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Mom says she pulled son from school to escape bullying

A Red Deer mother has pulled her 10-year-old son from school and plans to move to another city neighbourhood to get away from what she says has been months of bullying.

Rebecca Cromarty’s son Xander has attended Normandeau School since the family came to Red Deer two years ago. But after he and three other boys were suspended for their parts in an after-school fight on school grounds last week, Cromarty has gone public with what she claims is unfair treatment and has decided to school her son at home, believing it is not safe to return him to the school.

Speaking after a Thursday meeting at the school that sought to implement regular counselling sessions for the boys involved, Cromarty said she plans to move her family out of the Normandeau neighbourhood in the new year because she does not trust the school to protect her son. Despite far greater public sensitivity to reports of bullying in recent years, she says actions have not matched words in her son’s case.

“I don’t understand. It’s nice to wear the label of zero tolerance and have a bullying awareness week, but it doesn’t seem to be alleviating any of these issues,” said Cromarty.

She said her son has Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), which renders him “emotionally explosive” and unable to deal well with authority figures. She said she was terrified to enrol him in a public school upon moving to Red Deer, but that with the help of a supportive learning assistance team at the school, he had been progressing.

But over the past year she alleges that her son has been the target of escalating bullying at and outside the school, abuse that eventually led her to instruct Xander to fight back. Though the school had encouraged her to instruct her son to not hit back if provoked, she said she believes her son has a right to self-defence.

RCMP investigated an after-school incident in the alley behind her house in November in which Cromarty said her son did not instigate or fight back, but determined the matter to be a mutual fight. Then, two weeks ago, she said her son retaliated after three boys engaged him physically in the schoolyard, “pummelling” them before a teacher intervened and sent the youths away.

The situation has escalated to the point where division superintendent Piet Langstraat has become involved and he said he is considering alternate programming options for Xander. He said schools within the division teach students how they can stand up for themselves in peer conflicts short of fighting or becoming physical.

“We have school policies, district policies where we take action when things are reported to us and we also teach students skills and ways in which they can deal with things informally.”

Langstraat said whenever a student conflict is reported to school or division personnel, the report is taken very seriously and the full facts of each case are sought out. A former school principal, Langstraat said in recent years the division has put its focus on recognizing and building positive traits in students as a way to create resiliency.

“It’s far better to build the assets in students and to work on their skills and to work on the positive side of that, as opposed to focusing on the negative. ... It’s a lot of that kind of work on our skills in terms of the general school population. And then when we get to specific children we would have, for example, a team of individuals at a school who might work specifically with that child on coping skills,” he said.

Last month, Langstraat was a panelist in a provincewide bullying prevention webcast run in conjunction with National Bullying Awareness Week. But he has a problem with “bullying” having become a catch-all term for the conflicts that children and adults alike face in their lives, saying it leads to the sensationalizing of what are most often very complex situations.

While he said bullying implies an imbalance of power, repeated and targeted attacks, he believes it is better to classify conflicts more specifically, be they cases of racism, sexual harassment or acts of aggression.

“What occurs in almost all cases when we’re talking about aggression is it’s a double-sided coin. So you need to deal with the aggression that’s occurring, which sometimes involves discipline, and then you need to work on changing behaviour, which involves support. And then you need to work on relationship with family, which is the conversation that happens with parents where you say ‘Really, if we want to change the child’s behaviour we need to work on this together,’ ” said Langstraat.

The division runs Stepping Stones, a program at Grandview Elementary School for a small number of students with severe behavioural disorders designed to provide them strategies on how to manage anger, resolve conflicts and improve social skills. Cromarty, who already has two children in the program, said she would love to have Xander in it as well.

When the family lived in Calgary, Xander attended the similar Children’s Village School, which featured greater teacher-to-student ratios and through which he progressed very well, said Cromarty.

Langstraat said for more than 99 per cent of pupils, the most appropriate schooling environment is in a regular classroom setting, with supports if needed. The Stepping Stones program is for students whose behaviour “is so extreme that we cannot have them in a regular classroom.”

Cromarty said she plans to move to a different neighbourhood in Red Deer, and will “thoroughly investigate” the school in that area before sending her son back into the public school system.

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