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Teens demand more from adults as youth violence rises in Kelowna

Kelowna RCMP said they take an education first approach
Teddy bears placed at a vigil in Ben Lee Park, Kelowna for 15-year-old homicide victim Tristan Seeger. (Brittany Webster/ Black Press Media)

Youth-on-youth violence has more than doubled in recent years in central Okanagan, leaving parents concerned for the safety of their kids as police and school officials work to curb the staggering uptick.

According to data from Kelowna RCMP, there were 41 reported incidents of youth violence in 2023 – up from 16 in 2022. More than 30 per cent of the cases last year involved a weapon, including bear spray.

Some of these violent events were more public than others: an attack on a 15-year-old at a bus stop in March 2023, a bear spray attack on a 17-year-old in September 2023, and an assault caught on camera of an 11-year-old involving youth in the central Okanagan.

Most recently, Kelowna teen Tristan Seeger was run down in Rutland six months ago and died in hospital the following day, on Oct. 22, 2023 He was 15 years old and police are investigating the homicide in connection to a prior incident involving bear spray. No one has been charged in the attack.

For Paule Seeger, grieving her son’s death has included fighting to ensure justice is served and that what happened to Tristan lives beyond a crime statistic.

According to Seeger, the bear spray incident leading up to Tristan’s death was a group of teenagers retaliating after one of their friends had been sprayed in the days before.

Out of fear in further retaliation, Seeger has urged Tristan’s friends to leave the matter in the hands of police.

“I was so afraid of what they would do and I didn’t want them to take matters into their own hands,” she told the Kelowna Capital News. “Ironically enough, I still believe in this very broken system.”

Seeger’s family has faced online harassment from other youth and those she believes are linked to her son’s death.

The lack of charges and information on Tristan’s death is empowering youth to act out, believing they won’t have to face any consequences, she said.

“Violence isn’t the answer and for some reason, this generation has grown up glorifying it, and whether that’s social media, the music they listen to, the games they play – I don’t know. In my humble opinion, the police are doing a crappy job of liaising.”

Bullying is also fuelling the violence.

For Kelowna mom Bonnie, protecting her child from further assault has meant pulling them out of school most days. Kelowna Capital News has chosen to protect Bonnie’s full identity.

With four children, two of who are long out of high school, this isn’t the first time Bonnie has had to protect a child from bullying – but it is the first that has included such levels of violence, leading to the family reporting the incident to police.

“My son was attacked… and when we spoke to police it was almost immediate washing of the hands,” Bonnie said, adding that the teens who attacked her son are known to police.

“Every single day that I send my kid to school I am scared that he is going to get attacked, stabbed, curb stomped.”

The worried mom said her son often shows her videos, photos and messages he’s received from other teens. These include threats and a focus on violence.

“It’s insidious, it’s gross. It’s not like, let’s just go out back and have a fist fight… it’s several kids on one.”

Bonnie feels helpless when it comes to protecting her son and his friends, especially when it feels as though police and the B.C. Prosecution Service aren’t interested in holding those behind the attacks to account.

“The police have told me basically that he could get killed and there’s nothing I can do.”

Neither the RCMP or the school district would comment on the case involving Bonnie’s son.

The RCMP’s role in public schools

Const. Federico Angulo is one of two full-time youth safety officers in Kelowna.

“Our mission and our goal within the schools is to break barriers, reduce the fear of the police, and become a trusted member of the community.”

Angulo said they avoid criminalizing kids and try to use these bad situations as life lessons, noting that everything has to be handled case by case.

Identifying the root cause of an altercation between youth is critical, Angulo said.

“Is it because something was said, something was taken, two kids don’t like each other? Whatever the root problem is it has to be addressed and that has to be looked at, because if that is not addressed or looked after it’s going to continue.”

Angulo noted that in some cases legal action is pursued, but typically an educational approach is used and school suspension is the appropriate course of action.

When the RCMP do feel the need to take matters further, the buck doesn’t stop with them. RCMP gather evidence related to a crime and forwards a recommendation to Crown Counsel. It is then up to the B.C. Prosecution Service to decide if the incident meets a threshold for charges to be approved.

