Originally published as a column on CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, October 14, 2019.

A week ago, on Monday, kids and teenagers all over Canada went to school in the morning and returned home after school ended. All except one. Devan Bracci-Selvey, a 14-year-old from Hamilton, was stabbed and killed during school hours, behind the high school he attended. His mother was with him. Can you imagine? I cannot. Ever.

An 18-year-old and a 14-year-old (he was allegedly the one who stabbed Devan,) are in custody and have been charged with first degree murder. Three other teenagers were arrested and released without charge. The investigation continues.

What is the appropriate punishment for someone who kills another human being in cold blood, in broad daylight, and under the eyes of his mother?

Bleeding hearts might be willing to defend the perpetrators, but let’s unpack this for a second. The attacker was not an enraged repeatedly bullied kid who had decided he had enough. Devan had been bullied since the beginning of the school year, yet he did not resort to violence. On the contrary. He was described by family and friends as a kind and gentle soul. His mom, Sheri-Ann Selvey, is left asking one haunting, heartbreaking question: Why was I the only person that had his back? (the bullying had been repeatedly reported to school staff.)

How is bullying dealt with in our schools? If you read the school handouts and related flyers, they all look good. It seems bullet-proof, with that zero-tolerance policy that is meant to keep our kids safe from any harm. And yet, reality has it differently. Devan’s story and others prove it.  

Approximately 47 percent of Canadian parents reported that their kids were cyberbullied, and roughly one third of Canadian children were bullied during school years. The advice for teens on dealing with bullies from the Government of Canada website includes ignore the bully, stand up for yourself, don’t bully back, tell an adult. That is all nice, but Devan did all of that and the bullying did not stop.

Barely a month after the start of the school, here we are, wondering how a 14-year-old could be killed by another of the same age. Clearly, something is not working the way it’s supposed to.  Plus, according to the WHO, we rank 26th and 27th (out of 35 countries) based on how we deal with bullying and victimization.

A couple of years ago, I met a recent Kamloops high school graduate. We were both out walking our dogs. The conversation revolved around school (my sons were homeschooled then but considering going back to public school one day.)

He said something that I thought about long after. School walls have eyes and ears, he said, so if you’re bullied and are thinking about telling a counsellor, you’d better think again. You’ll be labeled a snitch or cry-baby. Plus, if you report it, they might or might not suspend the bully, but the problem will not be resolved. That’s not just his experience. You can read more here and here. Not all kids make it to the other side to tell the story.

Some kids who are bullied become so desperate they end up taking their own lives. I’d argue that makes us all bystanders, no? A dark bottomless pit if there ever was one.

The media is looking into ranking places in Canada based on the hate crime levels, but we might be missing the forest for the trees if we all hurry down that path. Violence among teenagers is not localized.

There are kids who ‘jump’ someone because they don’t like them; the way they look, their clothes, friends, voice, whatever. One of my son’s friends got punched in the face out of the blue for that very reason. Or lack thereof, you may argue. A girl got attacked downtown after school and punched in the head repeatedly by another girl while others stood around filming. In broad daylight. Just like that.

If death is the ultimate tragedy, the shock of being attacked, the knowledge that it could be repeated, the heartbreak of questioning your value in the world, they all qualify as tragedies.

Hence the question: are we doing all that we can to help? Are we taking appropriate measures to deal with bullies and apply appropriate consequences?

When all of that has been taken care of and tragedy ensues nonetheless, we have to pursue the other issue, which is appropriate punishment. On the condition that human life is sacred, and with the belief that just punishment can help prevent future tragedies and possibly set the offender on a better course, how do we address such crimes? A side note: One of the attackers that was charged on Tuesday left the court waving at people. That is deeply disturbing. It adds another facet to my question and reinforces the need to ask the very question.

We know that our justice system is lenient and we got to see that time and time again when victims were all but forgotten and the perpetrators got away with mere slaps on the wrist. Could this be an election issue? It should be. A healthy society is defined by how each one of its members is treated. It is fair to admit ours is not there yet.

There is a graffiti inscription on one of the Red Bridge pilings that reads: ‘I see humans but no humanity.’ I tossed it on all sides after I read it a few weeks ago on a rainy day, trying to counteract with a ‘but…’

A few days later I wrote a column about the death of 14-year-old Carson Crimeni from Langley, at the hands of peers who gave him drugs and filmed him while overdosing. He was left to die at the skate park. Humans were there but humanity was missing.

The words have come true again with Devan’s death. It hurts to admit that once more and it hurts to know that until something radical changes in how we deal with the issue of bullying and with people who commit serious crimes, those words are as much truth as they are a plea and an accusation. They are written in red, by the way.