Student audience hears first-hand account of violent school bullying

Jer’s Vision was featured in an article in Inside Toronto. Check it out Here, or below.

Student audience hears first-hand account of violent school bullying:
Jeremy Dias tells youth they have the power to end discrimination
by Cynthia Reason

Mere hours after the second reading of the province’s new anti-bullying bill Wednesday, a group of south Etobicoke youth sat riveted by the stories of a young man who could have been saved years of torment had the legislation been around when he was in high school. 

When Jeremy Dias, now 27, was in Grade 10 his family moved from Edmonton, Alberta to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, where he was the only visible minority in his new high school.

On Dias’ first day of class, a fellow student called him the N word, while another threatened him with death. His new principal’s response: “Boys will be boys! Just suck it up.”

A few days later, someone set Dias’ desk alight – while he was sitting in it. He escaped the flames unscathed and his teacher did nothing. When his mother complained to the principal, she was told “don’t worry, we got him a new desk.”

And that was just his first few weeks of class, Dias told a rapt audience of South Etobicoke Youth Assembly (SEYA) high school students Wednesday, Dec. 7 at an anti-bullying youth workshop at LAMP Community Health Centre.

Dias was joined at the workshop by Minister of Education Laurel Broten, who just last week introduced Bill 13, a proposed piece of anti-bullying legislation she said “speaks to the values we want to have in our schools – inclusiveness, acceptance, and an opportunity for students to organize themselves in groups that would speak to issues of racism, homophobia and misogyny.”

“I wanted to tell you how important it is that your voices come into this important conversation that we’re having across the province right now. My message to you is, be part of the solution,” the Etobicoke-Lakeshore MPP told the SEYA teens, urging them to support the Accepting Schools Act.

Now on its second reading at Queen’s Park, the proposed bill – which, if passed, could see student bullies face expulsion – was spurred in large part by the well-publicized, bullying-related suicide of Ottawa teen Jamie Hubley, who took his own life after suffering years of gay taunts.

Dias – who was not only the only student of colour at his school, but was also openly gay – said he could relate to Hubley’s case, having himself been driven to suicidal thoughts by the unrelenting harassment of his peers.

“Walking to class, kids would call me a fag and laugh because they thought it was a joke…For them, it was 30 seconds of their life they were just about to forget, but for me it was every day of my life,” he said. “For me, it was a barrage of words on a daily basis – a thousand little paper cuts cutting my body into small pieces. I was falling apart from the inside.”

But Dias’ wounds weren’t just emotionally inflicted. Two weeks after he’d come out of the closet, he was attacked by a classmate for ignoring the boy’s taunts of ‘fag’.

“He ran up to me and said ‘don’t ignore me’ and he punched me in the face,” he said. “He hit me so hard that the back of my head hit the school wall and I fell down. I tried to get up, but he and his friends started punching and kicking me. Two hours later I woke up in the hospital.”

The next day, amid a school buzzing with gossip about the big ‘fight’, Dias was called to the principal’s office to explain himself. Upon hearing Dias’ side of the story, the principal replied: ‘this is a good thing – it’ll toughen you up. Maybe you’ll quit complaining so much now.’

But Dias wouldn’t be silenced. In his senior year, he sued both his school and his school board for extreme discrimination.

At age 21, Dias won the case – Canada’s second largest human rights settlement. As a result, his principal and the school board director were required to retire early, two of Dias’ teachers were fired, and the school was ordered to start up a gay-straight alliance.

With his $5,000 settlement, Dias founded Jer’s Vision: Canada’s Youth Diversity Initiative, now a world leader in anti-bullying and anti-discrimination programming that speaks to more than 75,000 youth annually.

Currently, Jer’s Vision is working to put together a petition in support of Bill 13, and he urged the SEYA teens to get behind it.

“If you bully someone, stop. If you get picked on, say something, because if you don’t, nobody will help you,” he said. “And if you’re everyone else and you see something like that happen – even if it’s just someone saying ‘you’re so gay’ – say something. Because the truth is, it could just save a life.”