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West Van Secondary students speak out about bullying

West Vancouver secondary school youth worker Leanne Warner didn't have any statistics on high school bullying off-hand. What she did bring to the Pink Shirt Day discussion at the school on Feb.

West Vancouver secondary school youth worker Leanne Warner didn't have any statistics on high school bullying off-hand.

What she did bring to the Pink Shirt Day discussion at the school on Feb. 15, however, was more eye-opening and relevant than stony numbers on a page: Three students who had been bullied based on socioeconomic status, perceived sexuality and physical appearance.

Eleventh grader Bella Molineux was already wearing her pink shirt emblazoned with a sketch of a swing and the words "The ONLY thing that should get PUSHED AROUND".

She wears a subtle, cherry-hued lip stain on her otherwise bare face. Her long brown, left-side ponytail spills down the front of her oversized T-shirt, as she walks tall in a sea of students sporting designer fashions. But Molineux wasn't always this self-assured.

The novelty of the eighth grade held promise for a 12-year-old with freshly-divorced parents. There were new friendships to forge and other coping mechanisms to be discovered.

To feel some trepidation is natural. Unbeknownst to Molineux was the label she would be instantly assigned on the first day of school along with a lesson in pretentiousness.

"I came from Bowen Island and I think there was an immediate stereotype about Bowen kids; they all smoke weed, they are all losers, they are poor," said Molineux.

She couldn't muster the courage to defend the natural splendour of the island and the enviable laid-back lifestyle of its residents. Molineux also noted how all the Bowen Island students would huddle together in the cafeteria.

That only perpetuated the teasing and Molineux's embarrassment of her hometown. She used her dad's West Vancouver address as a shield in the barrage of insults that were hurled at her.

"Oh no, I live in West Van. I never go [to Bowen Island], I swear," was what Molineux would say, even though her mom still lived there.

The focus of the roundtable conversation, which was moderated by Warner in a study room with floor-to-ceiling windows at WVSS, shifts to Shahin Sharafaldin's story. His experience with bullying also started in Grade 8.

Sharafaldin was popular. Throngs of girls sought attention from the olive-skinned boy with the dark wavy hair. Soon, other people started commenting that Sharafaldin only had female friends.

A select few articulated their observation through unsavoury, homophobic remarks aimed at him.

"I had somebody in my socials class, every class I would go in and they would bully me and nobody would do anything about it," said Sharafaldin.

Today, Sharafaldin is flanked by his longtime friend Erica Mason. She recalled how one jovial afternoon walk home with Sharafaldin turned ugly without notice.

"and some random people just yelled out [slurs]," said Mason.

Finally, Sharafaldin fought back against his bullies. He had the foresight to tell someone in a position of power. The bully's unbridled momentum was quickly squashed by the vice principal of the school.

Mason isn't immune to the taunting either. She considers herself a loner. Nervously she twisted the chain of her gold heart pendant with her fingers before sharing her story.

"I do karate and people would always make jokes about me being manly," said Mason from behind her face-framing curly blond locks. "They called me a beast. I actually stopped working out my arms because I couldn't handle it anymore."

Molineux, Sharafaldin and Mason are among a dozen WVSS students from grades 9-12 who signed up for two-day anti-bullying training offered by the Canadian Red Cross.

Entitled Beyond the Hurt, the program produces anti-bullying ambassadors who then set out to create a harmonious environment at their school.

Through skits, games and PowerPoint presentations, workshop participants learn the different types of bullying, the roles that are played and how to develop the framework to respond to the harassment.

The bystander, the person who is bullying and the victim these are the roles that are played when someone is being bullied.

Mason drew attention to the precise wording of one of those roles.

"We learned not to call somebody a bully. It's putting a label on them. They might start believing that that's who they are," said Mason.

Added Warner, "We just changed the way that we frame it. It's the person who bullies."

The conversation turns to cyber bullying

"That's a whole other world," sighed Warner, whose office is a revolving door of teenage predicaments.

Molineux provided a troubling anecdote from her junior year of high school. Somebody had started a website solely devoted to public gossiping about her friend.

"She would have to check the website everyday and she would see all these hurtful comments that people were saying about her," said Molineux.

She also revealed just how high-tech bullying has become in recent years. At one point there was an application on Facebook called Bathroom Wall that gave users free rein to anonymously post messages about people.

"These girls from my [elementary] school wrote about their own friends saying they were stupid and they were sluts," said Molineux.

The slanderous online activity snowballed to the point where the principal of the school got involved and sat the girls down for a bullying intervention.

Starting these conversations at the elementary school level is key, said Warner.

The WVSS students who took the Beyond the Hurt training are taking their knowledge to the feeder schools. It is hoped that bullying behaviour will be thwarted before high school.

"I think a lot of it too is that they don't even realize that they are bullying, said Warner. "Not including other people, turning their back, the eye rolling all that is a form of bullying. So just getting the conversation going so they kind of recognize their behavior and hopefully change it."

Irwin Park was first on the list of elementary schools to visit.

After polling the Grade 6 students, it was learned that half of them had already experienced some form of bullying. All of the students wrote pledges on posters that day.

These were some of the students' declarations: I will include the new person. I will not exclude anyone. I will say hi to everyone.

"They are displayed in the classroom where they can be reminded of it everyday," said Molineux. "Hopefully the teachers and everyone else will try to hold them responsible to it."

The staff and students at WVSS will make pledges on Pink Shirt Day on Feb. 29.The impetus for a national day of anti-bullying awareness was in response to an incident at a Nova Scotia high school in which a student was bullied for wearing a pink shirt on the first day of school.

The WVSS community doesn't just dedicate one day to curbing bullying. Gay and lesbian organizations as well as Rotary International, which has an ethics and values program, are routinely invited to speak to the Grade 10 students.

In the school's hallways Beyond the Hurt ambassadors will be out in full force, spreading messages of mutual respect.

"These are leaders for the school," said Warner. "It's up to them to really get in there and train others. And just keep it alive and talk about it throughout the year."