Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Family seeks answers after student with hearing disorder 'berated' by teacher

While a nine-month investigation into what happened to Amy Bennet at a Mahone Bay, N.S., school concluded there was an "abuse of power" by her gym teacher, her family have been told they have no right to know the report's recommendations.

Investigation finds 'abuse of power' by Nova Scotia teacher, but family told they can't see recommendations

Lisa and Amy Bennett want to see the recommendations that stemmed from the investigation into an incident last June at Bayview Community School in Mahone Bay, N.S. (Aly Thomson/CBC)

This story is a joint investigation between CBC News and CKBW Radio in Bridgewater, N.S.

Amy Bennett says her ears are still ringing more than a year after a teacher berated her for more than three minutes in the main hallway of a school on Nova Scotia's South Shore, as several adults watched and did nothing.

The 13-year-old girl has an auditory processing disorder that makes her sensitive to certain loud noises, and her family fears the traumatic June 4, 2018, incident at Bayview Community School in Mahone Bay, N.S., caused permanent damage.

"I was angry and I was scared … I thought he was going to hurt me," said Amy, sitting next to her mother at a kitchen table during a recent interview inside their rural home near the school.

"I didn't know what just happened. I basically just started crying and my ears … just started ringing."

But while a nine-month investigation concluded there was an "abuse of power" by the teacher and a "lack of appropriate response" by other adults, the Bennett family have been told they have no right to know any of the report's recommendations or even if the teacher was disciplined.

A May 14 letter to the Bennett family from the school division, the South Shore Regional Centre for Education, said the findings are being kept confidential as it is of "a human resource nature."

Amy Bennett says she felt scared and angry after the incident with her gym teacher at Bayview Community School. (CBC)

Amy's mother said that means neither the school nor the teacher can be held accountable.

"What do we have to go by that they're actually going to do that and that there's accountability for folks who dropped the ball on so many levels?" said Lisa Bennett, becoming emotional at times during the interview.

"It's mind boggling and very frustrating. What's a parent to do when you go through and do all the steps that they tell you that you're supposed to do and you still don't have those answers? How can you have closure?"

Emails obtained through access-to-information legislation show that in the months leading up to the incident, Amy was dealing with a fellow student periodically yelling into her hearing aid.

The device is equipped with a transmitter so that while Amy is in class, she's able to hear what the teacher is saying.

Amy Bennett wears a hearing aid equipped with a transmitter so that while she is in class, she's able to hear what the teacher is saying. (CBC)

Amy's parents sent an email on Jan. 4, 2018, to Craig Pottie, the principal of Bayview Community School at the time, asking if the school was taking steps to deal with the situation.

The email noted that yelling into the device can cause permanent damage.

Amy's family doctor then wrote Pottie detailing her hearing issues and the potential risks associated with it.

"Abnormally loud sounds carry the risk of producing noise-induced hearing loss," the doctor wrote in the March 1, 2018, letter. "I believe this is a potentially dangerous situation and some type of remedial action will be required before serious harm is done."

Bayview Community School would not comment due to privacy concerns. (CBC)

On June 4, 2018, Amy was in gym class and was not feeling well. She said her teacher was busy with another student, so she told the teaching assistant she was going to the washroom.

She was admittedly there for some time, and then the bell rang to change classes, so she did not go back to the gymnasium.

That's when gym teacher Fred Forsyth confronted her and a few other students in the hallway, accusing her of skipping class. 

The then-Grade 7 student said when she tried to explain herself, he told her to "shut up."

"He was kind of leaning towards us more and more and I just kept on leaning towards him," said Amy.

"I didn't want to lean back because I didn't know what was going to happen, so I just stood my ground basically … There were a lot of teachers watching when it happened and no one actually did anything to stop him."

'Berated for more than three minutes'

The entire incident was captured on the school's surveillance video.

