Bullying: when schools are the bystander

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Desmond Tutu

Rita-Clare LeBlanc
Rita-Clare LeBlanc
Rita-Clare LeBlanc had reached the darkest moment of her young life. The months of bullying at her high school had taken a toll and she decided to end her life and become yet another statistic of Nova Scotia’s abysmal bullying record. She sat alone in her room and started to swallow her fathers blood pressure pills. She was going to take as many as she could before passing out and dying. Fortunately, before the point of no return, her mother walked in and made her throw up the pills. She held her, cried with her, and together they vowed to do whatever it took to put Rita-Clare’s promising life back together.

Her story sounds so familiar by now. A young life torn to pieces by an unrepentant and merciless tormentor. A school system that is so hell-bent on not picking sides they hold no one accountable and a police force that treats blatant criminal harassment like a social issue rather than a law enforcement one.

I had the pleasure to meet Rita-Clare at Nova Scotia’s first anti-bullying leadership conference, ‘SPEAK UP” in August. I, like most of the people present, sat in stunned silence as she stood on stage and told her story. We listened and shook our heads. We watched as she paused briefly to cry, gain her composure, and carry on with a story she hopes to share as much as she can. She doesn’t want this to happen to anyone else.

Rita-Clare LeBlanc was named as one of Canada’s Top Twenty Under Twenty in 2011. She took a Christmas cash gift of $72.12 and turned it into $16,000 for a school in Mali. The charity group African Sky awarded her a philanthropy award and made her an honorary Mali village leader. She also received an invite to meet Queen Elizabeth during a visit to Halifax in 2011. This is the person we almost lost.

She had everything to look forward to as she entered her last year of high school but nothing could prepare her for what was about to happen. Her success and popularity had attracted attention. Soon her name was being called out in hallways, “Rita-Cunt!” She was instantly embarrassed and ashamed. Her tormentor, who we will call Mike (not his real name) made sure no teachers or administration would hear him. He knew what he was doing and he knew it was wrong.

Mike chose it to be his purpose in life to tease, harass and scare her. Ignoring him made it worse. She tried that approach only to make Mike more determined. Soon he was blocking in her car at school and would not let her leave. He would sit in his car and stare at her.

Rita-Clare, no longer feeling safe, reported the abuse. She told the administration at school who began the unending promise that if one more thing happened Mike would face consequences. One more thing, one more thing, … one more thing.

Well into the school year a break came with the opportunity to go to Ohio to attend a meeting related to her charity work in Africa. The trip left Rita-Clare feeling refreshed and confident. It was the most positivity she had experienced since school started and it was a welcome break from the bullying and the negativity she constantly was experiencing. Returning home she recalls feeling positive as she walked into school with her head held high, “full of love and happiness.” But her new found desire to put the bullying behind her quickly faded as she realized that there were “so many people looking at me in a weird way as I walked down the hallways, asking me if I had seen the picture that was going around…” She was scared. What picture were they talking about?

She found a close friend who had a copy of the photo. It was a photo of Mike, wearing a black life jacket that looked like a bullet proof vest, an orange hunting hat, and holding what looked like a huge rifle… his target, taped to a tree was a picture of her face. The eyes were shot out.

Surely, the response to seeing such a sickening image would involve handcuffs, detectives, cars with lights flashing, and at the very least the inside of a courtroom.

Rita-Clare hoped this was the final “one more time” she kept hearing about. She had a fellow student text her a copy of the image and showed it to school officials. The police were called. Her parents were shocked and could not believe their eyes. They were furious and felt sick to their stomachs.

An officer arrived at the LeBlanc’s home. He looked over the image, listened to Rita-Clare tell her long painful story. He stated he had called Mike already, was going to go over to his house that night. He told her if she wanted this type of thing to stop she should stay off Facebook. On his way out the door he asked if she was aware this could ruin Mike’s life.

After the police officer visited Mike, he arrived back at Rita-Clare’s home late that night. He told her that Mike and his family were upset and sorry. That Mike would like to apologize to her at school the next morning.

An apology. For months of torment. She found it hard to sleep that night. She was scared and angry but tried to convince herself that everyone makes mistakes. She would give him a second chance and accept his apology, if it was sincere.

Mike’s sincerity began and ended with the police officer in his house. By the time school started the next day he had told everyone he could Rita-Clare had called the police on him and embarrassed him in front of his parents. When she arrived at school it was obvious Mike had squandered the opportunity to do the right thing.

She refused to allow this to drop with an apology that was obviously going to be insincere. She informed police what had occurred so Mike’s charges were referred to restorative justice.

During her lecture at the anti-bullying conference Rita-Clare talked about the bystander problem. She experienced it when the bullying started and her friends, people she thought she knew and trusted, stood by or even joined in. She experienced it from the school administration who allowed the bullying to continue unabated for months. The police officer whose comments made it seem like she was to blame. And now she was about to experience it again. Restorative justice with an abuser who was unapologetic and showed not only no sign of remorse, he was openly angry at her for the harm her complaints did to him and his family.

