A Winnipeg mother has taken severe steps — including filing a police report and keeping her elementary schoolers at home — to address a student’s violent threats towards one of her daughters, citing insufficient intervention at the hands of educators.
Samantha Kuzyk told the Free Press she is not sending her Grade 3 twins back to École Margaret-Underhill until she is confident about their physical and emotional well-being in the River East Transcona School Division.
"Enough is enough. How many death threats does a kid need to get in one year or threats of violence (before serious action is taken)?" said Kuzyk, a youth care worker in the public school system.
Since the start of the 2021-22 academic year, one of Kuzyk’s eight-year-olds, who was previously bullied in Grade 2 and has self-esteem issues as a result, has reported ongoing tormenting at the hands of one particular peer.
What began as occasional insults has escalated into violent threats and physical altercations, according to her mother.
One of the first serious incidents Kuzyk said she learned about from her daughter was a bully had told her "to stop rolling in the snow or he was going to punch her in the vagina" in the wintertime. Since then, the mother said the behaviour has been worsening and it is not uncommon for her daughter to cry about incidents, such as threats of stabbing, after school.
Last week, after two incidents less than 72 hours — the second of which involved the bully allegedly telling Kuzyk’s third-grader he was going to stab her and "write death letters with her blood," the mother said her frustration reached a breaking point.
The intensifying acts suggest the student thinks he can get away with it, she said, adding the issues and minor consequences in response demonstrate to others what is tolerated in class and on the playground.
The protective parent said she has requested the school record every incident, take the bullying acts more seriously, and issue age-appropriate consequences for the perpetrator — for example, taking away recess privileges or moving him to another room, at least temporarily.
Kuzyk said she is frustrated school staff continue to cite confidentiality as the reason they cannot disclose how they are handling the matter.
"I want to know what they’re doing to keep my kids safe and what consequences there are. I’m not asking where he lives or what assessments he’s had," she said.
A division spokesperson said RETSD is following its policies regarding harassment and bullying, with specific interventions for those involved in this situation.
"We take reports of bullying very seriously and deal with them in a timely way, with care and sensitivity. To protect the identities of the students involved, we will not comment further," Amanda Gaudes, senior communications co-ordinator, said in an email Tuesday.
In a follow-up email Wednesday, Gaudes said immediate action was taken in this case, the division is supporting all students involved, and a comprehensive plan, which will be shared with guardians, has been developed.
The RETSD code of conduct states the division applies a wide range of consequences for inappropriate behaviour, depending on the severity of an incident, the frequency of behaviour, and "the diverse needs of the student." Consequences can range from behavioural agreements to detention to the removal of privileges such as playground access.
Private emails reviewed by the Free Press suggest Kuzyk’s daughter is not the only student in her class who has been a victim of bullying from this particular perpetrator.
Correspondence dating to December indicates a teacher sent a male child to the office after he hit Kuzyk’s daughter, alerted his parents, and moved the victim to the other side of their shared classroom. At the time, the educator told Kuzyk she would try to limit partnering between the two students.
The teacher reached out to Kuzyk via email again May 10 to say a student wrote an apology note to her daughter, after an incident where he was stomping and said "I am stepping on you." Threats towards the girl and other students are being taken "more seriously" and "outside supports" are now in place, the educator noted.
On May 12, Kuzyk said she received a call from a school administrator about a "minor incident" she later learned from her daughter was a death threat. That’s when the mother, who said she is worried the bully could act on threats with a sharp pencil or another potential weapon, decided to contact the Winnipeg Police Service and keep her children at home.
By the end of the school day Wednesday, she had still not heard from RETSD about an action plan to address the situation since she pulled her children from classes. Kuzyk’s twins have missed almost a full week of school already due to safety concerns.
That is far too long, as far as a Canada Research Chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention is concerned.
Tracy Vaillancourt, a professor at the University of Ottawa, said bullying is complex because all students have important rights and perpetrators may be struggling with private issues. The problem in this case is a bully’s rights appear to be trumping a victim’s rights, to both an education and environment free from oppression, humiliation and cruelty, said Vaillancourt, who studies aggression, bullying and mental health.
"The onus should not be on the kid who’s being targeted to have to leave the classroom or leave the school. The school needs to do more… because, obviously, this is pretty extreme. This kid is distressed and she has a right to be," she said Wednesday, during a phone call from Ottawa.
There are clear rules for teachers in Ontario — which Vaillacourt called an international leader in bullying intervention protocols — that require incidents to be reported to a principal in a timely fashion and an educator to separate the children involved. The principal must then inform all sets of parents about the situation, implement monitoring and enact a progressive disciplinary plan.
Const. Jay Murray, a public information officer, confirmed local police have investigated Kuzyk’s report.
Officers have spoken with involved parties and issued a referral to Turnabout, a provincial prevention program that provides children under 12 with support to avoid conflict with the law, Murray said.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.