The U.S. government defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.”
Bullying within the school walls has become a highlighted issue that has come to the forefront of many discussions. But bullying does not just occur within schools, bullying happens in many different environments, including sports. Though awareness and education regarding the issue has grown, it seems that we still have a long way to go in learning how to successfully resolve cases involving bullying.
One 12 year-old girl in Canada has now become keenly aware of the lack of ability within large organizations to resolve cases and has been shown exactly what not to do. Hayleigh Abbott from Quebec, Canada started skating at an elite figure skating facility back in the spring of 2014. Being a talented young skater, she needed more ice time and this new facility promised just that, along with a great coaching staff and a strong elite figure skating club.
Slowly, but surely, Hayleigh reportedly began to get unwanted attention from a 15 year-old male skater who would swear at her while skating past her and screamed at her on the ice, claiming that she got in his way. Soon it escalated to physical intimidation.
“She was just scared to death, she was just petrified,” Cynthia Ruffino, the mother of Hayleigh Abbott said. “She [Halyeigh] said that a boy had taken a run at her on the ice. She had fallen and when she tried to get up, he almost ran into her.”
From there, Hayliegh’s mom, Cynthia Ruffino, contacted Hayleigh’s coach, Eric Therrien. Her coach informed them that this young man had bullied kids in the past and was getting help for anger management. The summer continued, as did the harassment, and Cynthia began seeing a change in her daughter. Hayleigh became stressed, getting frequent stomach aches and laying in her room all weekend.
It all came to a head in early September of 2014, when Hayleigh’s coach set up a meeting with Hayleigh’s parents. They talked about the issues with this young man and he assured them again that he would handle it. The next day, the Abbott’s received a call from Eric Therrien informing them of the decision that he would no longer teach Hayleigh and that she was no longer welcome to be a part of the club. It was surprising news for the family, especially as they discovered that the young man was not dismissed from the club, but was allowed to continue to skate and compete.
“The club felt that he [Eric Therrien] had handled the situation appropriately,” Mrs. Ruffino said in disbelief.
From there Cynthia Ruffino proceeded to lodge a complaint with Skate Canada. She researched online and found Skate Canada’s policy, which states: “This improper behavior, which may be on a one-time or continuous basis, is insulting,intimidating, humiliating, malicious, degrading, or embarrassing. The improper behavior does not have to be made with the intent to harass or discriminate, to be in violation of this policy.”
When it comes to retaliation, the policy is also very clear: “Retaliation against an individual for having filed a complaint under this policy, or for having participated or assisted in any procedure under this policy, will not be tolerated by Skate Canada and will be treated as harassment for the purposes of this policy.”
Skate Canada also provided a process on what to do if harassed or bullied and instructs skaters and/or parents to contact “Harassment Officers.” The interesting thing is that though the policy states to contact these “Harassment Officers” as part of the reporting process, there actually are no “Harassment Officers” listed on their website to contact.
To make matters even more frustrating for the Abbott family, their complaint was left unresolved until the family decided to take their experience to Global News. Soon after their story was released, they heard from Skate Canada that their case was an open-ended case and that they were having trouble getting all of the parties together, despite all of the involved parties working at the same ice arena.
Weeks passed and again there was no communication from Skate Canada until a follow up story was released by Global News. Soon after, Skate Canada sent out an investigator to look into the case. The investigator appeared unprepared and unaware of the scope of the situation.
“Who do you report it to? There are no real steps,” Mrs. Ruffino said. “Skate Canada is too disconnected and the clubs do not seem to have a policy or process for dealing with bullying. Skate Canada is just trying to bury it. They want it all to go away.”
Hayleigh has now been off the ice for over four months. She misses the sport and has considered skating elsewhere, but no skating clubs are willing to have her as part of their club. “I was told by one club that it would be political suicide to let Halyeligh skate,” Mrs Ruffino said.
With no coach, no rink and no club, this may very well be the end of Hayleigh’s skating career, which has to be rather confusing for her. Why would a club and a coach dismiss her for reporting bullying? Why would a nation-wide organization, Skate Canada, not resolve this situation in a timely manner? It would have been a prime opportunity for Skate Canada to seize and, in defending Hayleigh, demonstrate how intolerant they are of bullying. Sadly, their deafening silence has affirmed the worst suspicions— that they have policies, but no intention of backing them up, leaving athletes and parents vulnerable and unable to take action.
Figure skating already has enough challenges, does bullying really have to be added to the list? When researching this story, I inquired into the U.S. figure skating world regarding bullying and I got quite a response. Almost everyone I contacted said that they had experienced or witnessed bullying, even some severe cases, yet due to fear of retaliation, these skaters would not come forward and share their experiences.
The USFS has a policy as well, that states, “U.S. Figure Skating supports an environment for participation in figure skating conducive to the enjoyment of figure skating that is free from threats, harassment and any type of bullying behavior.”
“U.S. Figure Skating takes all forms of harassment very seriously,” said Barbara Reichert of the USFS in an email.
With all of these policies in place, why do skaters still remain silent about this issue? Is it because they read stories like Hayleigh’s and they are concerned it will happen to them? Is it because they have seen it happen? Large organizations are just that, they are large and cannot govern all of the daily goings on that occur within each ice arena, so should the responsibility rest with the skating clubs to be ready and willing to take the action necessary to mitigate bullying within their ranks? After all, the prestige of the skating club should also be determined by their willingness to support all of their skaters.
What are skaters supposed to do if they feel that they are being bullied? What about the parents of these skaters? The mother of Olympic bronze medalist and four-time figure skating National Champion, Jeremy Abbott, had some wise words:
“Find resources. Investigate everything. Document everything in writing, including dates and times. Report provable problems. Take charge. This is a sport,” Allison Scott said in an email correspondence. “It’s not worth destroying your child in the process. If you don’t listen and take action when necessary, then you had better turn the mirror on yourself because you are tacitly supporting and enabling bullies. You are hurting your child.”
As risky as it is to speak out, and as disappointing as it may be to discover that some large organizations are not prepared to deal with these issues as they should be, at the end of the day nothing will be resolved if skaters stay silent.
“Nobody wants to talk,” Mrs Ruffino said. “Until people start to talk you can’t fix the problem.”
It’s time to empower these athletes, give them a voice and let them know that they will not have to stand alone. This is not about being overly-sensitive, or not being able to take criticism. When a skater is “petrified” something is wrong. Skaters should not be leaving the sport out of fear, or because organizations do not know how to handle bullying.
At some point this issue, in all of its ugliness, will need to be examined and not just acknowledged, but grappled with until a resolution is found and athletes can skate in peace, knowing that they are not alone and have the power to end any “unwanted, aggressive behavior.”