“I wish to make some comments which do not form part of my Reasons for Judgment. I was dismayed, for many reasons, throughout this trial. I was dismayed by the rumours and innuendoes, and that so may people seem to have acted on them without even considering whether they were based on fact. I was dismayed that people would gather around a bully, without recognizing that by doing so, they added to the power and intimidation of the bully. And that they would leave with the bully, apparently not caring that they increased the feelings of exclusion for the victim. I was particularly dismayed that none of the bystanders had the moral strength or the courage to stand in front of Dawn Marie Wesley, to tell the bullies to stop, go away, leave her alone. Only two friends said no.”
These were the concluding remarks of Judge Jill Rounthwaite, a British Columbia Youth Court judge, after she presided over the trial of two BC teens charged with uttering threats. One of them was also charged with criminal harassment. The charges were laid because of incidents involving the girls and a fellow classmate, Dawn-Marie Wesley. The two girls had threatened on several occasions, in person, and on the phone, to beat her up, or to have others do so.
Dawn-Marie was sufficiently frightened by these incidents that she spoke to her school counselor on a daily basis and made sure not to walk home from school alone. Then, on the evening of November 10, 2000 one of the girls yelled at her over the phone “You are fucking dead.” Later that night Dawn-Marie hanged herself in her bedroom with her dog’s leash, leaving a note for her family indicating her fear.
At trial, the Crown Prosecutor made it clear that she was not alleging a causal link between the threats and the suicide and was not seeking a finding that the girls were responsible for Dawn’s suicide. The question, according to the Judge, was a narrow and legal one. “When do school yard taunts cross over the line to become a criminal offence of threatening death or bodily harm? When does a teenager’s annoying behaviour towards a fellow student amount to an offence of criminal harassment?” It was to these questions that she applied the law, and found one of the teens guilty of both uttering threats and criminal harassment, although only the conviction for criminal harassment was entered, because both charges arose out of the same set of circumstances.
The questions raised by this tragic case are of much broader concern, however, than the narrow scope of the courtroom’s jurisdiction. The Crown Prosecutor in her closing statement said “The bottom line is, the girls engaged in criminal behaviour that not only caused tremendous upset to one fourteen year old girl who is not here today, but also to the community.” She commented that the trial was about how Canadians can live together in peace and harmony.
Canadians are increasingly worried about the effect of bullying on children. The Reena Virk case of several years ago horrified Canadians with the violence of the attack on a lonely, friendless teenager. In Halifax this spring, a young teenage boy committed suicide in the face of relentless harassment by a gang of his peers.
This trial, arising from Dawn Marie Wesley’s suicide, focussed national attention on the issue. Bullying affects just about every child in Canada, either as a victim, bystander, or bully,” says Cathy Loblaw, President of Concerned Children’s Advertisers (CCA).
On May 23, 2002, the federal government announced the launch of a multiyear, multi-media, anti-bullying public education campaign, part of the National Strategy on Community Safety and Crime Prevention. The first step will be television commercials prepared by the CCA that address the issue of bullying, stressing the importance of mobilizing bystanders in a bullying situation. Loblaw says “Our hope is that this commercial will help children understand that by doing nothing—just standing there and watching—they are actually contributing to the problem. We want to help kids realize they also have the power to play an important role in putting an end to bullying.”
This would be welcome news to Judge Rounthwaite, who was so disappointed that Dawn Marie’s friends were not there when she needed them.
The BC case ended in a remarkable way that illustrates how the issue of bullying affects not just the victims but our larger community as well. Cindy Wesley, Dawn Marie’s mother, suggested that the sentencing be done by an aboriginal healing circle. It was attended by the convicted teen, Ms Wesley, the judge, the prosecutor, the defense counsel, family, friends, and elders. The teen and Ms Wesley embraced, and the teen told her “I’m sorry for everything I have done to Dawn-Marie and to your family.” In an astonishing display of grace, humanity, and healing gentleness, Dawn-Marie’s mother in turn said that she held no hate in her heart for the girl, adding “You loved her as I did. You loved her as a friend. If there is anything I can do to help you, I will.”