When Gary Allen was a teenager he prayed that morning would never come so he wouldn’t have go to school.
Allen was a student at Vancouver’s Killarney Secondary from 1979 to 1981 where, he says, he was bullied so badly the experience still haunts him to this day.
“I used to walk the halls of that school daily in fear,” he tells Xtra from his home in Nanaimo. “When I look back on what I went through there, I don’t know how I made it through school because I used to skip school to escape bullies and forge my dad’s name on notes to be excused from school, until I got caught.”
Allen, who describes himself as a shy and quiet type, says a group of boys guessed he was gay and called him homophobic names, physically assaulted him and threatened his life on several occasions.
“Two of these bullies were in most of my classes, so I never had any peace and always worried about what they were going to do to me,” he says. “As a result I could not concentrate on my school work and got poor grades, and I am not a stupid person.”
Allen regrets that he never told any adult about the situation.
“One time I was in the office to see the vice-principal and considered telling him, but the next person to be seated was one of the worst bullies,” he says. “When I saw him there I lost my nerve. I figured it’d come back on me through the bullies. I never told anybody about the bullying I went through; I completely kept it to myself. I didn’t even tell my father and his girlfriend because I didn’t want to put it on them and didn’t feel like they could deal with it.”
On his final day at Killarney, a group of boys in art class hurled clay balls at him. Allen left high school and never went back.
“Clay balls hurt. I might as well have been stoned for the way it felt to me,” Allen says. “I had as much as I could take. I walked out of the classroom and I told them, ‘I’m never coming back,’ and I was crying and I’d never cried up to that point. I went home and my dad was having problems with his mental health and I was worried about him and all the bullying I went through, so I began not sleeping and I ended up in the mental hospital in Victoria because I had a mental breakdown.”
Allen says the bullying left him with a panic disorder and hastened a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. “It turns out after a couple of years the psychiatrist diagnosed me with bipolar disorder,” he says. “He felt maybe I was predisposed to that, but it might not have come on if it wasn’t for all that bullying I went through.”
Allen came forward with his story after seeing a CBC advertisement on Facebook asking if people were bullied in their youth. “The reason I tell my story is to help other people and encourage people that are being bullied to go forward to somebody they trust, and don’t keep it all to yourself. And for people to try to be proud of who they are and not let other students or other people tell them who they are.”
He also contacted the Vancouver School Board (VSB) and initially asked for an apology from his former school but later dropped that request.
“I don’t care if they give me an apology or not,” he says now. “I want to get the story out for other people and make teachers realize how bad bullying can be and what goes on right under their noses sometimes.”
While the VSB did not offer Allen a formal apology, deputy superintendent Jordan Tinney offered Allen a personal apology in a telephone conversation on March 8.
“I didn’t get the sense that that’s what he wanted,” Tinney says. “He seemed far more concerned that there were structures in place. He didn’t ask for an apology. I just offered it on a personal basis; that’s how it came about. It was a very difficult time. What I did say was that ‘I’m sorry that happened to you.’ And I am. But that’s me; I’m not the school board. I am sorry that happened to him; he was clearly bullied.”
Tinney also asked if there was anything he could do to assist Allen now.
“One thing he said was to listen to his story, but he also wanted to know that there were more structures in place now than in 1979 or 1980. I told him about the policies. He seemed to be quite reassured that things were quite different. We not only have policies, but practices and structures. I also said I know bullying happens and that we’re not perfect, but we do all we can.”
The VSB passed anti-homophobia policy in 2004 and now has a part-time anti-homophobia and diversity consultant to continue training staff, finding resources for schools and providing consultation on a regular basis for students, says VSB spokesperson Kurt Heinrich.
Vancouver also developed the Focus on Bullying Prevention Program in 1998 for elementary schools, which was adopted by the Ministry of Education and distributed to every elementary school in BC, Heinrich says. VSB staff also participated in the development of a second ministry resource for high schools called Focus on Harassment and Intimidation in 2005/2006, he adds.
VSB chair Patti Bacchus says it’s critical to listen, welcome and respect the stories and advice of former students such as Allen.
“I am aware of Mr Allen’s letter. It was very moving, actually remarkable and brave to come out at this point,” she says. “It speaks to how much of an impact bullying has on peoples’ lives long after the fact. We have some commentators say it is part of growing up, but we know it has a lifelong impact.
“We certainly can’t turn back the clock,” Bacchus says, “but as trustees we can learn from the past and do things better and respectfully acknowledge the impact bullying has had in the past and ensure we do everything in our power to make sure students don’t experience that again.”
Allen, now a health worker, hopes to talk to people who are being bullied, or have been bullied, to see if he can help. “I would share my stories if they are willing to listen and tell them the things I learned about myself going through that,” he says. “I learned that I was strong all along and I had to relearn my self-esteem. They stripped my self-esteem, and I built it back up myself.”