She just wanted to put this mess behind her and finish school. To just get away from Mike once and for all. The restorative meeting was set for April and it consisted of Mike and his family, volunteer moderators, the Police Officer from the Community Office at the school, Rita-Clare, and her family. During the meeting everyone sat in a circle.

She soon realized what it was truly like to be a victim of bullying in Nova Scotia. When the moderator began the meeting, he opened with questions for Mike first – asking him how this experience affected him and his family. Throughout the circle, Mike and his family were consistently addressed by the moderator who was making sure that they were comfortable.

Rita-Clare was asked last about her experience and how it changed her life. She says it felt like “my feelings and my hurt didn’t even matter. The whole restorative justice process seemed to only re-victimize me, because at one point, Mike’s family told me that I had bullied their son. Can you believe that?”

“That’s when I broke down.” she states, “I had so wanted to keep it together for this process but the accusation did me in, and I couldn’t hold back the tears. I proceeded with this restorative process because I just wanted it over. This young man didn’t steal my bicycle … he aimed a gun at a photo of my head and shot my eyes out. He joked about it without feelings of remorse.”

No one was willing to tell Mike, after all of this, that he did anything wrong.

At the end of the school year Rita-Clare LeBlanc walked proudly across a stage and smiled as she was handed her diploma. She recalls thinking that it was amazing to go through “everything I went through, so many missed classes, the deep depression, and a suicide attempt, and that I still made the Principal’s List, received Highest Honours in three classes, and won a Humanitarian Award.”

Today she is getting ready to start her second year at St. Francis Xavier University. She is getting top marks, is involved in many campus community events, has restarted her charity group MYST (Maritimes Youth Standing Together) and they continue to support education in Mali. This past summer she worked with Prostate Cancer Canada.

She finished her story saying she believes what happened was for a reason. She’s hoping that by sharing her experience she can help someone in a similar situation, whether they are being bullied, or are a bystander.

I approached Rita-Clare following her speech to say hello and thank her. I also told her the adults in Nova Scotia owe her an apology. Today, we are not combating bullying, we are not helping victims, and we will not save a single bullied kid from suicide. Not until we are willing to acknowledge that the solution of trying to remain neutral means we’ve sided with the oppressors.

Sadly, this story is not just Rita-Clare’s story. This story of bullying is being repeated in schools across Canada, as is the story of a system that remains uncertain of how to deal with this issue. The headlines bare witness to yet another example just this month in Saskatchewan.

Rest in peace Todd Loik.

11 thoughts on “Bullying: when schools are the bystander

  1. What a shame this has to be repeated. I can’t help but recall the lyrics in the song, “Where Have All The Flowers Gone”: WHEN WILL THEY EVER LEARN, Oh WILL THEY EVER LEARN” and that is directed not only to the bullies but, especially to those who can do something about it.

  2. Adults in the school, the police, and the restorative “justice” system were negligent at best, complicit at worst. When will those adults be named and held accountable?
    Rita-Clare is an outstandingly successful young woman. The effects of this bullying might have been even more severe if the victim were a more ordinary person.

  3. I don’t understand how anybody can just *ignore* bullying, adults specifically. There is a girl here who is being called names for no reason and a boy here who is calling her them. Supposed “authorities” have been informed. What are they doing about it? They are giving her back the filthy names wrapped in empty promises and tied with broken hope, and she’s expected to unwrap it neatly and save the ribbon. Even the police nearly dismissed a blatant death-threat. It’s sick, the way such an openly *evil* thing is being ignored by those who have a say in the matter. That boy is severely messed up, and he needs some kind of punishment more than what he’s received so that he will NEVER do something like this again.

  4. I’m so glad Rita-Clare managed to come out of this alive and so successful. I hope she, by talking about her experiences, feels stronger and more secure.

    I wonder if there is anybody out there like me though. I turned 30 last week. I’m not bullied anymore but it’s still haunting me no matter what I try. I was neglected by my parents, which made me the perfect victim as early as at the age of 6, not showering regulary, wearing torn clothes and becoming fat from overeating junkfood. Nobody ever did anything about this, neither contact the social authorities nor stop the kids from bullying. The teachers yelled at me a lot because they noticed when I got angry but never when the kids abused me. (I’m sure they noticed but I guess I wasn’t worth any help?) I really didn’t want to die so my suicide attempts (the first at 12 years old) was a call for help. Nobody ever noticed.

    When the bullying stopped, as I by the age of 16 moved to my own apartment and started in a new school, I still suffered from depression and low self-esteem. This has been my life since then, having had a hard time finishing my education, finding and keeping jobs. On some workplaces I have worked in people have told me I seem insecure and that they can see my low self-esteem in my posture. At university I never managed to make a single friend. This has just made me feel more worthless, not wanting to be around others.

    My question is, what do people like me do, people who survived but wish we hadn’t. People who didn’t have the good grades to fall back to, who didn’t have a mom or a society who stood up for them. Unsuccessful people, like me.

