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Small claims rules prompt lawsuits against local school boards

|Written By Michael McKiernan

Parents in Waterloo, Ont., have a new legal weapon in the fight against bullying - the Small Claims Court.

The bullying issue is a tricky one for school boards that owe a duty of care to both sides, says Brenda Bowlby.

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.”

  • Amit K
    To the comments above, and to the people who believe that teachers are the problem - in many cases they are not. My dad is a supply teacher. He has been for 15 years. Approximately a month ago he was in a classroom that had two disruptive kids that were misbehaving and bullying another child. My dad simple told the kids to stop and separated them in the class. Two weeks later, my dad gets a call from the Principle that a complaint had been launched against him and he was unable to receive any more assignments or go on school property until it had been investigated further. Furthermore, he was informed to expect a call from CAS and the police. My dad sat at home for over two weeks not knowing what he did. This man has been teaching all this life. He loves it. Now he was sitting at home depressed at the situation. Two weeks later, he gets a call that CAS and the police completed the investigation and he did nothing wrong. This is what the system has done to teachers. They are afraid!
  • Megan N
    My son is in grade 1. and he has 2 bullies. One swears at him and calls him name. the other one has tripped him and dragged him threw mud, he has kicked him and has threatened to fight him, sending my son running away from them for his whole recess. my son came to me to tell me so i fix it. So far the teacher has given all 3 boys the same punishment. Pricipal and Teacher both saying kids this age dont know waht bullying is and that my son is just as responsible as those other two boys. I have a meeting with the pricipal today and after this then i will be going up to the board level. SO far bullying policy and the bill are just words on paper. no one wants to help my son. and its not safe for him to go there.
  • Sandra
    The issue of child abuse in Canada appears to be a part of the school culture. Parents are bullied into silence when they complain about abuse. It is usually the child who is lying. This is in itself abuse, when you dont believe a child or call that child a liar what message are we sending? The abuse/bullying in schools is at a crises point. The School board often threaten parents with child protective services and this shuts them up. Fighting the system is a very lonely game and so we need to support one another. need support? Collectively we can make a change.
  • DB
    Blame not the schools but the Teachers Unions. They have gone above and beyond to protect the teachers and membership to little if anything to prevent bullying. The teachers do not want to deal with it because of liability issues and "NEVER" do they ever bring the parents of the childern together to discuss what's happening because it makes them look irresponsible.

    The "simplest" solution is to get all parties together with the kids and discuss the issue and determine the simple solution that child "A" must desist from this behaviour or there are serious consequences at school and at home.
    No Parent(s) can afford to continually take time away from work, to constantly run to the school and deal with the issue. They will make sure their child does not continue as it cost time and money away from their work to deal with this. It's is solved immediately. The schools do not want to deal with all the adults thus avoid bringing the parents together.
  • m. russell
    My son (11) was forced by the Principal at Abbey School, Saskatchewan to eat his lunch or not be allowed to play outside. He rarely eats lunch as his medication curbs his appetite. He was forced to tell this to the principal in front of his class. She also rummaged through his lunch shoving articles in his face saying "you can eat this". I immediately contacted the Superintendent and pulled him out of school until I got an apology. The Super. took 2 days to respond then told me the next day that her investigation (a chat with the Principal) yeilded no wrongdoing. When I demanded the Principal be reprimanded she said not unless there were other complaints. After which several parents told me similar stories. I pushed back more up to the board but only got lip service. The Super even threatened to report me the Social Services bc my son was being home schooled even though I was schooling him, have an MEd. and was working on his school plan. I am going to sue now and Human rights too.
  • Revictimized by principal

    I completely understand... Last year our son was in gr 6 and was bullied to the point where his coat was lit on fire. The size of two fits, (he was not in his coat at the time). The principal did not call me, the school had my son put his coat on and ware it outside for recess and then home. When I asked her why she did not call me, her respons was "I was tobogganing with a student" Towards the end of the year my son tried to fight back. The principal tried to make my son apologize to his attacker for hitting him back. It has started again this year.
  • abuse in the school system

