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Brett Corbett’s life has changed since video of him being walked on and taunted by other Glace Bay High School students went viral and got global media attention.
Some of the changes are good. Some of them aren’t.
Sitting in the kitchen of his Reserve Mines home, which he shares with his mother, one of his older brothers and two cats, Corbett laughs and jokes. In front of him is a binder full of cards, letters and mementos of support he’s received from across Canada and around the world since the incident on Nov. 6, 2018.
The 15-year-old with cerebral palsy smiles as he goes through them, proud he has inspired some of the letter-writers and touched by the stories others share with him about their experiences with bullying or living with a disability.
Elementary schools in the U.S. and Canada sent packages of letters or handmade Christmas cards, all of them saying bullying is wrong, some of them telling Corbett how what happened to him makes them sad. Some of them are simply pictures of hearts.
A Supreme Court of Ontario judge sent a letter calling Corbett brave and a “superhero” — like the judge’s own son, who also has special needs.
There are packages from China, Europe and Australia. Corbett talks about Isabella Lombardo, an Australian girl who also has cerebral palsy and is featured in the documentary “The Unknown Upside”, as if she is a longtime friend he’s met in person.
Lombardo has sent letters, a book she personalized for Corbett and a bottle of Vegemite, a nutritional yeast spread popular in Australia which her mother said would be good for his health.
“It’s the grossest thing I’ve ever smelt!” he yelled, laughing at the same time.
This is the good — knowing he’s got support around the world, knowing he’s not the only one who’s been a victim of bullying and knowing his story is helping others learn bullying is wrong and needs to be stopped.
“What means more to him is the letters. They touch him. He sat down with me one night (and we read them all),” said Corbett’s mother, Terri McEachern.
“It’s so nice to know that I matter for once,” said Corbett, his “jokester” side disappearing as his voice softens and he chokes back emotions.
The laughing, joking Corbett is who his mother said her youngest was before the incident. Now, there are times when there’s no smile on her son’s face. He’s too sad, too anxious, too depressed. This is the bad.
“His friends are noticing, his family is noticing. Even his grandmother because they went to a basketball game and they wanted him to throw the ball and he got really nervous … and teary-eyed and emotional,” said the mother of four.
“She said: ‘Wow. Has this ever changed him because before he’d be laughing and carrying on.’”
Even though McEachern was quick to get her son professional help after the bullying incident, the effects have set in. She said his pediatrician has diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety disorder and depression.
Since the incident Corbett sees two therapists, one who reached out after seeing the video. This week he started with a child psychiatrist and he sees his pediatrician regularly.
When talking about what happened and what’s happened since, Corbett gets upset. Tears fall, his legs shake and he rubs his hands through his hair. He covers his eyes, rocking slightly, and it’s obvious his anxiety is being triggered, an attack threatening to explode.
“When I’m sad, I’m just zoned,” he said.
When asked if he thinks of hurting himself, he nods. “Almost every day I think to myself I want to die.”
- Age: 15
- Grade: 10
- Family: Youngest of four boys
- Lives: Reserve Mines
- Enjoys: Xbox, wrestling, boxing
The restorative process put in place by the Cape Breton Regional-Victoria Centre for Education to deal with the situation didn’t work for Corbett. The process involved Corbett meeting with the three students who walked over him (one also threw rocks at him) with an adult facilitator, to discuss and heal. Being in the room with the students triggered Corbett’s anxiety attacks and he couldn’t participate.
Being in school can be difficult for Corbett as he sees other students who were involved in taunting and filming him — and who posted the incident to multiple social media channels — but haven’t apologized or, to his knowledge, been reprimanded.
Corbett said he can’t be in a room with some school staff because he feels they don’t view him as equal to others in the school. One staff member allegedly told him he was partially to blame because he went along with the yells to lie in the water and let people walk on him.
Because of these stressors, Corbett hasn’t been able to go to school regularly since the incident. When he does go, it’s usually only for two hours.
