Kitchener-Waterloo

Fergus, Ont., teen stands up against school bullying, community hate through Kindness Pledge

A Fergus, Ont., high school student is urging her community to be kinder and more inclusive following a series of bullying incidents at her school.

School says assault incident brought 'issues of transphobia and homophobia to the forefront'

Fergus, Ont., student Abby Graham, 17, launched a Kindness Pledge on Jan. 19 that asks people to commit to bettering their community. (Upper Grand District School Board)

A Fergus, Ont., high school student is urging her community to be kinder and more inclusive following a series of bullying incidents at her school.

Abby Graham, a Centre Wellington District High School student, said the start of 2021-22 classes was awful because of incidents targeting marginalized students, including those who are transgender and individuals living with disabilities.

The 17-year-old said school administration and staff have appropriately responded, but she believes the incidents reflect deeper issues of hate in her broader community.

"It got me really thinking about where this hate was coming from and ... came to the realization that it had to be coming from outside sources because kids aren't born hateful," said Graham.

"So, I wanted to create something that would reach our outside community and could create a positive initiative that would bring people together and kind of pledge to make our community a more kind and inclusive environment for everyone."

Graham launched the Kindness Pledge on Jan. 19 . Since then, more than 250 individuals, 25 businesses and 10 groups, including classrooms, have already signed up.

Assault, cyber bullying

On Oct. 7, a student at Graham's school was assaulted, a spokesperson with the Upper Grand District School Board confirmed to CBC K-W in an emailed statement.

"This assault brought the issues of transphobia and homophobia to the forefront," the spokesperson said.

Several days later, another assault was reported outside of school hours. However, a subsequent investigation determined it was not an assault.

At some point, police responded to an incident and an individual was charged, a spokesperson said.

Police have been called to the high school 22 times since September 2021 for various incidents, Wellington County Ontario Provincial Police confirmed to CBC K-W.

Graham said many cyberbullying incidents also go unreported because they happen online or through text messages.

On average, about one in three girls and one in four boys are bullied, according to data from students between Grades 6 and 10 that was published in the Public Health Agency of Canada's Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study.

Motive behind incidents

Graham said she recognizes feelings of isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to student misbehaviour, but there's a bigger contributing factor.

"People like to blame it on COVID: 'Oh the kids have been locked down. They're extra aggressive.' But it kind of shocks me when people use that because ... I was in lockdown just as long as everyone else, and I'm not assaulting people. I'm not being prejudiced against certain groups."

Graham described her town as small and predominantly white. She said many people value and respect differences, but there are still some people who remain intolerant and prejudiced.

"These kids don't just come up with these ideas of hate. It has to be coming from this outside source, i.e., parents, grandparents."

Graham said taking the pledge is just the first step and education is key when it comes to making tangible change.

The pledge is broken down into three steps:

  • Reading an information package that includes educational material on inclusive language.
  • Privilege and unconscious bias.
  • Signing the pledge and taking action.

Businesses on board

The Letter M Marketing, a branding and communications agency, is among the businesses that have taken the pledge.

Doug MacMillan is co-founder of The Letter M Marketing, a branding and communications agency, which is among the businesses that have taken the pledge. (Submitted by Doug MacMillan)

Co-owner Doug MacMillan, said it's because all businesses have a responsibility to do more when it comes to social action.

"It has to be more about just … make a profit, fill the till kind of thing. We need to make sure that we are turning that back around in our community and having an awareness and understanding of what's needed around us," he said.

"We also have additional platforms. Not only are we stepping up to remind ourselves that kindness has to lead our decision-making and business, but we're reminding you too as a colleague in business, as a professional friend or just as a neighbour," he added.

MacMillan said his workplace has put up posters of the pledge and colleagues are having conversations about how they can create more inclusive communities.

Next steps

Graham hopes more people will sign the pledge. She plans to keep her website up as an educational tool, with resources for people to refer back to. She also plans to follow up with those who took the pledge and share stories about how they're acting on their commitment.

Meanwhile, the board said it's working quickly to address issues following these incidents. School staff have participated in workshops on transphobia and violence in schools. Data is also being collected to help inform on next steps.

Several events were also held, including an assembly on mental health and trauma, as well as a unity march.

In February, the board will host a virtual assembly "on helping participants recognize and intervene in these harmful dynamics, and build skills for fostering cultures of consent, gender inclusion and healthier relationships overall," a spokesperson said.

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