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How bullying became the crisis of a generation

Kids are committing suicide, parents are in a panic, and schools that neglect to protect students are lawsuit targets

The Bully Mob

Mitchell Wilson had a short life. He was born in March 2000 at Markham-Stouffville Hospital to Craig and Shelley Wilson. From the age of three, he had trouble running and jumping. He climbed stairs slowly, putting both feet on each step before moving up. He fell often, and sometimes he couldn’t get up on his own. His doctors thought he had hypermobility syndrome—joints that extend and bend more than normal.

When Mitchell was seven, his mother was diagnosed with an aggressive melanoma. Her treatments left her distant, sometimes testy and mean, and in so much pain that she rarely left her bedroom. “I sort of kept Mitchell away,” Craig Wilson told me.

“He basically didn’t talk to his mother during the last four months of her life.” Wilson often left his son to his own devices while he took care of his dying wife and ran his family’s industrial knife business. Mitchell spent most of his time in his bedroom, playing video games. He comforted himself with food, and by the time he was four feet tall he weighed 167 pounds. Once, in a Walmart, he fell to the ground and his grandmother had to ask store employees to help her lift him.

In 2010, Craig Wilson remarried, to a woman named Tiffany Usher. After a campy Las Vegas ceremony during which they both wore flip-flops, the couple moved with Mitchell and Usher’s two preteen daughters into a four-bedroom house just east of Rouge Park. Usher had worked as a special education teacher, and she suspected that Mitchell’s hypermobility syndrome diagnosis wasn’t right. She took him to SickKids, where doctors determined he had a type of muscular dystrophy called limb girdle, a genetic disease that eats away at the muscle tissue in the shoulders and hips. Mitchell’s parents didn’t tell him that he’d probably die in his mid-20s, and that he’d spend his last couple of years in bed, breathing with the help of a respirator.

Muscular dystrophy usually brings with it cognitive limitations. Mitchell was labelled gifted in math but severely learning disabled in languages. This, along with his weight and his bright red hair, made him a target for teasing at Pickering’s William Dunbar P.S. Mitchell was ridiculed when he fell, and he was sometimes knocked down to be laughed at as he struggled to his feet. Other students would step on him, then give each other high-fives.

The Wilsons transferred Mitchell to Westcreek P.S. for Grade 5, and he seemed happier. He became known as a goof, even a ­troublemaker—he was regularly kicked out of French class for encouraging other students to tease the teacher by making silly sounds and faces. He found a group of friends, including a skateboarder named Max, who was in Grade 8. Having an older friend gave him confidence. Once, Max taught Mitchell how to jam the school elevator so that he’d have an excuse to skip his second-floor classes.