A Cambridge, Ont., family is suing a Kitchener hockey academy over allegations that their son was ruthlessly bullied by classmates to the point of damaging his reputation and chances of success in the sport.
Gail and Brian DeCaluwe say the bullying has gone from taunting on the ice and hiding equipment to arresting their son Lucas after false claims he was planning a school shooting.
His family is suing Victus Academy, a private school and hockey academy for students in grades 5 through 12, and three students who attended the school during Lucas’ time there.
In the $5.5 million lawsuit statement, the DeCaluwe family alleges the school knew about the bullying Lucas faced, but did not do enough to stop it.
“One of my conversations with staff was, I was told I was being too dramatic, that boys are just boys. And to me that was a very sad statement because that kind of behavior is not not typical,” Brian said.
The academy has not yet filed a defense in the case. But in an emailed statement to CBC News, the academy’s leadership said it would “fully defend itself against this assertion because we are an academic and athletic school that reinforces respectful behavior in everything we do every day.” do”.
The email said a defense statement “is in the early stages of preparation.” The academy management declined a request for an interview as the matter is currently before the courts.
CBC News was unable to reach the three students named in the civil lawsuit or their attorney. They have not yet filed a defense either.
None of the allegations in the DeCaluwes’ statement or made in interviews for this story have been proven in court.
Parents report bullying behavior
Lucas did not speak to CBC News about this story, as his parents say he is focused on his mental health and his hockey training. Lucas’ name is included in the statement and the family has agreed to use the 17-year-old’s name in this story.
In an interview with CBC News, Gail and Brian said their son was bullied weekly at Victus.
He was 11 when he started at the academy in 2016. His parents say the bullying started in the first year.
“We spent a lot of time talking to the manager, the owners, the staff on the ice, trying to make it stop. We had vague assurances that would be the case,” Gail said.
Brian said Lucas told him that on the ice other students were taunting him or slashing him with their sticks. Gail said that aside from the ice, Lucas’ gear would be hidden or placed in the shower and soaked in water.
Lucas had an Instagram account where he posted pictures of his cat and motivational quotes.
“Somebody decided it was a smart thing to ‘meow’ at him,” Brian said, adding that the meowing goes beyond school and also happens during minor hockey games.
Lucas was affiliated with a Junior B team in the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, and Brian said that seemed to fuel jealousy among some of the other students. Gail said they would question Lucas’ abilities and attack his confidence.
Already a quiet kid, the DeCaluwes said, Lucas has become more introverted. Brian said that after one game Lucas admitted to not playing as hard as he could for fear that if he did well the bullies would gang up on him the next day at school.
The parents considered removing Lucas from the school.
“But the director of hockey said he had a good chance of being drafted in the [Ontario Hockey League]. He would like to work with [Lucas] for another year,” Brian said. “I guess it was an incentive for us to reconsider as a family.”
Arrest at gunpoint
On October 2, 2019, Brian was driving Lucas to an appointment with a sports psychologist in Kitchener, but first stopped at the bank.
“Just as I exited the vehicle, three cruisers came to a screaming stop. I was pushed aside,” Brian recalled.
The police demanded to know who was in the vehicle and whether there were any weapons.
“I said, ‘What is this? And they were telling me to shut up,” Brian said.
He watched Lucas being handcuffed.
“I’m upset, I’m crying. He’s sitting in the cruiser. I remember, the hardest thing for me, he said, ‘Help me, dad,'” Brian said, his voice charged with emotion .
“I felt like I let him down as a father because I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what to do.”
At police headquarters, Brian and Gail learned that Lucas had been arrested for making threats against other students.
They later learned that another student had impersonated Lucas in a post on the social media app Snapchat a day before Lucas was arrested. In the post, the student issued a warning that read, “Don’t come to school tomorrow. I’m done with what’s going on.”
“This led to the false belief that Lucas planned to murder Victus Academy students by engaging in a shootout,” the DeCaluwes’ statement read.
In the interview with CBC, Gail said they believed the student who posted the Snapchat post was trying to help Lucas, to get the bullies to back down, but the student “didn’t really think about the consequences. “.
Lucas was charged with two counts of death threats. Although the charges against him were dropped in February 2020, his parents say the damage was already done.
Aftermath of the arrest
After his arrest, Lucas was not allowed to return to Victus Academy. Due to the conditions attached to his case, he was unable to play minor hockey or attend another school for seven weeks.
Lucas was diagnosed with social anxiety, which made it difficult for him to connect with new teammates, like those on the Toronto team he now plays with, his parents say.
Additionally, they allege in the statement that damage to Lucas’ reputation and his hockey training meant he lost income, earning potential and his “competitive position” in the sport.
The statement also alleges that Victus Academy has never investigated or disciplined students they believe bullied Lucas.
Brian and Gail said they asked Lucas if he wanted to quit hockey, but he said no. Gail said he always dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League.
“There are times when you see him smile on the bench and, you know, that means the world to us,” Brian said.
“But it took a lot of guidance and a lot of hard work on his part to get there. And he knows he still hasn’t finished that journey,” Gail added.
“He just wants people to look at him for the player he is and the player he could be, and I think that’s what we want to see for every kid who plays sports.”
Brian also worries about how the bullying and eventually the arrest will affect Lucas later in life.
“I’m a retired firefighter and I’ve seen a lot of stuff. I’ve seen suicides and stuff like that. And you don’t want to think of it as your kid,” Brian said.
“Right now we’re here for him, but what happens in 10 years? Demons still haunt him, you know what I mean? And so that’s one of my biggest fears .”
Restore his reputation
The family launched the lawsuit to restore Lucas’ reputation, Gail said.
“Hoping to change the culture of hockey is probably one of the other motivations because we’ve experienced it firsthand with him and we don’t want to see other people suffer from it,” she said.
Michael Ettedgui is the Toronto-based personal injury lawyer representing the DeCaluwe family, and said elements of their story surprised him.
“I was amazed to hear what is happening in the hockey world,” Ettedgui said.
“I think when the evidence is heard in court, the general Canadian public will be able to get a very important insight into what’s going on in minor sport, specifically minor hockey.”
He said the case was important in restoring Lucas’ reputation among his peers and in the hockey world, but it’s also important that those who stood aside and allowed the alleged bullying to take place. place are held accountable.
Ettedgui said the result could have an impact on the whole sport, which he believes is important.
“If these players continue to feel unable to press their bullying allegations, then the bullying just isn’t going to stop, and I think it’s very important for the general public to be aware of that,” he said. he declared.
Brian and Gail say they don’t want an apology from the school.
“Apologies to me must be sincere,” Brian said.
Gail said they want to see changes moving forward, not just at school, but in the sport itself.
“They can’t change what happened in the past, but they can definitely fix what’s going to happen in the future, what’s happening and move on,” she said.
“You can’t tolerate this kind of behavior in sport. You can’t tolerate it in school…it has to get better.”