CWDHS student charged in assault that sent fellow student to hospital

Some parents, students say incident is part of a pattern of abuse targeting certain students; family of boy charged disagrees

FERGUS – A Centre Wellington District High School student was sent to the hospital after being assaulted by a fellow student, the latest incident in what some students and parents say is an escalating pattern of abuse and violence targeting the school’s 2SLGBTQ+, BIPOC and special needs students.

While police and school board officials are providing few details, parents have reported to the Advertiser that at about noon on Oct. 7, a transgender student was sent to hospital after being punched at least twice by a fellow student.

An Oct. 8 press release from the Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) stated only that a student “was assaulted while attending school.”

“We want all to know how seriously the board and school take all acts of violence and hate toward individuals or groups of students,” states the release from UGDSB executive superintendent of education Brent McDonald.

“We will not accept or tolerate messages or violent actions that discriminate against someone’s gender identity, sexual identity, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, disability or creed.

“Such actions will result in consequences that can include suspension, expulsion and potential criminal charges … Also important in responding as a school and community is the learning that must be done to help everyone understand each other, grow together as a community and ensure safety for all students.”

In a follow-up interview, McDonald said “we have heard rumblings there were brass knuckles involved” but he was not able to confirm the allegation.

He said the victim was sent to the hospital and a day later was recovering at home.

“The family has been in touch with the school,” McDonald said. “Our first concern is that the student feels safe and confident coming back.”

In terms of the other student, McDonald said the boy has been “immediately suspended until the board’s investigation is complete.

“That will determine if further discipline is required.”

McDonald said the board has done a lot of work on equity and inclusion in recent years “and I would never want one act of violence to overshadow the incredible work done at the board.”

But, he continued “we’ll need to lean on all our school partners to make sure not just the school community, but the entire community has the supports it needs.”

A press release from the Wellington County OPP confirmed there was “a physical altercation” at the school involving two students and a 14-year-old boy was charged with assault.

“I am not aware of any weapon being used,” OPP spokesperson Cheri Rockefeller stated in an email.

She did not comment on whether the incident could be hate-related based on the student’s gender identity.

“We cannot provide any information that could potentially lead to the identification of the victim – not re-victimizing a victim is paramount,” Rockefeller stated in an email.

She added she “can’t speak to” whether or not there have been similar incidents at the school, but she confirmed that in the 24 school days this year, OPP officers have responded to 14 calls from the school.

A family member of the teen who was charged told the Advertiser on Oct. 14 the boy was not the aggressor in the incident, nor did he use brass knuckles or any other weapon. (The family member is not being named to protect the identity of the student).

Furthermore, the family member stated, the boy does not know the other student and was not aware of their gender identity.

At least one CWDHS student says the culture at the school is not safe for marginalized students – and hasn’t been for many years.

“This school is an unsafe environment, especially for transgender students,” said the student, who is gay.

“Students are threatened with knives, with broken glass and with hateful words. And some teachers refuse to honour their gender pronouns.

“[The school] flew the Pride flag today (Oct. 8), but I don’t see how that changes anything.”

The Advertiser agreed not to identify the student as she feared reprisal at school.

Similarly, the Advertiser granted anonymity to two parents who also reached out but feared their children could be targeted.

The first parent, who noted some students took video of the attack, said, “Things have been building for years but never this violent.

“It was a vicious, violent attack.”

She said there’s a group of about 10 male “bullies” at the school who regularly pick on smaller, more vulnerable students, and who have also targeted Black and students of colour.

“They threaten to rape a transgender student to find out if they are a boy or a girl. There’s a culture of fear at the school. And the school seems more upset about vandalism in the bathrooms than this.

“If they truly have the back of the LGBTQ students, they will expel this boy. If they allow him back, it’s going to make the rest of the gang feel invincible.”

The family member of the boy charged said he is not a bully, nor is he involved with those who are.

“I think the school does have a problem, but [he] is not part of it,” the relative noted, adding the Oct. 7 altercation was an isolated incident and not part of any “culture” at the school.

A second parent of a CWDHS student said her child hasn’t felt safe at school for many years and now wants to switch to online learning to avoid the threats and constant fear.

“There’s a pandemic of hatred and violence,” she said.

“It’s the entire climate at the school. They fly the Pride flag, there’s the ‘Hate has no home here’ signs, we tell our kids it gets better. But nothing has changed.”

McDonald said it is too early in the year to identify a possible pattern of intolerance at the Fergus school.

However, in posts shared with the Advertiser from a Facebook group for parents/guardians, two CWDHS teachers seemed to acknowledge there has been targeted abuse at the school.

“The recent incidents of violence, racism, homophobia and intolerance are truly horrific and deeply disturbing,” wrote teacher Jeff Brubacher.

He added he has had “several students … victimized by violence and racist actions.”

Teacher Jenny Ritter wrote she has spoken to students about “why negative things are happening so frequently” and noted “things have not been easy for anyone recently”.

She added, “Please be assured that we are doing everything we can to keep our kids safe and foster the type of community we can all be proud of.”

The Advertiser reached out to both Brubacher and Ritter for comment but did not immediately receive a reply.

The school’s principal Jennifer Meeker also did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the school board’s press release, CWDHS continues to engage with all students to stress the importance of reporting incidents that may put students at risk or compromise their safety by telling a trusted adult, contacting the school or using the board’s Report Bullying Online Tool.

The school’s social worker and child and youth counsellor continue to support students at the school, board officials say.

For additional mental health supports students and families can call:

  • HERE 24/7 (1-844-437-3247);
  • Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868;
  • Compass Community Services at 519-824-2431;
  • LGBTQ+ Support Line at 226 669 3760 (call or text).

Board officials say that in the coming weeks, the school will be planning opportunities for communication with parents/caregivers and students, and will provide updates and invitations to families.

*This story has been updated from its original version to include comments from a family member of the boy charged.