“There’s days I don’t want to get up or do anything. Because of the principal (and some students) … The principal makes me so uncomfortable … I can’t like, even, like do nothing at school. They make me so uncomfortable and depressed,” he said.
“People don’t see that, right? When you say this incident changed him completely,” said Terri. “This is the side that people don’t fully understand.”
A few of Corbett’s close friends have stuck by his side in the aftermath of the bullying incident, while others have distanced themselves because of it.
The three students who were seen in the videos walking over Corbett were given one-day suspensions. McEachern said, to her knowledge, all of them have been attending school full-time, going to social events and participating in extra-curricular activities since the incident.
“One-day suspension when you walk on someone’s back? If you get into a fight it’s three days,” said Corbett with anger in his voice. “I just sit there and ask myself, ‘What did I do wrong? What did I do to deserve this? Is it because I’m disabled?’
“‘What did I do to deserve this?’ That’s what kills me, when he says that,” said McEachern. “That’s a hard one.”
McEachern filed a complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission in December against Glace Bay High School and the centre for education because of the way the situation has been dealt with.
Since filing it, MacEachern said she’s been asked by school and centre for education officials to drop the complaint. She said they’ve told her she’s “embarrassing” the school and district as well as ruining the “reputations” of both.
Another reason the mother of four was told they wanted her to drop the complaint is because one of the students who was suspended for walking over Corbett is also having mental health issues because of the incident.
“What about my child’s mental health? ... My heart goes out to them, but what about Brett’s mental health? You can worry about everyone else’s but not the person this happened to?” McEachern said.
“I have sympathy for the other child’s mental health, but it’s all about this child once again. But what about Brett’s mental health? They’re all back in their activities, their all back in the social events (but not Brett).”
Corbett hopes by continuing to be public with his story, he’ll help encourage others to put an end to bullying. Although it’s hard for him to talk about how the bullying, which has been going on since Grade 1, has affected him, Corbett wants to show others dealing with bullying you can move beyond it and heal.
There have been some positive signs his treatment is working and Corbett’s healing is starting. Over the past month, he was able to stay at school for longer than two hours on a few different days.
A different group of students started bullying Corbett in February and McEachern said when she reached out to school staff, they were able to quickly put a stop to it.
Corbett now knows he’s got friends around the world and he looks at his binder to remind himself of this. Like his therapist tells him, it’s going to take time and work to heal and he is determined to continue down the path, with the support of his mother, family and international supporters.
“He always said he was going to be famous,” said McEachern. “He told me, crying one night, ‘I always knew I’d be famous, but not this way.’”
Statement from Beth MacIsaac, regional executive director of Education, Cape Breton Regional-Victoria Centre for Education:
Every child should feel safe and included when they are at school. What took place at Glace Bay High in the fall was unacceptable.
Immediately after learning of the situation, we began work with the family, along with students and staff at Glace Bay High School and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to determine a way forward that was healing for all involved. Work has not stopped since that day, and we remain committed to ensuring all children feel safe in our schools. We cannot speak any further to individual cases out of respect for the parties involved, including a minor child.
Speaking generally, when there are cases where a child does not feel comfortable attending school for a variety of reasons, there are strategies we use to help that child and their family remain connected to the school and their learning, with the ultimate goal of a return to learning.
The restorative process helps parties involved in an incident such as bullying come together in a safe environment to learn and heal from the harm that was caused. The process is very successful when everybody is comfortable participating. If anyone doesn’t feel comfortable, there are other strategies that are used to support that child. Those strategies could be the accompaniment of a trusted adult to class and other school activities, or things like Friendship Groups or PAL program – student-driven “buddy” system.
When it comes to attendance; if a child is missing school for reasons that are out of their control (mental health, physical injury), we work closely with the student and their family to help them participate in a range of ways that they can remain connected to the classroom, with the ultimate goal of a return to school. The policy is meant to support student well-being and achievement.
We cannot speak to the details of the active Human Rights Complaint, but want to assure our community that we respect the process and are participating fully.