Caileigh Matthewson was a shining star who enjoyed dancing, singing and had dreams of being in musical theatre in high school. All that changed, however, when she was bullied at school.
The years of name calling, isolation, physical and online abuse took its toll on the 12-year-old Ladner girl, so much so she has been hospitalized on multiple occasions. She was released last week after spending the previous six weeks at BC Children’s Hospital.
That shining star has sadly been dimmed.
Why she was admitted to hospital
Dana, a single-mother of two, has walked alongside daughter Caileigh throughout the painful journey. In the spring of last year, when the bullying and abuse got so extreme, Caileigh reached a breaking point and threatened to harm herself at school.
Dana immediately took her to BC Children’s Hospital where after extensive physical and mental tests, it was determined she was having an appropriate response to an extreme stressor.
“It made sense to me, but how do I keep her safe?” Dana asked herself.
That fall she got sick with what they thought was the flu, but it wasn’t the flu. After extensive testing, Caileigh was diagnosed with somatization, or somatic symptom disorder (SSD).
People with somatization experience pain and other problems, regardless of whether a physical explanation can be found, and the distress from symptoms significantly affects daily functioning. Dana said it’s a complex disorder, one that’s difficult to understand.
Since last October Caileigh has been incapable of keeping any food or liquids down and vomits everything she ingests. She has had periods of severe malnutrition, has lost consciousness on multiple occasions and there was a period where her heart rate was double what it was supposed to be.
“It is a physical illness with no physical cause. Caileigh has absolutely no knowledge or control over these physical responses; they continue while she is under sedation, under anesthetic, they never stop,” Dana said. “The doctors and nurses are doing everything they can and they want to make her well, but she is not responding to any treatments at all.”
The stress of all of this has taken its toll on Dana, their family and friends.
“She is a 12-year-old girl and this started when she was eight. A large portion of her childhood has been stolen. It breaks my heart,” said Dana.
How the bullying started
Caileigh was a student at Port Guichon from kindergarten through Grade 4. It was during that Grade 4 year in 2017 that Dana started noticing changes in Caileigh’s behaviour.
“My happy, laughter-filled child seemed sad and didn’t want to go to school anymore. She indicated that she didn’t have any friends,” said Dana. “I spoke with her teacher about this, at this point not realizing that the issue wasn’t that she was having difficulties making connections, but that she was being bullied. Over the course of the spring, she started to share more and it became obvious that she was not being treated appropriately.”
The abuse included being pinned down, sand thrown in her face, shoes stolen, and being mocked and ridiculed.
Dana said she tried on multiple occasions to address the situation, meeting with Caileigh’s teacher as well as the principal.
“I was told that, while they were aware that there were social issues amongst this grade, it was nothing abnormal,” said Dana. “I was told that due to the small number of students in the grade and, more specifically, the small number of females, there were issues with cliques and friendships. I was basically disregarded and made to feel like I was overreacting.”
She decided it was best for Caileigh to transfer schools. After much discussion with the Delta School District, Caileigh was transferred to Neilson Grove where she began to thrive again.
Dana said it was a welcoming environment with an engaged staff. Caileigh began to make new friends. Her light began to shine again.
That changed when she was the victim of cyberbullying where she was contacted on social media and looped into a late night Snapchat discussion. She was called racist and derogatory names and her appearance was mocked by a group of students that took pleasure in saying they had bullied her out of Port Guichon.
The next day, Dana contacted Delta police to provide screen shots of the cyberbullying and made a police report. Although she said police were sympathetic, she was told there was little they could do, saying it was the responsibility of the school district.
After the bullying that started at Port Guichon continued at Neilson Grove, Dana thought the easiest way to get out from under it was to move again, but she said Caileigh didn’t want that. She insisted that she wanted to return to school to try and make it work.
“I was impressed with the way they [the school] stepped up, but it just turned out to be more lip service. I’m sure it’s all about resources and lack of staff, but I just wanted her to be safe,” said Dana. “I wanted someone to be accountable. I just wanted it to stop.”
School district response
The Optimist reached out to the school district but was told it could not discuss specifics of the case.
In an emailed statement to the Optimist, assistant superintendent Nancy Gordon said the district is extremely concerned about Caileigh's health and wishes her a speedy recovery.
“We are aware of this situation and have been working with the family to address the issues raised,” Gordon said. “We cannot discuss the details with you to protect the privacy of the children involved.
“When it comes to bullying, we take all reported instances extremely seriously and always follow up with impacted parties. This includes taking action to protect the victim and to discipline those involved in carrying out the bullying. However, we are unable to discuss individual circumstances and would never publicly share the consequences that children receive for their behaviour.”
Gordon went on to say that the school district has a variety of measures in place to try to prevent bullying and to deal with it.
Gordon said when determining consequences for bullying, consideration is given to the maturity as well as the intellectual, social and emotional capacity of the student along with the severity and frequency of their misbehaviour. Consequences can range from direct interventions by the administration, including parental involvement, counselling, sanctions of participation in activities/clubs and teams to more formal and serious responses including board level suspensions.
In a letter sent to parents last week, Neilson Grove principal Danica Palmer said she wanted to reassure them that all schools, including Neilson Grove, take all reported instances of bullying seriously and that follow up with the impacted parties consistently occurs.
“There are, however, privacy issues that must be adhered to when working with children,” Palmer stated in the letter. “We are unable to discuss individual circumstances and would never publicly discuss the consequences that children receive for their mistakes or behaviour.”
After 30 years in South Delta, Dana will be moving out of the community to not only keep her daughter safe, but because she can no longer afford to stay here as a result of the financial toll the bullying has taken.
In spite of that impending move, the community has rallied behind the family. Through the efforts of friends, a gofundme page was created as well as a fundraising night at The Landing Pub earlier this month. More than $15,000 has been raised between the two initiatives.
“We had a phenomenal turnout from the community, parents, people who just felt so much compassion for this family and their story,” said Vanessa Cybulski, a close friend of Dana’s who started the gofundmepage and was one of several friends who organized the pub fundraiser.
“It’s a story that has touched so many people. Hopefully as you tell this story it will make people more accountable for things that are going on in our schools. We live in such a great community. Sometimes it takes a village. Here is a woman that has been doing it on her own for so long. She looked to her community for support and they came out in droves.”
Dana said the support she’s received is gratifying.
“I’ve been on my own since I was 16. I have built a great life for my daughters and I, so it’s really hard for me to feel like I’m begging for money, but that love and support from everyone… I’m just so grateful because I feel at times like everything I’ve worked for is just slipping away.”
The next steps
Caileigh was released from BC Children’s Hospital on March 5 – six weeks to the day she was admitted.
“I’ve spent the past few days learning how to insert a feeding tube into my daughter’s nose and her stomach, learning how to feed her that way, even though she still can’t keep food down,” said Dana. “They said there is nothing further that they can do at the hospital that I can’t do at home. Now I’m a full-time nurse.
“It’s a little scary to be at home and performing all these different medical procedures. I don’t blame the hospital. They will continue to provide support to Caileigh. We will be going back for treatment and counselling.”
Dana said as the family works to heal and get Caileigh better, she hopes by sharing her story that something like this never happens again. She believes the Delta School District should be held accountable for not doing enough.
“I know that resources are thin and people are overworked, but children’s welfare should never fall through the cracks,” she said. “My daughter experienced traumatic bullying in two schools in this community.”