    Louise, Sweden

  5. I’m so glad she not only survived but is thriving and telling her story. That’s a blessing for all of us.
    That said, I wish the article had more details. Restorative justice DOES work if you’re not dealing with psychopaths. If you are, and it happens, there should be enough teeth in the school’s discipline policy, and the law, to stop the abuse. In my district, I believe that the boy’s badmouthing of her the next day would result in an instant suspension and call for a new meeting with parents to recommend expulsion which the school board would definitely give thumbs up to. The police would probably help the girl and her family get a restraining order against the boy and his family and in a town my town’s size, they would be watching to see it was followed. The problem in this case seems to be a psychopathic family and that is hard for an entire community to deal with. That’s why police and schools DO need a close relationship, despite rhetoric about a “school to prison pipeline.” There are extremely dangerous teens and their parents and guardians can be just as dangerous to deal with.

  6. What that guy did is beyond criminal harassment, it is a death threat and highly illegal. The response by the school, her classmates and the police is beyond despicable and grounds for civil prosecution. Those that joined in are also guilty of a crime (criminal harassment and aiding and abetting threats of death) but did any of them even face punishment in the school?

    Even in cases of prosecuted child porn the worst the offenders have faced is stuff like writing an essay, making a forced apology, probation and maybe some community service. In fact I am aware of a case where an adult helped destroy a 16 year old girls life by widely sharing pictures of her sexual assault on Facebook and got a lighter punishment than I did for breaking into a car when I was 14. The blame for the death and torment of these children does not only lie on the heads of the abusers but on the police and system that continues the abuse of the victims (as we saw vividly in Rehtaeh’s case) as well.

    That cop that told Rita-Clare that she could ruin that criminal’s life needs to be fired and sued. That this was his response to threats against this girls life is beyond insane and illustrative of why the abuse of children has gotten so bad. They seem more concerned that people will take matters into their own hands because of their role in the abuse than the fact that children are being abused into severe mental illness and dying because of it.

  7. Glen, well written article, I read it today in the Huffington post. Broke my heart to hear Rita Clare’s story, the tormenting, and I know that you have been tormented following the death of your daughter. I heard you this morning speaking with Bill Good on CKNW here in British Columbia. If we could all practice kindness in our lives the world would not be such a cruel place. But, there are those who live in darkness, in their minds, in their actions and who simply, as you put it today, just like to hurt people. I hope you also know that there is love and kindness and caring out there, and I hope you can find your way along a path to find happiness in some way. She would want that.

  8. The schools need to to find a MODEL to copy. Find a school where touching is off limits! Stick to the policy and back IT up! Consistency. PARENTS!!!!!!!! Look for a school with very strong bullying policy. I am glad that I did. Took my daughters out of a school, where even the teachers were bullying them. Very sad.

  9. Thank you for sharing Rita-Clare’s story. I know Rita-Clare personally and the rest of the LeBlanc family. Her Mum Faye is my dearest and best friend in the world and provided afterschool care for my daughter in elementary. I knew of the bullying RC endured and the lack of response from her school and the police but not RC’s attempted overdose. My heart ached when I found this out and it resonated with me. My own teenaged daughter made two suicide attempts in 2011 before entering 4South at the IWK and then the ACT program in 2012 to deal with her anxiety and depression, just two days after her father committed suicide. There were incidents of bullying over the years but nothing compared to what RC went through, your daughter Rehteah went through or what countless other teens went through. Your story about RC and Rehteah resonates with me on a deeply personal level.

    I give RC all the credit in the world for rising above what happened to her and speaking out. So many of us don’t and with the love and support of her family and friends and the belief in herself, RC has come full circle. By sharing her story, things are shifting, even if just microscopically. If her story and your daughter’s story can reach just one person, maybe that’s one more person who won’t decide to end his/her life that day and leave devastated family and friends behind; maybe it will help a parent look a bit closer and listen to their gut when they know things just aren’t right with their child and get them the help they need, if that help is available. I was fortunate in that I followed my instincts and the help was there, not without a fight, however. I realize it’s not the same for others who go through similar situations. We were one of the lucky ones and we’ve come a long way since those days. My daughter is still here and doing so much better. Life is good. Just like it is for RC.

    We need to focus on the positive and at the same time be realistic. RC is with us and thriving. She is making a difference. I’ve seen it myself over the years. So many young people weren’t so lucky and we need the schools and the police to be more proactive in dealing with these situations. We need improvements in our Mental Health Care System so that it is readily accessible to all and not 1-2 years (or longer) down the road when it could be too late. We all need to put aside our differences about what happened in the past and work together to make this world a better place for all of us. Our children are the future. The loss of one affects all of us. Dwelling on yesterday takes us out of the present moment and, to quote Mahatma Ghandi “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”. It all starts within and believe me when I say this – you are NEVER too old to change.

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  11. Anti bullying quotes Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.Being bullied can have traumatic consequences for a child, leading to poor school performance, low self-esteem, anxiety, and even depression. Bullies cause depression, depression causes suicide, suicide is killing, killing is murder, bullies are murderers.Be brave don’t be a victim be safe and keep protected check this out at http://safekidzone.com/#!/page_home.

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