CALGARY—It was a frigid winter morning in March, and nine-year-old Amal Alshteiwi seemed nervous for the day ahead at a new school.
She was up early, carefully picking out the clothes she wanted to wear: black pants and a matching sweater. The night before, she had stayed up until 11 p.m., sitting patiently as her mother straightened her hair.
Five days earlier, they moved to a new neighbourhood to get away from what they say was extreme bullying. The family says both Amal and her two younger siblings were targeted at a school in the northeast neighbourhood of Whitehorn.
Before the move, they say the once-cheerful girl would come home angry, sometimes screaming, crying and flinging her school bag across the room.
That morning in March, Amal’s parents say their daughter seemed tense as she drank her usual glass of milk and ate breakfast with her brothers and sisters. The children brushed their teeth, donned their winter coats and shrugged on their backpacks as their mother, Nasra Abdulrahman, sent them off to school.
When Amal got home at 4 p.m., her mother said her mood had brightened. She excitedly showed her mother the sticker on the back of her hand, given by her Grade 4 teacher for completing her school work. She was beaming.
“She said, ‘Today, I’m happy,’ ” Abdulrahman said, speaking in Arabic, recalling her daughter’s words.
Just hours later, when Amal’s father, Aref Alshteiwi, came home after dropping off Abdulrahman at her English class, he found his daughter in her bedroom, dead. They say she died by suicide.
In the chaos that followed after Aref called 911, her 11-year-old brother said he immediately knew why Amal had died.
“It’s because of what happened at school,” he told the family.
The Alshteiwi family says bullying throughout Grade 4 had traumatized Amal and that it drove the nine-year-old to suicide.
As Amal’s story emerged, it resonated with other parents who have children at Calgary Board of Education (CBE) schools. Six other parents, each with children in CBE schools, talked to the Star, describing cases of chronic and violent bullying they say were not taken seriously by the schools or the board. For them, Amal’s death was the worst-case result of the bullying their own children had endured.
The public responses from the CBE to Amal’s death, ranging from emailed statements to one press conference, have been short on details. In its first emailed statement, CBE media relations expressed condolences for the family and said the CBE has worked with the school to gather information and is “closely working” with staff and families to heal. At the April 22 press conference, superintendent Christopher Usih expressed confidence in the board’s processes for handling bullying cases, without explaining what those processes were.
But concerns from other parents and the public continued to mount, and two and a half weeks after the press conference, the CBE announced an independent review of “policies and processes related to student safety and wellbeing.” In a statement on the board’s website, the CBE said the review should be complete by the start of the 2019-20 school year.
On May 30, the CBE posted an update, announcing Kent Donlevy will be conducting the review. Donlevy is an associate professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary, as well as the Chair of the Research Ethics Appeal Board, and the Grievance Advisor for the Faculty Association at the university. He is also a former teacher and principal as well as a former negotiator for both the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation and the Alberta Teachers’ Association. His research includes violence in Alberta’s urban high schools and educational law.
Donlevy responded to a request for comment by directing the Star to CBE media relations.
The updated statement on the CBE website says the purpose of the review is to “measure the effectiveness of the CBE’s policy framework and practices to address bullying in CBE schools.” It says the process will include focus groups with school staff to identify gaps in policies, training and support, and that after the review is finished the CBE will look at “how to include students, parents and other stakeholders in a broader conversation about bullying.”
Amal’s parents say the trouble began when she started Grade 4 at the Whitehorn school in September 2018. She told her mother she was having problems in math and difficulty understanding her new teacher. At her previous school, she had received one-on-one help, and her mother says she was struggling without it.
Other students began teasing her as a result, Abdulrahman said. The bullying intensified in January with the arrival of new children at the school, and her brother said he witnessed kids calling Amal “crazy” and “stupid.”
“Why do you bother coming to school? You should stay at home,” Abdulrahman said, repeating what Amal told her the kids were saying. She said other students made fun of Amal’s clothes and hair, so much so that her daughter decided to wear a hijab during the last week at her old school because she wanted to be left alone, despite her parents’ hesitation.
“The kids told her, ‘Take that hijab and wrap it around your neck and kill yourself with it,’ ” Amal’s mother said, quoting Amal repeating what schoolmates said to her. “I told her, ‘Don’t listen to them.’ ”
Amal asked the bullies to leave her alone, both her mother and brother said, but it didn’t stop. She would come home upset and refuse to play with her siblings as she usually had before. Abdulrahman said she felt helpless in the face of her daughter’s increasing agitation.
“There’s something in the back of her head, either she’s worried or something,” said family friend Hammoud Hammoud, explaining the changes he saw in Amal the week she died.
Abdulrahman said she met with school staff at least three times to discuss her concerns — twice with a translator hired by the CBE due to the mother’s severe language barrier. But she felt her concerns were dismissed, and the bullying her children told her they faced, coupled with Amal’s academic problems, persisted. It was so bad, the family decided to move schools in March to give the children a fresh start at a new school.
