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Student Aid: How one school board is defeating bullying, one friendship at a time Add to ...

Amanda Todd. Rehtaeh Parsons. What kind of intervention would have saved their lives? Ontario's 22-high school Upper Canada District School Board is trying to find an answer to that question by turning to the same social networks that can in some cases wreak such havoc on young lives. A program, called Link Crew, pairs incoming 9th graders with Grade 12 mentors, giving young students an outlet to air their concerns and issues. The results have been impressive

Student Aid

How one school board is defeating bullying,
one friendship at a time

Entering high school can be a lonely and harrowing experience, especially for teens such as Katelynn Collison, who have experienced bullying in the past. (Photo: Kevin Van Paassen)

Student Aid: Chapter One

Can schools stop bullying? No.
But it’s worth trying

Upper Canada District School Board director David Thomas explains the motivation for the Link Crew program and its unqualified success

Life leaves two kinds of scars on teenagers. The visible and the invisible. Anorexia, poverty, getting into fights – the evidence is almost always there for all to see. But mental health issues often go unseen and unheard. They may feel alone, they may be tormented at school, yet teenagers will conceal their troubles from their parents, preferring to share their problems with their friends – on their smartphones and on Facebook – rather than talk to adults. “The same way that kids are taught how to take care of their physical well being through exercise and proper nutrition, kids should also be taught how to take care of their mental health and emotional well being,” said Suzette Clark, department head of educational services at the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation and a former social worker.

For many teens, difficult times in adolescence will become a memory as they move into university and then grown-up lives. For a few, as in several high-profile cases, the pressure may contribute to a heart-breaking ending. Amanda Todd, a Port Coquitlam, B.C., teen suffered through persistent bullying related to a sexually explicit photo of herself that was posted online. She killed herself last fall. More recently, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons of Cole Harbour, N.S., committed suicide after photos of an alleged sexual assault were posted online and she was hounded by classmates.

What kind of intervention would have saved their lives? Some experts say it is difficult to know the specific kind of help Ms. Todd or Ms. Parsons needed, but that trying a variety of approaches is key.

At a small school board in Eastern Ontario, one adult has found an answer by turning to the same social networks that can sometimes cause so much harm. David Thomas, the director of education for the Upper Canada District School Board, mandated this year that all 22 high schools participate in a peer mentorship program that links Grade 12 students with incoming Grade 9s. The program goes beyond volunteer hours to give course credits to the upper-years. The initiative, dubbed Link Crew, has been transformational: Problems that could grow unchecked were caught early and friendships grew.

“There is a growing body of research that peer mentoring – setting up peers to help others or to share information with others – is highly effective. Young people find it meaningful to hear from peers, whom they feel might understand,” says Debra Pepler, a York University professor and one of Canada’s foremost experts on bullying and student mental health.

Link Crew leaders are Grade 12 mentors who provide friendship and encouragement. (Photo: Kevin Van Paassen)

Over more than two decades, more than 2,500 high schools across Canada and the United States (350 in Canada alone) have adopted the Link Crew program, a high-school transition program founded by the U.S.-based Boomerang Project. Mr. Thomas’s school board is the first in Canada to simultaneously bring the program across the system and set it up as a leadership course; others leave it up to individual schools to decide if they want to offer it as a course or not.

Education reporter Caroline Alphonso speaks with video host Hannah Sung about Upper Canada District School Board's Link Crew program

Mr. Thomas came to the conclusion that a board-wide initiative was needed after some tough years. Since he assumed the role of director almost a decade ago, Mr. Thomas has attended every funeral for a student from his schools, six of them suicides. At one point, just two years ago, there were three suicides over the span of three months (none were connected). Mr. Thomas grieved with families. He understood the grief of parents – he lost his own child to cancer at the age of 6.

He felt helpless as he heard their stories: a girl who was a promising athlete and was teased for coming to terms with her own sexuality; a boy who was an assistant night manager at a fast-food restaurant, a good brother, a nice kid; and a young girl who struggled to fit in. Slowly, as the weeks passed, Mr. Thomas learned there were signs that something was wrong in each case, yet school staff did not necessarily know where to turn, or if the signs were serious enough to warrant an intervention. “We’re not doctors and we can’t pretend to be doctors,” Mr. Thomas said. “For people who are struggling with anxiety disorders ... one of the greatest gifts you can [give them] early in their struggle is to be a friend.”

The benefits of the program extend to measurable metrics, to success in the classroom: At the high school where the program was piloted in September 2011, 99 per cent of Grade 9 students have all their course credits, a sure sign, Mr. Thomas says, that they will complete high school.

