By Bhavana Gopinath –
A GoFundMe campaign is underway to help a single mother of a bullied teenager pay her legal costs.
In a precedent-setting case, Vania Karam sued the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board for negligence towards her son, Winston. In May 2016, the Superior Court in Ontario found that OCDSB negligently breached the standard of care it owed to Winston, and awarded compensation of about $3,000.
Vania needs help paying off $54,821 that was incurred in her legal battle over four years. Vania’s friends and coworkers, Beth Clarke and Amanda Seeman, set up the fundraiser to help Vania.
Winston’s travails started as a new grade seven student at Broadview Avenue Public School in 2011. He told the judge about his experience. He was subjected to racial slurs and put in chokeholds, and his face was slammed into a water fountain — all with impunity.
According to court documents, whenever Winston sought help from school staff, he was told that the attacks were merely “roughhousing,” and to ignore it or make other friends. The staff enabled the bullies — one time, the boys called Winston the N-word with no consequences while he was given detention for saying “f*** off” in response. After yet another incident, Winston suffered an anxiety attack in school in April 2012, and broke down.
Vania home-schooled Winston for the rest of the academic year. The bullies knew where he lived, so Winston moved to his grandma’s home. Finally, Winston got handed a report card which blamed him, and in grade eight, the school placed Winston in the same class as the bullies.
This was the turning point for Vania. Months of torment, tacitly endorsed by the people who were supposed to protect him, had taken its toll on the young boy. Vania enrolled him in self-defense classes to build his confidence and organized therapy to help him heal.
As the mother of a mixed-race child, Vania is keenly aware of the challenges her son faces in an often hostile and racially biased world. That he was abused so openly in an environment where he was supposed to have been protected, was almost too much to bear. “Is it okay for people to treat him like this?” she asks. “This is egregious.”
Vania decided that the officials and the bullies had to be held accountable and her son had to be confident that he had recourse to justice.
So the family sued OCDSB for negligence. At the trial, the teachers’ and officials’ inconsistent and contradictory testimony (a “loop of lies” as Vania describes it) fell apart. Vania’s meticulous records, including her emails to officials, helped prove that the staff and the school board were aware of the bullying and took no action.
Vania and Winston won that first trial and were awarded general damages, but OCDSB appealed. Now the case was in a higher court. Vania couldn’t use a paralegal as she had earlier; she was required to hire a lawyer (and bear the associated costs, including a $500 per hour fee).
Vania could have walked away at this point. The road ahead was rocky: Vania’s mother took ill during this time, underwent surgery, and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Winston was in an emotional limbo, and Vania’s legal costs kept mounting.
Vania didn’t give up — Winston’s story had to be told. At the trial in May 2016, the judge of the Ontario Supreme Court asked pointed questions about racism in the school and heard testimony from Winston and another mixed-race student who’d also felt unsafe. He ruled that OCDSB officials and school staff were negligent and didn’t protect Winston from bullies, and that Broadview staff breached the standard of care owed to Winston Karam.
For the first time in North America, a judge found a school board liable for inaction towards bullying.
The $3000 award went towards the cost of Winston’s home schooling and self-defense classes. However, the judge said there wasn’t enough medical evidence to show that he’d suffered a physical or psychological injury due to the bullying — which would have given the family a larger amount in damages.
Vania says the years of anguish and the money spent are all worth it. “I probably saved my son’s life,” she says, referring to news stories of teenagers who have died by suicide due to bullying.
Vania’s beloved job and supportive friends and co-workers helped her get through it all. She and Winston are now looking to the future. Vania is focused on caring for her ill mother. Winston, now 17, likes his new school, and a local business owner has given him a job. He is quietly self-confident, having built up both physical and mental endurance in these past four years.
“This is my story, but I have to move on,” he says.
For more information about this crowdfunding campaign, go to gofundme.com/2jqka7q4.