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Calgary dad hopes Syrian family finds answers in daughter’s death

Art Buitenwerf understands the anguish and desire for answers the Calgary parents of a 9-year-old girl who died by suicide earlier this year are struggling with.

Amal Alshteiwi’s body was found in their family home March 6. The family alleges she endured repeated bullying at school — bullying they say they reported to the school. The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) told Global Calgary via email they found no evidence of bullying.

That leaves Alshteiwi’s parents waiting for answers.

CBE chief superintendent Christopher Usih said at the time that he couldn’t provide specifics on the case for privacy reasons.

“The loss of one child in our district is too many,” Usih told reporters at a news conference in April.

“This loss is one that’s been very troubling.”

In a later follow up surrounding the bullying allegations, CBE media relations provided an emailed response to LiveWire Calgary saying, “we take these concerns seriously and we are committed to providing welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environments for our students.”

They pointed to an independent review of their bullying protocol, which has since been undertaken by Dr. Kent Donlevy, associate professor in the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary. That review is expected to be completed by the start of the 2019/2020 school year, the CBE said.

‘Lip service’ from Calgary Board of Education, said Buitenwerf

Art Buitenwerf and his son, Jake. FROM DEERFOOT UNITED FC WEBSITE

Buitenwerf told LiveWire Calgary that he sees the same pattern from the CBE as he did after his 15-year-old son Jake died by suicide a short time after leaving his Calgary junior high school. June 14 is the seven-year anniversary of Jake’s death.

The school called to inform him Jake was going to be sent home as a result of an incident in class. The next call he received was from the Calgary police telling him Jake had been involved in an accident and he was in hospital.

“Something must have happened at the school, because they didn’t send him home right away. There must have been a conversation of some kind, because they told him that he was suspended. That’s how he signed out of school,” Buitenwerf recalled.

Despite repeated requests at the time for details surrounding the circumstances prior to Jake’s death, Buitenwerf eventually had to acquire that information through a Freedom of Information and Privacy request. Even in the information he received, specifics were limited, he said.

And it was a request about his own son.

It was an ongoing struggle, Buitenwerf said, to unearth further details around his son’s death. He believes bullying was an issue — student or otherwise. Seven years later, Buitenwerf still feels like he doesn’t have satisfactory answers. He said he feels as though the school board shields itself behind privacy legislation to protect it from potential legal action.

Buitenwerf called the CBE’s assertion it takes these issues seriously, “lip service.”

“You’re trying to appease the population, as opposed to injecting panic into the system,” he said.

“I feel like they say they’re looking into it, and their looking into can go on as long as it takes for the problem to dissolve away after that.”

Our inquiry into CBE investigations

LiveWire Calgary asked specifically about the CBE’s review and their typical investigation procedures in these situations, although not specifically about Buitenwerf’s case.

We asked:

  • What does this (review) involve?
  • How is the family involved in the investigation?
  • Are the results made public? If not, why?
  • Are the parents made aware of the results of the investigation?
  • How does the public / parents know steps have been taken to avoid future incidents?

The CBE responded at the time saying they were still finalizing details of the review. They didn’t offer a response to the other questions aside from addressing the review.

In a May 30 news release, the CBE said the “internal review” is meant “to measure the effectiveness of the CBE’s policy framework and practices to address bullying in CBE schools.”

The release continued, adding that they want to address gap in policies, training or supporting processes. After the review, next steps on the inclusion of students, parents and other stakeholders in a broader conversation about bullying will be determined.

Buitenwerf said each incident like this, with a potential connection to a Calgary school — public or separate — should be independently investigated.

“Any time there’s an incident there needs to be an independent body – independent of the (school) board, independent of the teachers, independent of the party in power because you need real solutions,” he said.

“Be it an ombudsman; but someone that can make recommendations that just don’t get shelved, but they get acted upon.”

Buitenwerf empathizes with Amal Alshteiwi’s family. He’d like to reach out to tell them they’re not alone in their desire for answers. He hopes they continue to press forward to ensure their daugther’s death results in systemic change.

“Don’t go quietly. Be persistent,” he said.

If you need help – don’t hesitate

If you or someone you know is experiencing bullying at school, or if there are mental health concerns, there are people available to help.

The Mental Health Helpline is open 24-hours at 1-877-303-2642

The Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868

Centre for Suicide Prevention: suicideinfo.ca

Distress Centre Calgary 403-266-4357

Talk with your teacher or principal if you are experiencing bullying at school

If suicide is a possibility, call 911