Five days later, Amal was dead.
An investigation into the girl’s death by Calgary police included more than a dozen interviews, police said. It found no evidence of “foul play,” they said. Further details were not provided for privacy reasons.
On April 18, more than a month after Amal died, the CBC reported the board had said it conducted an investigation into the family’s allegations and concluded there was no evidence of bullying. The board would neither confirm nor deny to the Star such an investigation took place, and has refused to release any more details to the media, citing respect for the family’s privacy.
However, in the CBE’s first emailed statement to the Star, it said the board “has worked closely with the school principal to gather information from teachers, staff and students to try to understand if there were concerns or issues,” but they would not provide further comment on their findings.
Requests in person to speak to Amal’s teacher and the school’s principal have been redirected to the board’s media relations staff. In response to calls and emails to CBE trustees, board chair Trina Hurdman said in an email the trustees take bullying “extremely seriously” and are supportive of the independent review.
In an emailed reply to specific questions about Amal’s case, including the family’s allegations that the school didn’t address the problem sufficiently, a spokesperson for the board said its schools take a “consistent approach” to bullying, and referred the Star to the board’s general complaints process and bullying-prevention web pages.
The CBE’s complaints process asks parents to address their concerns at the classroom level first, followed by the principal. If an issue still goes unresolved, parents can file a complaint to their area director, followed by the superintendent.
Suicide in children under the age of 10 is perceived as rare, but research indicates attempts in this age group are rising.
A study published in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Pediatrics in April looked at 1,600 suicide-related US hospital visits of children up to age 18 between 2007 and 2015. It found 43 per cent of those visits involved children ages five to 11. Dr. Brett Burstein, a pediatric emergency physician at Montreal Children’s Hospital and co-author of the study, calls the findings “alarming.”
Suicidal behaviour, including ideation and attempts, “is much more represented in younger children than older data would suggest,” Burstein said of his research, and while the numbers specifically look at U.S. hospital visits, he said they are consistent with what he’s seen in Canadian hospitals through his experience as a pediatric emergency physician.
There is no comparable Canada-wide data, however, collected for suicide-related hospitalizations.
As for whether bullying can drive young children to suicide, York University psychology professor Debra Pepler said it’s possible, since incessant torment can drastically alter a child’s perception of their life and make them feel isolated.
“You’re alone, in a very threatening context, in a context that’s so harmful and hurtful, at a time of life when belonging in a peer group is one of the most primary goals that a child has,” said Pepler, who studies children’s aggression, bullying and victimization.
A common sign that something might be amiss, Pepler said, is changes in behaviour such as those described by Amal’s family and friends. That shift could mean that “something has destabilized a child.”
Major disruptions and transitions could also alter a child’s behaviour, Pepler said.
Amal had lived through several such disruptions in her nine years. The Alshteiwi family arrived in Calgary in December 2015 as part of the first wave of 25,000 Syrian refugees welcomed to Canada at the height of the country’s brutal civil war. In Calgary, the family — Amal’s parents and their seven children — moved houses twice in three years, the first time because rent was too high and the second time to escape what they said was relentless bullying. After Amal died, the family moved again, this time to leave behind the house where she took her life.
Amal’s mother said her daughter was just four when the family left their home in Daraa, a small city on the Syrian-Jordanian border, and that she didn’t remember much of the tank warfare in a neighbouring block that forced the family to leave in 2013. The family moved around for two years in Jordan, during which time the children were unable to attend school.
From the day they arrived in Calgary, the family had a range of settlement services to help them integrate into Canadian society. This included support from organizations like the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, as well as individuals and family friends, who helped them move, find a family doctor and prepare their children for school.
The night of Amal’s death, the family called Sam Nammoura, who has been by the family’s side since their arrival. Nammoura volunteers much of his time to help the Syrian community settle in Calgary, and said Amal’s family was vulnerable to the challenges their daughter was facing in school, given their unfamiliarity with Canadian culture, not to mention the language barrier — hurdles that left them without the tools to fight for support and intervention for Amal.
“We never ever even imagined something like this would happen,” Nammoura said.
The news of Amal’s suicide made headlines nationwide, and for some Calgary parents, the story was all too familiar.
When Andrea Hall read about Amal’s death, she immediately thought of her own child.
For several years, Hall said her 11-year-old son was bullied at a southwest Calgary elementary school. She said he began suffering from migraines after three concussions, one that happened after she said he was pushed from a play structure and another after he was shoved and hit his head on a rock.
By Grade 3, she said her son spent most of his days at school sitting under his desk, rocking back and forth, and crying from the pain of the migraines.
“He was bullied to the point where he didn’t even want to go back into the building.”
Hall said she complained to her son’s teachers and the school principal via email and in person, as well as emailed her local school board trustee. Though she was told the issue would be looked into, she said the bullying continued. She said she was frustrated with the school — she felt they did not take her son’s injuries seriously, often dismissed her concerns and, in her eyes, refused to admit her son was being chronically bullied by one classmate in particular.
