St. John’s-Ravenscourt parents raise concerns about bullying, Israel-Hamas war response at school

A group of parents say they want leadership at a Winnipeg private school to take a more conciliatory approach to address tensions around the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, amid concerns about bullying and the school’s response to the conflict.

The parents allege there have been issues at St. John’s-Ravenscourt, an independent K-12 school, since the conflict began — something one expert said could be reflective of the stress the ongoing conflict is causing in the broader community.

Multiple parents, whom CBC has agreed not to name due to their concerns about backlash against their children, said their group first came forward to the school after an Oct. 12, 2023, letter it sent to families in response to the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel, which sparked the most recent conflict.

A copy of the letter, obtained by CBC, said in part: “SJR condemns terrorism and violence. Our emphasis is on the elimination of hate in any form.

“We reinforce the Canadian government’s position: the glorification of violence by terrorist groups such as Hamas is intolerable and has no place in our community.”

One parent who talked to CBC says the letter was one-sided.

“Nobody, I think anywhere, would advocate that what Hamas did that day was correct or warranted,” the parent said.

“But you can’t paint one group of people, collectively, as terrorists or whatever and the other group, collectively, as always the victim without looking at it through the lens of historical context.”

Israel began its military campaign in Gaza last October after Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and abducting about 250.

Since then, Israeli ground offensives and bombardments have killed more than 37,900 people in Gaza, according to the territory’s Health Ministry. The war has largely cut off the flow of food, medicine and basic goods to Gaza, and people there are now totally dependent on aid.

Since Oct. 7, the SJR parents say there have been instances of bullying against students who went to school wearing a keffiyeh — the checkered black-and-white scarf long worn by Palestinians and often seen at pro-Palestinian protests.

“Although I can’t definitively tie together the bullying that they experienced with their attempt to overtly identify themselves as Muslim and in support of the Palestinian people, I can tell you that after they chose to identify themselves with great fear, that the bullying against them increased severely,” one father told CBC.

He said a group of students — including his child — wore keffiyehs on Anti-Bullying Day in May, “with great fear and concern,” as well as on a day where students were encouraged to wear cultural clothing.

“So there was a couple of instances where my child wore a keffiyeh, and I’m concerned that that led to increased bullying,” the parent said.

The outside of a school building.
Some parents worry their children were bullied after showing up to school wearing a keffiyeh. (Ron Dhaliwal/CBC)

A parent of a different child said in one case involving a bullying complaint, “the parents called the school, but the school didn’t do anything.”

“We didn’t see something serious or steps, like formal steps taken to protect this child within the school,” the mother told CBC.

The parents say they raised their concerns with the school directly but don’t feel the issues they’ve raised have been adequately addressed.

The father said requests for a meeting with the school were declined.

“If parents can’t even talk about issues or have a meeting with the school that they are spending a lot of money for their children to be there, I mean, that is substandard treatment,” the father said.

“At the end of the day, this is a private school,” another parent said. “I guess if I don’t like it I can take my kids out of it … but I think this is a symptom of a bigger problem in our society.”

‘Welcoming place’ for all students: head of school

Jim Keefe, the head of school at St. John’s-Ravenscourt, said in an email response to questions from CBC that the school strives “to be a welcoming place for students and families from any background or belief.”

He declined to comment directly on the specific concerns of parents.

“We do not discuss specific issues involving students and/or families in order to protect their privacy,” Keefe said.

“The school has a code of conduct, and when concerns are brought to the attention of the school, they are investigated thoroughly. If any family has ongoing concerns, they should raise them with the school.”

Keefe said the school isn’t faith-based and consists of a community of students and families with a broad range of backgrounds and beliefs, including local and international families.

A wide green lawn and basketball nets in front of a school
Jim Keefe, the head of school at St. John’s-Ravenscourt, says the school strives ‘to be a welcoming place for students and families from any background or belief.’ (Ron Dhaliwal/CBC)

CBC reached out to the Manitoba Federation of Independent Schools, which represents private schools in the province, to ask how other schools are dealing with the conflict.

Executive director Andrew Micklefield said the organization isn’t a school board and doesn’t speak on behalf of schools.

The federation “has not received requests for advice on this issue and respects each school’s independence in responding to its own school community,” he said in an email.

Carving out safe space key: expert 

Adam Muller, a professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Manitoba, said the issues the parents allege could reflect the “stress and strain” and “hurt and insult” the conflict is causing for many.

“This is a messy, long-standing, extremely complicated conflict, with justice and injustice claims on every side of it,” he said.

“Even the international courts are challenged to adjudicate coherently when it comes to, say for example, the claim that there’s been a genocide committed in Gaza. So we shouldn’t expect the schools to have an easier time of it.”

A man wearing glasses, a white dress shirt and rust-coloured sweater sits in an indoor room, with a fireplace and window seen behind him.
Adam Muller, a professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Manitoba, is seen in Winnipeg on Thursday, October 26, 2023. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Muller said the Oct. 7 attacks occurred as he was teaching a class in genocide studies to graduate students at U of M, which included both pro-Palestinian and Jewish students.

He said it was important to carve out a safe space to allow students to exchange perspectives.

“We ended up taking a step back and spending time talking a little bit about what would need to be in place in order to make the classroom a safe enough space to actually do the work we’re there to do,” Muller said.

However, “it’s one thing to say you need it. It’s another thing to actually secure it,” he said. 

“I found it delicate work, to say the least.”

Muller isn’t sure if it was entirely successful, but the first thing they did was establish ground rules to allow students to say things that weren’t making any personal implications about each other.

While that may be more challenging with younger students, he said it’s important teachers and administrators take the time to ensure students are recognized, and also sensitive to others. 

Students themselves may be “suffering or in conflict with other students,” he said.

Schools, he said, need a process “for addressing the conflict that doesn’t segregate, that doesn’t privilege one group over another … that actually brings people together and helps resolve what’s dividing them.”