'We have students that are terrified': 6 questions about HWDSB's anti-bullying review

Questions remain about who will be on the bullying review panel, what the board is doing to combat bullying now and whether the family of Devan Bracci-Selvey will be involved in any way.

An independent 3-person panel will review how the board handles bullying

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board director of education, Manny Figueiredo, and chair Alex Johnstone speak with media before the meeting where the board voted in favour of setting up a bullying review panel. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) has voted unanimously to set up an independent panel to review how it handles bullying.

But questions remain about who will be on the panel, what the board is doing to keep students safe right now and whether the family of Devan Bracci-Selvey — the 14-year-old whose stabbing death led to bullying concerns in the school community — will be involved in any way.

Here's a look at six takeaways from Monday's board meeting.

What are trustees hearing from families?

Board vice-chair and Ward 7 representative Dawn Danko said the HWDSB has heard "significant concerns" about bullying and violence since Devan's death.

Her comments were echoed by Ward 6 trustee Kathy Archer who said she's been speaking with parents daily who are concerned about sending their kids to class.

"We have students that are terrified to go to school right now," she said. "It just breaks my heart."

What is the board doing right now?

Several trustees asked what the board is doing while the review is still in its early stages.

"This meeting has been a long time coming," said Christine Bingham, trustee for Wards 1 and 2, later adding "What are we doing right now in our schools?"

Figueiredo acknowledged the board has seen an increase in the number of bullying reports and said the HWDSB is continuing to work with social workers to address "complex issues" in schools.

Manny Figueiredo, director of eduction for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School board speaks during Monday's meeting. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Sharon Stephanian, superintendent of equity and well-being for the board, said 30 social workers are deployed across the board's schools and stressed the importance of families and schools working together to take on bullying.

She also pointed to the board's anonymous tipline where calls, texts or emails can be used to report bullying and said all staff are expected to respond to bullying in the moment and report it afterwards to the administration.

What if students are being bullied by staff?

During the meeting, Ward 3 trustee Maria Felix Miller said bullying can sometimes go beyond student-on-student conflict.

"Will the panel be considering if a student is feeling that the bully is an actual staff member?" she asked, receiving a murmur of support from the crowded gallery.

Figueiredo responded by saying if that's the case, he would encourage the victims to report it as soon as possible.

"If there's any form of bullying, I would say students experiencing it now [with] one of our staff members, I would encourage them not to wait for the panel, but to report it to an adult, to an administrator right away."

Who will be on the panel?

Who exactly will make up the three-person panel is one question left unanswered after the board meeting.

Figueiredo said he believes they should be from Hamilton and be independent of the board, but have some knowledge of its operations.

He added the panelists will need skills and knowledge in areas including equity and mental health lead a review of how the board deals with bullying incidents.

The panel will work with specialists including Tracy Vaillancourt, a violence prevention and bullying expert at the University of Ottawa, and Dr. Kathy Short, director of a provincial team designed to help Ontario boards support student mental health and well-being.

Students, guardians and community organizations will also be asked for their input.

"Everyone who wants to be involved, we want you to be involved," said HWDSB Chair Alex Johnstone.

What about the Selvey family?

Shari-Ann Selvey, Devan's mom, said she didn't know about the meeting until she was told about it by a friend.

But when the board gathered she was in the crowd, along with a group of supporters.

Before it began, she told CBC, she was trying to remain positive and urged the board to come up with a plan that would actually bring change.

"I want them to follow through with it and for them to make a difference. I don't want this to happen to another kid."

The Hamilton school board is looking at ways to address bullying three weeks after Devan Bracci-Selvey was stabbed to death at school after being bullied in the weeks before he was attacked. 2:03

When asked before the meeting about Selvey and whether the board has reached out to her in any way, Figueiredo said he was aware she was in the building, but "our plan is a response to the broader community."

Selvey left the meeting upset, with supporters saying she had expected to be able to speak to the board.

In a statement sent to CBC Tuesday, Johnstone said Selvey was invited to attend the meeting to hear about the board's review, adding the HWDSB regrets if there was any miscommunication.

"We wanted to respect the family's privacy but welcome their input whenever they were ready, including through the panel process," she wrote.

When can the board expect to hear back?

The initial deadline to hear back from the panel was no later than May 31.

On Monday it was decided the board will receive updates in December and March to find out if more time is required.

When asked if the board will commit to implementing all recommendations, Johnstone said "As the chair of the board, absolutely, yes."

Shari-Ann Selvey, Devan's mother, brushes away a tear during the board meeting. (Dan Taekema/CBC)