I went to Brockville, Ont., with The Globe and Mail’s photographer, Kevin Van Paassen, and videographer, Tim McKenna. Brockville Collegiate Institute is one of the schools in Mr. Thomas’s board. What we found were your typical high-school kids: energetic, curious, seemingly carefree. But there were undercurrents of hopelessness, difficult family issues with no coping strategies and problems with bullies. We invited some of the teens – Laura and Alex, Brooke and Katelynn, Carly and Crystal – to talk to each other and to allow us to listen in. For them, the program is helping navigate the sometimes bumpy road of high school.

Is it the job of schools to be responsible for students’ mental health, to add emotional well-being to the list of academic demands? Mr. Thomas has a ready answer. “I’d like to think that we’ve taken responsibility for the whole child. They’re not going to learn unless they feel safe emotionally, intellectually, physically and spiritually.”

Alex West, 14, has relied on his Link Crew leader, 17-year-old Laura Brisson, to help him find his locker on the first day of school, and also to listen and help him deal with bullying issues.

Student Aid: Chapter Two

Alex and Laura: A new lease

At 7, Alex West was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He’s also faced bullying for years. The bullying started in elementary school and kept up until he was forced to leave school early on in his Grade 8 year.

Alex West, in pictures. (Photos by Kevin Van Paassen)

While in school, there were days Alex would cry in his bedroom, dreading the next morning. He suffered through incessant teasing: about his ADHD, a temper and about being different. He stood alone on the playground. “When I was being bullied and teased, I thought it’s hard and I thought it’s going to be like this for a long time. I thought I’m never going to fit in, I’m never going to have friends to hang out with,” he says.

He becomes emotional when he talks about what happened. This, too, did not help. Bullies feed on getting a response. He loved his parents, but didn’t want to upset them with his issues.

Nearly one in five school-age children in Ontario have a mental, emotional or behavioural disorder, including ADHD, according to Children’s Mental Health Ontario. Children with ADHD may have symptoms that include hyperactivity or inattentiveness.

Early on in his Grade 8 year, after many fights and several suspensions, Alex was moved out of his elementary school and into a one-on-one tutoring program at the local high school. School staff thought he would be safer there. He felt alone. “There were times,” he says, “I wish I could just leave school.” He remembers the last two weeks in August, just before starting high school, how scared he was about stepping into the building. He pleaded with his mom not to send him. On a sheet of paper, he wrote a point form note on why he was nervous: new school, lots of change, new teachers, new routine, bigger school, more peers, bullying on the bus.

Alex West, 14, will graduate from Grade 9 with all his credits, thanks to the emotional and social connections he’s formed through the Link Crew program.

But high school, surprisingly, has been different, a friendlier place than he imagined. He was introduced to Laura Brisson and another mentor who would watch over him, guide him, and help him transition and, most importantly, be his friend.

Life is not smooth sailing, by any means. He still gets teased, but the words are fewer and far between. Before the anger or depression sets in, or he feels ready to physically attack a classmate, he takes a deep breath and seeks out his mentor to calm him down.

He’s also found resilience and with it, energy. He tried for the football team, but was unsuccessful. He found a passion in videography, so he started filming the football games. He’s hoping to do the same for soccer. One day, a teacher told Laura that Alex had done well on his music test. She surprised him with a congratulations card and a handful of candy to his class. Alex, usually quite introspective, smiled. He will graduate with all his Grade 9 credits.

“Link Crew helped me by showing me that even though our link leaders are Grade 12s, they still care about helping the Grade 9s,” he says. “It shows we’re all just basically a family here, that you can come in and talk about it to just about anyone and they’re willing to help you.”

“I’ve made a few new friends,” he says proudly. “And I have people to hang out with.”

Brooke Melbourne, 17, learned to forgive her father after hearing 15-year-old Katelynn Collison talk about her relationship with her dad on their bus ride home.

Student Aid: Chapter Three

Katelynn and Brooke: Exchanging roles

There are times when the tables are turned, and the mentor learns from the mentee. This is high school after all, and not all problems are limited to the incoming class.

Katelynn Collison, in pictures. (Photos by Kevin Van Paassen)

Brooke Melbourne, 17, met Katelynn Collison, 15, when she was going through a difficult time. She had just started her final year of high school, a pressured-packed year, and her parents divorced over her summer holidays. Brooke’s father had left her mother, younger brother and her. Brooke told him she no longer wanted to speak with him. “I had a lot of anger toward my dad. I mean, being 17 and your parents divorcing, that’s the last thing you expect,” she says.

Brooke saw a lot of herself when she met Katelynn. Both were shy, quiet teenagers. One day, on their bus ride home, their usual small talk turned serious. Katelynn was on her way to visit her dad, a man with whom she had recently reconnected. “She went into great detail [about this relationship] and I was really shocked by it, because we were pretty much strangers at that point. And that’s kind of when I knew that she really trusted me and she felt comfortable with me,” Brooke says.

