's not about policies and procedures. It's about actions."
Among the principle concerns shared by those in attendance were questions about what is being done right now to fight back against bullying.
"How long do we have to wait until something is done?" asked a woman named Jennifer Vermeer. "We need immediate reaction so no children die while we're waiting for a panel."
The panel's mandate is to respond in May, and they can't prematurely direct the board what to do, said Clinton. But they're already gathering feedback and will pass it along to the HWDSB.
She added it's clear students and parents are hurting.
"They're angry, they're frustrated and they have great ideas about solutions. So we need to have the courage to listen and put those ideas forward."
CBC spoke with two of the panelists ahead of the session:
Parents want more than lip service
Despite the rebellion against the intended format, many people did make use of coloured markers left on the tables, filling large sheets of paper with ideas.
Among the suggestions were better accessibility to administrators, holding staff accountable for following reporting procedures, police or security in school, a strategy to take on racism and a clearer timeline for when parents who raise concerns can expect to hear back.
Several parents also brought up victim blaming, saying despite the fact their child was the target of bullying, they were often the one who faced consequences.
Emerson Edwards, a Grade 12 student, said he had been bullied for years, to the point he tried to take his own life.
He called for the board to provide better therapeutic services to both victims and their bullies.
Many people shared emotionally-charged personal stories about what their children have endured from name calling and beatings to assaults and online abuse.
Parents described contacting teachers and principals time and again, only to feel unheard or that the response they received didn't go beyond lip service.
After the meeting Shari-Ann said she was heartened by what she heard.
"I think they're headed in the right direction," she said, quickly adding that enforcement is key and that bullying is still going on at Hamilton's schools, including Churchill.
"They have to follow through. People need to be held accountable. We all have to be a part of the solution."