“We want to be the last safety net,” Cpl. Michael Gauthier said. Youth are connected with resources that aim to change behaviours before they translate into a life of crime.

Bear spray is the weapon of choice

Many of the offenders involved in the uptick of youth violence were already known to police. Gauthier said bear spray is being used increasingly amongst youth offenders, noting that can be easier for teens to get their hands on than other weapons and “the affects of it aren’t neccessarily triffling” in comparison.

READ MORE: Kelowna RCMP note increase in bear spray assaults in 2023

Surrey, Chilliwack, Port Coquitlam, and Vancouver have all put bylaws in place around the sale and handling of bear spray. Vancouver passed the bylaw in March 2023 to prohibit the sale of bear spray to any person under the age of 19, and a $1,000 fine for anyone who does. Kelowna RCMP have said they are working with the city to address the issue.

Hearing from the kids

The increase in youth-on-youth violence is measured by reported crimes, which means the totality of this rising issue is harder to pinpoint.

For some teens that Black Press Media interviewed, it’s the lack of protection and action from adults in their schools that has caused distrust in any justice or judiciary action.

“There’s a lot of groups of kids who pick on, jump, target other kids for their enjoyment,” 14-year-old Josh told Black Press. The teen added that he’s also been threatened by other students to hand over his personal belongings.

A couple of the teens Black Press spoke with said they’ve received threats about being attacked in their own home, some of the threats being made in person but the majority coming through texts and social media messages.

“They don’t do it in school, because they don’t want to get in trouble by teachers,” said Mark, a Grade 9 student in Kelowna.

Physical attacks do happen on school grounds occasionally, however, some youth expressed fears of being stalked until they step off the property or are out of view of teachers. One parent told Black Press Media that they take their child to school a little late and pick them up early regularly to avoid the large crowds of students for safety reasons.

Mark said he tries talking to his parents about the problems but is met with comments of “suck it up” and feels as though the only support he’s receiving right now is from a parent of a friend.

The students were asked what they think would improve the situation.

“More adults in the halls, for sure,” Josh noted that teachers don’t pay attention to what is going on outside of their classroom. Josh and his friends said they have expressed the desire to fight back and defend themselves, but added school staff discourage them doing so.

When asked about taking the hit and getting teachers involved, Josh said, “In reality, [the bullies] are just going to finish and you’re going to be left there pummelled. The teacher’s just going to look at you, walk right by, and not do anything about it.” The student added that the lack of consequences empowers the bullies to escalate the violence.

Students want more from the police. Comments from youth said RCMP need to do a better job at confiscating weapons from the people using items for intentional harm. Students would also like to see a dedicated officer for each school believing it would create a safer environment.

School District 23 Superintendent Kevin Kaardal said that although police are seeing a rise in youth violent crimes, that hasn’t been a problem on school grounds.

“It’s been fairly consistent,” Kaardal said about the past few years. “We do a lot of work right from Kindergarten through to Grade 12 to try to help students understand their socioemotional response to respond in a collaborative and kind way.”

The school district says it takes a proactive approach trying to teach positive behavior at a young age, but issues still arise. Kaardal said school administration and counsellors get involved when needed, and a crisis team is activated when situations are extreme. The school district works with the RCMP when incidents occur in the community and supply youth with other resources to help them get back on track.

One trend the school district is concerned about is the spreading of violent messages and videos on social media.

“If you’re a bystander we want you to actually stop the event. Go get an adult who can help stop the event and not spend your time trying to post something that is really harmful to everyone involved.”

For students who don’t feel safe at school, Kaardal said it’s important they reach out to a counsellor, school prinicpal, or another trusted adult. He added that teachers and other staff monitor all areas of the school and take reports of bullying and violence very seriously.

Kelowna RCMP said there is a tool for students to report bullying and violence without having to worry about their peers finding out.

erase/Report It is an anonymous reporting platform created by the provincial government to help make schools a safer environment for everyone.

Brittany Webster

About the Author: Brittany Webster

I am a video journalist based in Kelowna and capturing life in the Okanagan
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