Katelynn, the oldest of four siblings, did not know why her dad left a few years back. “It was a really hard time for me,” she says. Kids would tease her at school, would laugh at her, all because she was a little different. She preferred to read, or look at anime, rather than play sports or gossip like the other girls. Money was tight at home, and she was always making sure her younger brothers were coping. “I felt alone and I felt depressed. I was in a deep dark hole,” she says. “I sat alone by myself for most of the time and drew some pretty depressing things, that [concerned] a lot of people.” Her mom and grandmother tried to help, so did teachers.

Katelynn Collison was often teased in elementary school for her love of anime, and preferring to read rather that play sports.

“I thought that I should just sit patiently and wait for my dad,” Katelynn says, “because my dad told me that patience is important and if you wait, good things will come.”

Her dad returned. They are, as Katelynn describes, “best friends now.” They cook together, her dad helps her with her homework on weekends.

For Brooke, hearing about Katelynn’s reconnection made her reconsider her relationship with her father. “At first, I was so angry and confused,” Brooke tells Katelynn. “But since I’ve heard your story, I’ve decided that I’m just going to let those feelings go and try and make a new relationship, because he’s my dad.” Progress has been slow. They speak on the phone, and have gone for dinner.

“I can talk to my mom about everything. But it’s kind of nice to have someone who has been through the same thing,” Brooke says.

The two have bonded over shopping trips. Brooke would prefer shoe-shopping, while Katelynn could spend hours at a bookstore. But Brooke says their friendship runs much deeper than a superficial trip to the mall – and one she hopes will continue after she leaves high school this year. “I want to see if she makes the same choices as I did through high school, because she reminds me so much about myself,” says Brooke.

Crystal Merkley, 14, has been able to turn to her Link Crew leader, Carly Hurford, 17, to talk about her father’s death and the scars it left.

Student Aid: Chapter Four

Crystal and Carly: The healing road

Crystal Merkley’s father died of cancer when she was 8. Years later, shocking as it might seem, the bullies do not let her forget how difficult life can be when a parent dies.

Crystal Merkley, in pictures. (Photos by Kevin Van Paassen)

“I didn’t want to talk to anyone at school, I was so upset,” she says. “I’d always cry. Every night before bed, I’d always cry, just knowing that he’s never going to be able to come back any more and I won’t be able to talk to him. And it really upset me because my mom would always be upset because she wouldn’t have her husband there any more.”

Not only was Crystal coping with the loss of her dad, the person she enjoyed fishing and watching Scooby-Doo and Blue’s Clues with, she also struggled with kids teasing her at school. “People would call me fat and ugly and say that I was the reason that my dad passed away,” she says. “I didn’t want to be there.” She would fake illness just so her mom would let her stay home.

Nearly one in five children 14 years and under in Canada live with single parents. The stress in those homes can be greater.

Quite a number of years have passed since Crystal’s father died. When she started high school in the fall, she thought it was a time for a new beginning, a chance to hopefully leave the teasing behind. But then, it started again. Just recently, on a social networking site, an anonymous person taunted her about her father’s death. This time, Cystal had a mentor to turn to.

“I saw that and I started to get really upset,” she says to her mentor, Carly Hurford.

“You know it’s not your fault,” Carly responds.

Crystal Merkley, 14, and Carly Hurford, 17, have the most meaningful conversations sitting against their school lockers.

Their conversations, many sitting against their school lockers at the end of the day, flow with ease, almost like sisters. Carly encourages Crystal, builds her confidence about high school, knows when she’s not telling her the full story and makes sure she’s attending class. Crystal turns to her for help with boy trouble or problems with bullies. “It was baby steps,” Carly says of their relationship. “When she was going through the hard stuff, she’d tell me and then that’s when I started really getting close to her, and everything came out.”

“I’d probably be upset all the time because I wouldn’t really have anyone to talk to,” Crystal says. “I find it better if you talk to someone who’s older than you, because she can relate to it, because she’s been through it.”

Research has pointed to the importance of supportive relationships for children and teens. Debra Pepler, a York University professor and an expert on bullying and student mental health, said young people are not just vessels to be filled with academic knowledge. “Sometimes I think we have forgotten that they are first social beings and without feeling connected and valued, they simply cannot be available to learn,” she says.

David Thomas, director of the Upper Canada District School Board, understands that for students to achieve, his schools need to help teens socially and emotionally. Crystal’s issues would have isolated her if it weren’t for her mentor. “In my heart,” Mr. Thomas says, “we made the schools safer the moment we said life trumps confidentiality.”

Crystal says she still has a difficult time focusing on school, on life without her dad. “I’m sure he’s still with you,” Carly tells her. “You’ve got to think he’s definitely proud of you, for what you’ve been through and staying strong. You’ve been so good through that.”

Reporting: CAROLINE ALPHONSO   Videography: TIM MCKENNA   Photography: KEVIN VAN PAASSEN   Interactive: CHRISTOPHER MANZA   Editing: SIMONA CHIOSE and MICHAEL SNIDER

Follow on Twitter: @calphonso