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A Hurt Boy, a Fight to Change Hit-and-Run Laws and a School Backlash

After Marquice Jeffers-Harris was struck by an SUV, his mother launched a bid to change the law. Then came the reaction.

Aly Laube 28 Sep 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Aly Laube is a multimedia journalist with a passion for amplifying underrepresented voices. She is also a queer, mixed race woman living with chronic health conditions. Email her or follow her @godalyshutup.

Marquice Jeffers-Harris is getting better after being hit by an SUV while skateboarding near his Surrey, B.C. home. The 13-year-old even made the start of the school year at Guildford Park Secondary School, though on crutches.*

But controversies around hit-and-run laws and the Surrey RCMP’s treatment of the driver — a teacher at Surrey’s Semiahmoo Secondary — continue.

Marquice was hurt on Aug. 19. His mother, Iseda Jeffers-Harris, found him alone by the side of their home with a bleeding foot and in shock. She had rushed to her son after he called and said he was outside, too badly hurt to come in the door.

He told her an SUV had hit him while he was crossing the road on his skateboard. The driver gave him a used towel for his wounds, then drove him home and left him outside, Marquice said.

They went to the hospital, where scans showed three broken bones in his foot and his wounds were bandaged.

As Marquice began to recover, Iseda tried to find out how it was legal for the driver simply to drop an injured child off after a crash without calling police or ensuring parents or caregivers could attend to their injuries.

What she learned drove her to launch a campaign to change Canada’s hit-and-run laws and challenge the Surrey RCMP’s handling of the investigation. She created a petition calling for changes to the laws that has been signed by more than 13,000 people.

Iseda Jeffers-Harris discovered the driver’s identity through independent research and camera footage but had no direct contact with her on Aug. 19 or any day since. She said she was “shocked and horrified” to find that the driver is a teacher at her son’s school.

The Surrey RCMP, who were in contact with the teacher, decided quickly against recommending charges after the driver co-operated with police by returning to the scene to meet officers. This both upset and confused Jeffers-Harris, who said she is still seeking answers.

Under the Criminal Code of Canada, drivers involved in accidents must stop and “give their name and address and, if any person has been injured or appears to require assistance, offer assistance.”

In B.C., the Motor Vehicle Act also deals with hit and run offences. It says any driver involved in an accident must “remain at or immediately return to the scene of the accident” and “render all reasonable assistance.” Drivers also have to provide their name, address and insurance information to anyone involved or injured.

Jeffers-Harris wants the Criminal Code changed to require drivers in accidents that involve minors to immediately report the incident and ensure care is provided.

“My ultimate goal would be for us to find a way to lobby to make it a federal law that this is what you have to do across Canada: If your vehicle comes in contact with the child body, get help immediately. Report immediately. Call 911. Stay with the child until help arrives,” she said.

“I think that’s something that should be a federal law.”

Ian McLeod, a federal justice department spokesperson, sent an email to The Tyee noting the Criminal Code provision “is subject to a statutory defence of ‘reasonable excuse,’ allowing an accused to demonstrate that they had a reasonable excuse for leaving the scene.” McLeod noted the requirement to provide assistance applies “whether any victims of the accident are children or adults.”

Elenore Sturko, media relations officer for the Surrey RCMP, outlined the reasons the driver was not arrested or charged. “As long as a driver remains at the scene or immediately returns to the scene and they render assistance and they willingly provide their information, it’s not considered to be a hit and run, and they therefore wouldn’t be issued a violation for failing to remain at the scene,” Sturko said.

“Also, the extent of the young person’s injuries weren’t immediately evident, so the driver proceeded to drive them home as opposed to seeking medical attention,” she said. “Once they realized that they hadn’t fully met their obligations as a driver, they immediately returned and co-operated with our police investigation.”

Because of this, Surrey RCMP “didn’t find any evidence of neglect on behalf of the driver or driver error on behalf of the driver.

“When we have a file like this, we can only do an investigation and look at the elements of the offence based on the Criminal Code as it’s written now and based on the Motor Vehicle Act as it’s written now,” she said.

The investigation is concluded, but Sturko said the case could be reopened if there was “new evidence that suggested there needed to be more investigation.”

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Marquice Jeffers-Harris was bleeding and unable to walk after being hit by an SUV. The driver dropped him off at his house. Marquice had to call his mother, who was inside, to help him make it into their home. Photos by Maggie MacPherson.