The tipping point came when Hall talked to the parents of some of the kids who bullied her son, and she said they told her the school never approached them about it. She said she felt deceived, because the school always told her they would deal with the problem, and on one occasion said they would talk to the parents of the perpetrators.
“This whole time … I trusted that the school was addressing it with the families and with the kids,” Hall said. “I figured dealing with the child meant letting their parent know.”
For Calgary parent Nancy Kamau, Amal’s death hit even closer to home.
Her two daughters attended the same Whitehorn school as Amal before they moved away to avoid what she said was bullying that was tormenting her children.
Kamau said the same children who were bullying Amal also bullied her eight-year-old daughter, who is Black, for her hair and skin colour. On one occasion, Kamau said her daughter was physically assaulted during recess time.
Kamau contacted the school multiple times, including the principal and the teacher. She said they agreed to investigate, but the bullying continued. In an email exchange with the teacher in November, Kamau expressed her frustration and worry over the racially charged comments she said her daughter was subjected to by one classmate, saying “(It) hurts to see a child coming home crying. Who will be protecting those kids who get bullied?”
The teacher wrote back that she was “shocked and saddened,” and would attempt to talk to both Kamau’s daughter and the classmate who bullied her “so that both girls can feel like they are safe.”
“As for how a school handles bullying, this is something that I am unable to comment on,” the teacher wrote in the email.
Kamau decided to move her kids to a different school shortly after.
“I cried when I saw that nine-year-old killed herself because of bullying,” she said. “My kid has been going through the same thing.”
On Friday, April 19 board superintendent Christopher Usih met with the Alshteiwi family at their home to offer condolences.
Abdulrahman said she told him she wanted Amal’s story to be public, to prevent a similar tragedy for another family. Usih told her he would think long and hard about how to address Amal’s death, she said.
Three days later, Abdulrahman, with her husband and children, watched intently on a laptop perched on a corner of a sofa in her living room as Usih held the first and only public news conference to discuss Amal’s death.
“To protect the family’s privacy, I cannot speak to the specifics of the incident,” Usih said.
Nammoura translated as Abdulrahman watched. When he repeated Usih’s words about protecting the family’s privacy, she stared blankly in anger and frustration at the screen. She shook her head in disbelief.
“I told him I want people to know my story,” she said.
On the CBE’s website, a bullying prevention page states that everyone has a role to play in preventing bullying, and names the board’s various partners, including the Calgary Police Service, the United Way and Alberta Health Services. It also defines bullying and sets out ways for parents and students to prevent it.
Tracy Vaillancourt, the Canadian Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention, said the primary responsibility of preventing and handling bullying should fall upon school staff.
She said schools too often put the onus of preventing and reporting bullying on the victim. This can come in the form of asking the victim to stay away from the bully or to switch classes. She said this approach is “backwards,” adding that while switching schools as a last resort makes sense to protect the safety of children, it should never be the victim’s responsibility to prevent bullying.
“Their rights are being violated, and yet, they’re the ones who have to move,” she said.
But policy has moved forward in some provinces outside Alberta. Recent changes to Ontario’s Education Act have put the responsibility of preventing and reporting bullying on educators, instead of requiring a student to report it themselves. Teachers now must take note of possible serious bullying and advise the principal, and schools are required to report serious incidents of bullying to the guardians of both the victim and the perpetrator. Alberta’s School Act does not have this requirement.
Several parents said their children were often made to “talk it out” with the bullies. Vaillancourt said this classic tactic can be extremely damaging to victims and usually doesn’t stop the problem — it often makes the victim feel worse, and while bullies may “fake good,” it’s not usually effective in addressing the long-term issue, she said.
“We need to stop that practice,” she said. “It’s absolutely abhorrent.”
Hall said although there were some individuals, such as the school’s principal, who wanted to help her son, she feels there are no clear protocols for educators to follow within the CBE when it comes to reporting bullying and disciplining bullies. Several of the parents interviewed by the Star took issue with the CBE’s expression of confidence in its processes, saying they don’t even know what those processes are.
When asked about her initial reaction to reading about Amal’s death, Hall’s eyes welled up.
“It’s devastating to me that that might be what it takes for someone to take it seriously,” she said. “I’m not the only one who’s been fighting this. I’m not the only one.”
In Canada, if you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or mental health issues you can call the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566. You can also text them at 45654 or chat online at crisisservicescanada.ca. The Kids Help Phone number is 1-800-668-6868. You can also text TALK to 68686 (English) or 686868 (French). There are centres across Canada available to help refugees and newcomers to the country deal with mental health issues. The Refugee Health Line is 1-866-286-4770. In Calgary, centres for immigrant and refugee youth and their families include the Calgary Bridge Foundation for Youth, the Calgary Centre for Newcomers, and the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association.
Nadine Yousif is a reporter/photographer for Star Edmonton. Follow her on twitter: @nadineyousif_
Rosa Saba is a reporter/photographer with Star Calgary. Follow her on Twitter: @rosajsaba