Family wins lawsuit over claims school board ignored son's bullying

An Ottawa teen is sharing his experience of incessant bullying at a local school after his family successfully sued the public school board for failing to take his complaints seriously enough.

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board liable for school officials' 'inaction,' court finds

Winston Karam was bullied so severely at Broadview Public School that his parents decided to homeschool him instead. The Karam family has now been awarded a financial settlement after a judge ruled school officials failed to take the teen's bullying claims seriously enough. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

An Ottawa teen is sharing his experience of incessant bullying at a local school after his family successfully sued the public school board for failing to take his complaints seriously enough.

Winston Karam suffered constant bullying at Broadview Public School during the 2011-12 academic school year — bullying so severe that his parents decided to homeschool the then Grade 7 student and enrol him in self-defence lessons.

"At first, I just thought it was play-fighting as a group ... friendly shoving and that sort of stuff," the now 16-year-old said Friday. "But then it started to get worse and worse."

'I felt like my feelings were broken'

Karam told CBC News that two other students he'd befriended at the school eventually turned on him, stuffing him into lockers, pushing him into water fountains and hurling racial slurs against him.
Broadview Public School is where Winston Karam was severely bullied during the 2011-12 academic year. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

"They were shaming me in front of others. They were trying to put me down for their own well-being," he said. "It didn't feel like they cared abut what was happening to me. I felt like my feelings were broken."

Karam said school officials knew what he was going through  — he says he met with the school's principal "five or six times" — but was told either to ignore the harassment or make different friends.

Eventually the bullying became so stressful that Karam suffered a panic attack. Soon after, Karam's family pulled him out of Broadivew.

Standard of care 'breached'

Karam's family launched legal proceedings against the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board later in 2012, and earlier this year the board was found liable for "inaction" on the part of Broadview Public School staff.

"The staff of Broadview school breached the standard of care owed to Winston Karam, the standard ... being that of a careful and prudent parent," Justice Rohan Bansie ruled in small claims court in May.

"Accordingly, the defendant, [the] Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, is liable for the inaction of the Broadview staff."

The family was awarded approximately $3,000 to cover the cost of Winston's home schooling and self-defence classes.

However, Bansie also said there was insufficient medical proof to show that Winston "suffered a physical or psychological injury" as a result of the bullying — which could have led to a larger financial penalty.

'I probably saved my kid's life'

Karam's mother Vania said she spent more than $50,000 and nearly four years taking the school board to court.

But that time and expense — especially considering other teens including Rethaeh Parsons and Jamie Hubley who were bullied and took their own lives — was worth it, she added.
Winston Karam, left, and his mother Vania spent three years and approximately $50,000 taking the Ottawa Carleton District School Board to court over allegations school officials failed to properly respond to claims Winston was being bullied. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

"If I had not stood up for my kid, and if I had not taken them to task and held somebody accountable, my kid could've been the next one," she said.

"[School boards] can be found negligent if they do not respond to complaints of bullying and protect the students who are in their care from other students who are bullying them. And that's a very important precedent."

In a statement, the OCDSB said that they "take issues of bullying very seriously" and have launched new initiatives — including professional development for staff and anti-bullying programs — since Winston Karam was bullied at Broadview.

"As a learning organization, we will be reviewing this decision in detail to help identify opportunities to improve our practice and provide further professional development," said the board's statement.

"Unfortunately, we cannot undo this experience. But we can learn from it to better support all students and families."

As for Karam, he's relieved that someone has finally acknowledged what he went through at Broadview Public School.

"To know that somebody else also understood that what I was saying was the truth, and that they believed me ... really made me happy."

With files from Ashley Burke