Legal battle over school bullying escalates

A recent spate of lawsuits against school boards over bullying has culminated in a massive $35-million claim against a southwestern Ontario board, an action that comes at the same time parents in Waterloo, Ont., have found their efforts on that issue derailed following a dispute over their legal representation.

Four families from Owen Sound, Ont., say their children were abused by teachers and students at schools in the local Bluewater District School Board.

That follows an Ottawa mother’s $325,000 claim against that city’s Catholic school board and a multitude of small claims actions initiated by parents in the Waterloo area.

Paul Jakubiak, a family law practitioner and civil litigator from Ottawa, has been following the cases and was struck by the escalation. “They are certainly aiming high,” he tells Law Times.

“But at the same time, it sounds from what we’ve heard in Owen Sound that the children pretty much went through hell. If you can medically document the damages and link them to what occurred at the school, it’s certainly possible they could receive something close to that.”

The Owen Sound claims allege teachers made fun of students in front of the class, calling them names and ripping up their work. Some even allege violence, with one detailing an incident in which a girl’s tooth was chipped when her teacher pushed her face into a water fountain.

The claims further allege that teachers were aware of the abuse and that the board ignored parents when they first brought their concerns forward. None of the allegations have been proved in court.

Sandra Zisckind, the lawyer for all four families, told the Owen Sound Sun Times the suit wasn’t about the money. “These are parents concerned about their kids, trying to get justice for their children,” she said.

“The money is secondary to their children’s well being and their frustration in dealing with a board that is refusing to take them seriously.”

But Jakubiak says teachers and educators tell him they lack the power to take action over bullying. “The other issue is teachers are scared to do anything. They’re scared of the parents.”

With bullying an ongoing and growing problem, Jakubiak expects the trend towards legal action to continue but not in the Small Claims Court. Despite the recent rise in the maximum claim value, he says the complicated and costly nature of this type of litigation doesn’t lend itself well to the Small Claims Court.

“A lot won’t go very far, not necessarily because of the lack of merit but simply because of the constraints of the small claims system. The typical problem people run into is with representation.”

That’s exactly what derailed several parents from Waterloo, Ont., in their attempts to sue their school boards. Four of them have launched complaints with the Law Society of Upper Canada about the retired paralegal who was helping them with their claims. 

They want Bill Mason charged for providing legal services without a licence and allege he misled them about his qualifications and legal background.

Three parents, all of whom have now dropped their cases, paid Mason more than $400. Another parent never paid him but has complained nevertheless because she felt she was led to believe he was a lawyer.

Mason insists he only took payments to cover his expenses, such as photocopying charges and gas money to travel from his home in Waterford, Ont., which is more than an hour away from Waterloo.

He says he always made it clear the parents would be representing themselves in court and that he couldn’t give them legal advice.

Mason completed a paralegal course by correspondence at Stratford Career Institute in 2005 but says that, because he couldn’t afford the grandfathering application and insurance premiums when the law society began regulating paralegals, he retired.

At the same time, he notes he only got involved with the bullying cases because he wanted to help the children who had been victimized. “I’m 69 years old; I have better things to do. The whole intent was to help the children. I lost money in some of these cases.”

But Cheryl Boer, who paid Mason to file her claim against the Waterloo Catholic District School Board, says he convinced her he had strong political and law enforcement connections that would help with her case. “He told me I’d get the $25,000 guaranteed. He told me it was the best case he’d ever seen.”

After a bruising conference with a school board lawyer, Boer dropped her case because she was scared of the prospect of paying the board’s fees if she couldn’t prove her child’s injuries.

“Now I’m grovelling to the school board,” she says. “They’re really kind of cold and not very helpful. If I knew for certain he wasn’t a certified paralegal, I would never have filed this suit, ever.”

Suzanne Borghese, another complainant, says she asked for her money back when she saw what happened to her friend Boer. She never filed her lawsuit because she hadn’t completed narratives of her four children’s experiences with bullies.

She’s now planning a civil action to recover the money, but Mason says he spent it on trips to meet her and photocopying for the narratives she did produce. In the meantime, she has no plans to revive the action against the board.

“My children are just healing again,” she says. “I can’t see it going forward because we don’t have the energy to go ahead.”

But Ken Turner, who launched a small claims action against the Waterloo Region District School Board with Mason’s help, says he was happy with his work. He has paid Mason almost $700 but says he was clear about his lack of qualifications.

“He told me he wasn’t a lawyer but he’s been through the process and knows how it works. That’s all I really need. I gathered the information, and he prepared all my forms for me because I didn’t want to do all that.”

Turner, who has a settlement conference scheduled with the school board, plans to continue working with Mason on the case. “I’m just a bit worried about what all this has done to his reputation and what effect that will have on the case,” he says.

For more on this issue, see "Small claims rules prompt lawsuits against local school boards."

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