One email from the human resources director who investigated the incident noted Amy was "berated for more than three minutes in the main hallway of the school," and that the teacher was "animated" and "loud."

Lisa Bennett said she was not informed about the episode by the school's administration. A support worker who was nearby in the hallway called her roughly three hours later and told her what had happened.

She said that went against multiple school code-of-conduct policies, including one that states unacceptable behaviour will be responded to immediately.

The mother eventually watched the video of the incident, which was also witnessed by young children on a recess. She described it as "the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life."

An inspirational quote is shown on Amy Bennett's bedroom door. (CBC)

"That was an eye-opener as a parent, when you have so many people looking on and not stepping in when they're in a position of trust," she said, pausing to compose herself.

"They're paid to be there. They're paid to educate and protect our kids, and not one person stepped up to intervene, and the school did not call me."

Forsyth privately apologized to Amy the next day. But the Bennetts wanted a public apology, given the incident played out publicly, and also repeatedly asked for a restorative justice process. Neither have happened.

In an email, Forsyth said he would not comment on private and confidential matters involving students.

The Bennetts believe the incident has caused permanent damage.

Notes taken by Amy's family doctor show she reported tinnitus ⁠— ringing in the ears ⁠— during regular checkups between June 15, 2018, and Feb. 7.

Bennett's allegations were founded

Amy — who plays soccer, karate and trumpet — was traumatized by the ordeal. She didn't feel comfortable going to gym class, and her mother would sometimes sit in her car in the parking lot of the school in case Amy needed to leave.

Lamar Eason, who was the South Shore Regional Centre for Education's human rights co-ordinator at the time, was assigned to offer supports for Amy following the ordeal, said Lisa Bennett.

But Amy said Eason, now the principal of Bayview, did not offer assistance: "He never actually even said a word to me."

Eason did not respond to a request for comment.

The Bennetts filed formal complaints against Eason, Pottie and Forsyth on Aug. 27, 2018. But the family would not receive a reply for nearly nine months.

"The allegations you raised were founded," said a May 14 letter from the regional centre. "There was an abuse of power by a teacher and a lack of appropriate response by the adults who observed the incident and chose not to respond."

Officials declined interview requests

The letter said there were "a number of recommendations which are applicable to individuals and also to the system as a whole." It said all the recommendations were accepted, but would not be shared.

Paul Ash, the centre's regional executive director, declined a request for an interview.

An email statement from his executive assistant said the organization does not discuss human resources or personnel matters due to "confidentiality and student privacy."

Pottie, now vice-principal of Bayview, also said he could not comment due to privacy concerns.

Unable to cope with the incident at Bayview, Amy transferred to a new school for the following school year. 

She wrote a letter to Education Minister Zach Churchill on June 1, asking to meet with him and saying she feels much safer at her new school.

Amy Bennett wrote a letter to Education Minister Zach Churchill on June 1, asking to meet with him. She has not yet received a reply. (CBC)

"I want to know, please, why I'm the one that has to move schools when he is still there, that after meeting with the investigator and everything proven to be true, that nothing has changed," Amy said, reading her letter aloud.

Amy received a reply from Churchill Thursday evening. He thanked her for sharing her story, but declined to meet with her.

Churchill also declined CBC's request for an interview. An email statement from the Education Department said it could not comment on the matter due to the "confidential and personal nature of the circumstances and information."

"Anytime a school receives a complaint from a student, parent or member of the school community it is taken seriously," the statement said.

"The department works very closely with the regions to ensure that the right policies and procedures are in place. Our role is to ensure those processes are implemented and followed properly. If there are issues, we take action."

The Bennetts believe their case was not taken seriously by staff at Bayview, and the way it was handled illustrates a pattern of incompetence.

"That was the main reason she transferred, to remove herself from that situation," said Lisa Bennett.

"[She transferred] so she would feel safe, so we would know she was safe, and so when things happen, because they do, that they would be dealt with with respect, dignity, and parents would be notified."