Rhino's Ramblings: Bullying, Twenty Seven Years Later

Robert Thomas

This is a story about an ordinary, everyday child. A child who tragically passed away 27 years ago. Just an ordinary, everyday Grade Seven student whose life ended far too soon.

It's a story that goes back to my reporting days at Thomson Newspapers, long ago in Moose Jaw. A story which has literally sat in my notes for a generation.

In many ways, it's a story which has haunted the back of my mind for all of those years. It's a story which should have been told back then and needs to be told today.

This is the story of bullying and the effect it had on many lives and the efforts our then local school division, Moose Jaw Number One, took to downplay it and cover it all up. It's also the story of a weak-kneed reporter who easily bent and allowed it to happen.

I can vividly remember the day the story came in. It came in in a very unorthodox manner. It's a story which never came in by phone, fax, letter or hot tip. It's a story which came in as a shriek.

One of the staff members was busy laying out the paper. They had just finished waxing and rolling out the story when another staff member walked into the layout area and let out an emotional cry, then came out visibly shaken.

I asked myself why? What had set them off in such an uncharacteristically emotional manner? It was something they had just read.

In the space of about six inches, there was an obituary of a young child who had suddenly passed away. A child who the staff member knew.

It left many asking what had happened and the start of a story that was never published, never completed and never hit the light of day until a generation later, when events would trigger me to finally write about it.

The story I never wrote all of those years ago, which literally sat in a notepad and micro-cassette in a filing cabinet for so many years. A story which events of today compelled me to finally come to grips with.

It is the story of bullying and how a school, a school division and their staff did everything they could to circle the wagons to deny and simply forget about because in their minds it wasn't their fault.

When I first started writing this story, it was something I didn't know what to do with. How does a person find out about something so personal and get down to really what happened?

In the short while I devoted to it; what I discovered was a child so maligned by his peers that in the end he mentally succumbed and decided life simply was not worth living. He was just 13 years old and life (because of who I am going to flat out call them exactly what they were, little assholes) he decided wasn't worth continuing.

What I discovered were parents whose child's grades began to slip and going to school was not something he looked forward to at all. I learnt about a child who tried to fit in but the herd mentality would not accept him and he found himself continually verbally and physically assaulted by his peers.

This had nothing to do with sexuality, gender or any other band wagon cause. It was simply just a child picked on, on a continual basis. Just a kid who, by everyone I spoke to at the time, simply wanted to be left alone and be allowed to fit in.

His parents had tried desperately to get the teachers, the principals at King George School and later the police and school division to intercede but despite their highly emotional pleas nothing, apparently, was ever done.

I remember asking a police officer, the duty sergeant, about it on the telephone and got the response "pick your battles wisely, Mr Thomas."

In those days I use to write at least five or six stories a day and I am going to freely admit this is a story I worked on sporadically over the period of one month.

The bullying got intense for this child, leaving the parents totally exhausted as they did their best to help their son and keep him in school.

Then one evening they went out, leaving their son at home and while they were gone their child went down to the basement where he finally found the release he was seeking. Finally, the pain of the bullying he had endured ended as he took his own life.

It makes me cringe just thinking what it must have been like coming home and discovering your son dead.

In the following days, the parents started asking questions while hiding behind the shame of suicide but they received no answers. Officially, it never had anything to do with King George School nor Moose Jaw School Division Number One.

It all led up to a brief interview I had with then Superintendent Larry Booth. To this day I still remember that interview.

Me: "Larry I am sorry to ask you this but I need to ask you about that child who killed himself at King George."

Larry Booth: "What child?"

Me: "You know, the one who shot himself. The one who was bullied."

Larry Booth: "After all I've done for you, answering all of your questions over the years, I cannot believe you'd ask me that."

It wasn't the soft tone of the usually jovial and helpful Booth but a sharper response fused with anger. It was a response which caught me completely off-guard and hit deep down inside of me. I shut down the story.

A couple of years later, I was no longer with Thomson Newspapers and I would run into Larry Booth at a hockey game and apologize to him for even bringing up the subject; but I was just doing my job.

It must have caught Booth off guard as it took him a few moments to respond.

Larry Booth: "Thanks. I had almost forgotten about that kid."

And with that, the entire story of a life needlessly cut short was officially swept under the rug.

Later, I would discover that the parents did complain after their son's tragic death but nothing was done about it. It was a mentality of limiting or denying blame or liability in a way that, in my own humble opinion. was almost shaped to place blame on the parents.

Over the years this was a story, as I said, that would haunt me. Every time I would hear rumours of a child taking their own life, I would almost always hear people ask whether or not they were bullied. 

Recently, in Moose Jaw, we had another child who went through the same tragic bullying as that child did so long ago but in this case the child did not turn his anger against himself, but in a desperate cry, did something else, something extremely alarming.

On his Facebook page he posted an invitation asking others if they would like to join him on a high school shooting.

It sounds so strange and macabre but here was a child whose dreams were being ruined by some of the worst bullying I have heard of in my life. A child who was tormented and hounded by students from both Peacock and Central Collegiate, to the point where he even did not feel safe in his own home.

His tormentors even became so brazen that they painted a slur, inferring the child was homosexual, on the outside of the apartment building he lived in. Even sadder, the slur stayed there for over a year with the landlord not even bothering to paint over it.

I did my own checking and asked some high school kids I know who readily confirmed the bullying had, in fact, occurred on and off of school property.

And yes, I even checked; because, like 27 years ago, complaints were filed with the police, school and school division and seemingly, once again, nothing was done about it.

The best I could find out was that there was an official "pink shirt day", where a stand was made against bullying, a video against it was presented but not much more. In 27 years, it seemed for me, little, if anything, has changed.

It leaves me asking what really has been learned in all of these years?

To find out, I telephoned the provincial Minister of Education's office and asked to speak about bullying and if effective policies had been adopted since the suicide 27 years ago. What were those policies and could I obtain a copy?

I was assured by the administrative staff member on two occasions they would be getting back to me. But almost predictably, nobody ever did.

For it seems that after 27 years, there have been at least three more suicides, locally, tied to bullying.  There is still plenty of room under that rug.