Still, Iseda Jeffers-Harris says dropping off a bleeding, injured child without being sure his parents are home and not calling 911 is inconsistent with the requirement to render aid.

Jeffers-Harris has called on the Surrey school district to address the issue. So far, the district and school board have been silent. The family’s supporters say Marquice Jeffers-Harris deserves better.

Surrey school district spokesperson Ritinder Matthew said Sept. 23 that the incident is under review.

“The district is aware of this incident, and we’ve asked HR to review the facts and determine appropriate next steps,” Matthew said. “And I don’t have any further details to provide due to privacy concerns.”

Daavin Weston-Kilt, a Grade 11 student at Semiahmoo, said she is convinced the RCMP investigation was inadequate. Giving Marquice a towel to stop the blood flowing from his wounds and dropping him at the house without knowing where his parents were isn’t providing assistance, she said.

She also said it “hurts her heart” that she doesn’t know anyone among Semiahmoo’s 1,700 students who share her support of Marquice and his family.

Social media posts have backed the teacher who was driving, “saying she would never do such a thing, that they’re making it up, that it wasn’t hurtful, that he should have been more careful, not skateboarding on the road,” said Weston-Kilt.

“They blame it on the victim, but something big is happening. We’re actually hoping to change the rules of the law.”

Rebecca Thompson, a Grade 12 student at Brookswood Secondary in Langley who is supporting the family’s efforts, agrees. Thompson shared the family’s petition, donated to their campaign and created a “Justice for Marquice” GoFundMe page to raise money to support their efforts to change the laws.

“This is a teacher who is supposed to be protecting students and trying to do the best for her students, and she abandoned him,” said Thompson. “She abandoned a child who was bleeding.”

When Thompson posted about it on social media, she said she also faced backlash from some Semiahmoo students.

“It worries me because these kids are unable to see what happened. All they see is a teacher that they love and support, and I get it. You’re allowed to love your teachers. You’re allowed to want to support them, but you can’t go out and bully victims,” she said.

Thompson said the Surrey school district’s silence on the incident is “disturbing.”

“I have a 10-year-old brother, and after reading this story I was thinking, ‘What if he’s out riding his scooter and he gets hit?’” she said. “That’s why I think we need this law to help protect our children.”

There should be a legal requirement to call 911 or ensure children are in their parents’ care if they are hurt in a crash, she added.

Early this month, Iseda Jeffers-Harris met with Surrey Centre MP Randeep Sarai to tell him what happened to her son and ask for advice about how to press for changes to the Criminal Code.

She arrived at the meeting with her petition, which then had been signed by more than 10,000 people. She hopes those people will continue to press for change and said their voices are important to her cause.

“I want the school district to hear other people’s voices, because obviously they’re going to look at my letters and my complaint forms and be like, ‘Well, she’s the mother. She’s looking at it from a biased perspective,’” she said. “But I would be just as outraged if this was somebody else’s child… and there are other people that are just as outraged that it was my child.”

The RCMP’s Sturko acknowledged that some community members are upset with the investigation’s outcome.

“This is very upsetting for the family, and it’s a difficult situation because we are sorry that it wasn’t the outcome that they had hoped for, but we have to work based on the information that we have, and we have to work within the parameters of the laws and statutes that we are provided,” she said.

She urges anyone who feels they did not receive proper treatment from the Surrey RCMP to contact the detachment’s Professional Standards Unit and management.

“We don’t want to shy away from any type of criticism, and if the mother of the injured child believes that she wasn’t treated fairly or that her son did not receive the treatment that he deserved based on any discrimination, we would invite that discussion,” Sturko said.

More than a month after Marquice was hit by the SUV, Iseda Jeffers-Harris said she’s still frustrated with the school board and police.

“I don’t know what the school district needs in order to place some accountability on [the teacher],” she said. “The story’s been out there. It’s been told many, many, many times. They’ve heard the radio interviews. I’m just not sure what else they’re looking for at this point, but I’m still looking for accountability.”

Since she started sharing her son’s story, she said other students reached out to express their concerns about racism within the public education system.

“If there are problems going on in any school district or students are not feeling safe or they’re feeling like a victim of racism, I think their voices need to be heard because this racism isn’t just inside the police force. It’s within the system, and I’ve heard some pretty sad and disturbing stories from some other students that are in a lot of pain themselves,” she said.

“They are everything, they are our future, and their voices aren’t being heard.”

*Story updated on Sept. 28 at 1:07 p.m. to correct information about the school attended by Marquice Jeffers-Harris.  [Tyee]

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