Parents in Waterloo, Ont., have a new legal weapon in the fight against bullying - the Small Claims Court.
In using it, they have their local school boards firmly locked in the crosshairs.
In February, a mother sued the Waterloo Catholic District School Board for $25,000 in damages, alleging it had failed to protect her son from bullies.
After the school board settled the claim, three more parents came forward with lawsuits against it, the Waterloo Region District School Board, and a private school in the area.
A Facebook group for concerned parents, titled “Is Your Child Protected?” has attracted almost 500 members. Its founder Suzanne Borghese embraces the Small Claims Court, for which the limit increased to $25,000 this year, as an inexpensive and effective way to challenge anti-bullying programs she says aren’t working.
“Start your own case against your school board and know that because you are right, you will win,” she wrote on a discussion board.
John Shewchuk, spokesman for the Waterloo Catholic board, said he fears a flood of similar actions from parents bypassing school board procedures.
“We want to raise an alarm bell with the government . . . we think they’ve got a bit of a problem on their hands,” he told the Record newspaper. “I think we’re going to see a whole lot more of this as people understand that you can go and pay your 75 bucks and sue a school board and you might just hit the jackpot.”
Bill Mason, a former paralegal who worked with the first mother to sue, dismissed the idea that parents are in it for the money. Instead, noting he has assisted 15 more parents preparing to file suits in the next two weeks, he says Shewchuk’s combative words have incensed many people.
“These parents have already run the gauntlet of teachers, principals, and trustees. They’ve exhausted all other options. Even if the small claims limit was $1, these parents would have filed. No judge on the planet is going to award them $25,000, but they will get something.”
He also rejects the idea that the surge of suits could encourage a wave of frivolous claims from parents looking to cash in.
“We have extremely good judges and deputies in this country, and they have the chance to throw cases out before they go to trial, so I have no concern at all about that,” he says.
Brenda Bowlby, a partner at Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP, has worked with school boards for almost 30 years. She says they face a difficult balancing act when dealing with bullies and victims because of the duty of care they owe to both parties to act as a “reasonably careful or prudent parent.”
“If you’re a parent with two children, and one is mistreating the other, you don’t lambaste one and throw them out. There is an obligation to every child to provide them the opportunity to become good citizens, although that’s not to say that any child should have to put up with bullying. They shouldn’t.”
For some bullies, a difficult home life or possible mental health issues can play a role in their behaviour. The need to protect the child’s privacy adds another layer of complexity to the school board’s task, Bowlby says.
“Parents may believe incidents are not being dealt with when in fact they are. The kid may not be expelled or suspended, but the school could be working quietly behind the scenes to change a child’s behaviour with as little intrusion as possible. Of course, that will make parents frustrated and unhappy when they can’t find out about every threat to their child.”
The government hopes a recent amendment to the Education Act will help combat the perception that school boards are keeping parents in the dark. Bill 157, the Education Amendment Act (Keeping Our Kids Safe at School) was passed in the summer but only came into effect in February.
It requires all board employees to report bullying incidents to the principal, who in turn must inform the victim’s parents.
When disputes arise, the Ministry of Education would prefer they stay out of the courts.
“The concerns of students and parents are best resolved at the school or board level. There are many avenues for parents to bring their concerns forward through individual teachers, principals, supervisory officers, board staff or elected trustees,” says Gary Wheeler, a spokesman for the ministry.
Mason hopes the new rules will improve the relationship between school boards and parents but he remains skeptical.
“It’s an outstanding bill, but I’ve seen great bills in the past. It’s just a book unless it’s practised and enforced. That’s what the trustees and the school board are there to do.”