    I understand what they went through My son who is Autistic was locked in a closet at his school on several occasions and when brough it to the school boards attention nothing was done. Stating it happen last year and they wouldn't be able to investigate it now. The teacher is still working at my son's school. I am looking at changing schools but there is very little option in my community. What can I do?
  • m. russell
    your story is similar to mine...When I complained I was threatended with a visit from Child Welfare! Sickening!
  • Angela
    It does state that the Human Rights complaint will only file complaints up to six months, but I am sure it also states that they can go farther back depending on the situation. If they won`t then jump all over the next issue and they can use what has happened in the past in your defence
  • Threats and extorsion

    Gary H. Parker
    Im also having problems with Stayner Collegiate Institute and a boy there who has threaten my son with bodily harm and then has tried to extort $50 from him not to beat him up. I told the vice principal and my sone has written a complaint but nothing has been done about it, My sone fears for his safety and is reluctent to attend school. This school has a huge bullying problem. I dont know what else to do cause no one seems to want to listen or do anything. Am I suposed to wait till he is beat by this kid? Im a single father and work fulltime and its tough to do and deal with this all. Id sue the school and board in a heartbeat if I knew how as im sure my kid is not the onlyone having problems there. They even have there smoking area right in front where parents have to walk through the crowd of kids just to get to the school. I need help please to keep my son safe
  • Angela
    Write letters of conerns in this order and keep copies

    School Board
    Ministry of Education(government)
    Call the Human Rights Legal Center. Your son has rights

    I am so sick of parents and children being ignored. People need to act now.
  • Schools and Bullying - Brutal!

    My son was bullied and a death threat made about him. He was called stupid, idiot, hunchback etc. and rumours were spread about him. The school said this wasn't bullying. It's a private Catholic school and they have told us 3 times to go to another school since we have brought up the issue. The priest laughed at us and hung up the phone on us when we tried to talk with him. The Director of Catholic education won't return our phone calls. (This is in Manitoba.) Injustice must be challenged!
  • Making Schools accountable

    Donna B.
    I agree with Robyn A. My son was bullied for a whole year at his school. He didn't tell anyone about it for a long time because he was scared of the consequence he would face from the Bully if he told. the bullying was not violent. It was done very subtlely and I would clasify it as "mental bullying" more so than physical.

    When my son did finally talk to me about it and I apparoached the principal at his school the principal pretty much put my son on trial to prove that he was actually being bullyied. The principal conducted his interrogation of select kids from the school and said that he could not verify my son's story. The principal's response to me was that my son was facing a possible expulsion for making up stories and telling lies. I went through above the princiapl and through every channel that I was supposed to go through and in the end was told that the principal handled the situation appropriately. I wanted to transfer my son to another school and was told that it wouldn't be easy to do it as he had to attend the school in the area which he lives. He still attends the same school but my husband dealt with the bully and his mother one day after school when my husband was picking my son up from school. The mother of the Bully was very apologetic and there has been no bullying since. Therefore, you cannot blame the parents for the fact that their children are bullies.

    Administrators at schools are not properly trained to deal with bullying. Maybe more of these law suits would help in opening the eyes of those who are resposible for the saftey of our children and are supposed to act as a "reasonably careful or prudent parent".
  • Holding Schools Accountable

    robyn a
    Threathening court action against school boards is probally the last and most effective tool for addressing issues of volience in schools.

    Violence in the schools has been a serious issues for years. I don't think school administartors are taking the issue as serious as they should. Administrators and boards may get the message it they are not efficient in tackling the problem of violence in their schools.
    Interesting article. May start getting calls on this one.
  • What a waste...

    Of tax payer money. I sympathize with the parents, having kids myself in school, but how does this solve the bullying problem? The problem is not the school or the school board, ultimately it is the parents of the children who are doing the bullying. Maybe the school board can add the other parents as a third party and cross claim against them? Can you imagine the nightmare this can turn into? In the meantime, who has the money or the time to teach the rest of the children when everyone's energies are being turned to defend Small Claims suits? You can't tell me that this is the most appropriate way to shed light on a problem or solve an age-old problem.
  • Tara
    Laura - so then is bullying not a bigger community, public issue that should not be dealt with by community/public agencies? The parents of bullied children are exhausting all efforts to protect their children in public institutions. As a parent with children who have yet to enter the school system - I want to know that my children are safe when I send them to school. And if it takes holding, the public institution, the parents of the bullying child and others responsible to raise awareness that bullying is unacceptable - I applaud the efforts of these parents - they are protecting more children beyond their own!
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