Canadian hockey school sued for alleged bullying culture

Lucas DeCaluwe was alone in his father’s parked truck when he saw police officers swimming around in the vehicle.

It was October 2019 and the then 14-year-old hockey player, who was struggling with what he calls relentless bullying by teammates on his high school team, was on his way to an appointment with a sports psychologist.

As he waited for his father to return from a brief stop at the bank, officers approached, aimed their rifles and ordered him to get out of the truck with his hands up.

“I was scared. I didn’t know what was happening,” says the now 17-year-old.

His father, Brian, returning to the truck, looked in horror at his son’s arrest.

“I heard Lucas say, ‘Daddy, Daddy help me.’ Those are the words I will always remember.”

DeCaluwe and his father say they had no idea what the teen had done to be arrested at gunpoint.

They would later learn that a social media post the day before, made by someone else using DeCaluwe’s name, suggested that he planned to kill classmates with firearms at Victus Academy, a private school in Kitchener that specializes in educating young people. hockey players, according to allegations. in a lawsuit filed by the DeCaluwes.

That social media post, DeCaluwes claims, was the culmination of a years-long campaign of intimidation by teammates, perpetrated by hockey academy staff permeated by a toxic culture.

Their $5.5 million lawsuit alleges that the behavior of the school and three student hockey players had a “profound psychological impact” on his well-being and his goal to play professional hockey.

No defenses have yet been filed by the defendants.

In a statement, Matthew Schmidt, president of the Victus Academy, said the school “will defend itself vigorously” against the lawsuit.

“We are an academic and athletic school that reinforces respectful behavior every day in everything we do,” he said.

The Star chooses not to name the student defendants because they were young people at the time of their alleged harassment.

A lawyer for one of the students said he will fight the lawsuit in court. One student’s family declined to comment and the third could not be reached.

The lawsuit is not against the student who eventually learned the DeCaluwes wrote the post on social media. DeCaluwe’s mother, Gail, says the student witnessed the alleged bullying “tried to scare them into leaving her son alone”.

She says it was a ill-advised attempt to do what she claims the school hadn’t: stop the bullying.

With a tuition of just under $20,000, Victus offers both academic and hockey programs for boys and girls in grades 5 through 12. The school website features testimonials from former players and parents, including graduates who now play in the Ontario Hockey League.

“Victus Academy is not for everyone”, reads the website. “Successful candidates for the Victus Academy are those individuals who not only possess hockey skills and high-level academic skills, but they must also be ready for the rigors and demands of this highly competitive school.”

DeCaluwe’s statement of claim claims that he became a “frequent target of bullying” from the time he entered Kitchener school at age 11. others to do the same,” the claim reads.

In an interview, his mother Gail recalled the grief it caused her young son and their family.

“They were taunting him on the ice and throwing his equipment around,” she said. “It just got worse and worse and worse. They yelled in his face, cut him off, threatened to beat him up, he had no one to lunch with. It was devastating for him.”

Gail says she and her husband were not aware of the full extent of the harassment at the time because their son did not share the details. But in the fall of 2019 it became clear.

DeCaluwe’s teammates made “false allegations, allegations and rumors, including that he was mentally ill, a potential school shooter and that he had researched weapons with the intent to buy one and fatally injure students on school grounds,” the statement said. lawsuit.

“There was a story that Lucas had a hit list and would go after people,” said Gail. “It was something they made up and joked about.”

The civil claim alleges that on October 1, 2019, a Victus student distributed a fake social media post in the name of DeCaluwe with a warning: “Don’t come to school tomorrow, I’m done with the things that are happening.”

“One of the boys admitted to making the fake Snapchat post in his interview with police,” said Gail, who reviewed the Crown’s letter detailing two criminal charges against her son for allegedly making death threats.

According to the indictment, DeCaluwe made the threats against two of the boys named in the civil suit days before the message was posted on social media.

Both charges, which Lucas strenuously denied, were dropped in August 2020.

Gail says reading student police statements left her in tears.

“It was heartbreaking to see how many children had witnessed the bullying and the school knew what was going on. It was much more extensive than I ever imagined.”

News of the fake mail spread to the students and staff of the school, and “led to the belief that DeCaluwe planned to murder students at school through a shooting spree,” the claim says.

In response, the director of Victus Academy contacted the Waterloo Regional Police Department to report Lucas, the claim states.

The next day, DeCaluwe was arrested “by force and violence” with guns drawn, it says.

When Brian got out of the couch and saw the commotion, he remembers running to his son.

“I was pushed aside by one of the officers and they asked who was in the truck and if he has any weapons,” the father recalled.

Young DeCaluwe was placed in a police car and handcuffed.

“I looked at my 14-year-old son in a police car and they hadn’t given me any information about what he had done,” Brian says. “As a father, I worry that I haven’t protected my son enough. I’ve struggled with this. There are things I doubt. I wonder if I’ve let him down.”

At the police station, the teen was told to remove the strings from his shoes before being placed in a cell.

More than four hours later, he was released on the condition that he appear in court and that he could not attend the Victus Academy.

“Victus has completely let me down,” the teen says.

When the family returned home that night, officers were inside computers searching for firearms purchases and the house for weapons, the family says. They were not allowed to enter the house until 1 am, they say.

“It was devastating,” Gail says. “Home is a safe place for all of us. It was very invasive. You feel like your whole life is being exposed for no reason.”

Although the charges against DeCaluwe were dropped after an investigation, the teen’s reputational damage at the school was irrevocable, the claim states. The mental distress left him in a state of “social isolation, trauma and shame.”

The defender was unable to compete for most of the 2019-2020 hockey season, DeCaluwe’s draft year in Ontario Hockey League. His dreams of a professional career in hockey were “significantly and adversely affected,” the claim claims.

The family is seeking damages from Victus for failing to protect DeCaluwe from “prolonged harassment, coercion, bullying, abuse and intimidation”.

School staff were repeatedly notified of the bullying, the claim claims.

“Victus Academy’s failure to take corrective action created and condoned a toxic and insecure environment and culture in which harassment and bullying predominated… Both before and after Lucas’s arrest, Victus Academy did not implement any policies or procedures to control the online and personal bullying.”

DeCaluwe has been in counseling since the incident. He now plays Junior A hockey with the Caledon Admirals.

“He is still dealing with the mental issues. There is hesitation. He doesn’t have a lot of confidence (and) that keeps him from going to the next level,” she says.

“After what Lucas went through, if we can do something good to change the culture and make sure other kids don’t have to go through this, that’s the healing part of this.”

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