A day to think of Reena Virk
On Tuesday, Manjit and Suman Virk marked a sad milestone. Nov. 14 was the 20th anniversary of the murder of their daughter Reena. Hundreds of people commemorated the date with a gathering dedicated to healing and to preventing youth violence — goals the Virks have worked toward for the past two decades. Throughout those years of pain and loss, they and others in the community have taken Reena’s death as a call to action.
Her parents have spoken to hundreds of students about bullying and the need for inclusion. Programs to encourage non-violent conflict resolution were created to show teens a different way.
Reena was only 14 on Nov. 14, 1997, when she was swarmed and beaten by a group of teens under the Craigflower Bridge. She was followed across the bridge by Warren Glowatski and Kelly Ellard, who continued attacking her and then drowned her. Her body was found eight days later.
The fact that almost all her attackers were teenage girls shocked the city.
“I think Reena’s death is so poignant because it surpassed what the community thought was possible,” said Rachel Calder, executive director of Artemis Place Society, which co-organized Tuesday’s event with Learning Through Loss. “In addition to the grief, there was shock and inability to comprehend that this was even possible.”
Many people couldn’t fit the murder into their image of the capital region, but as often happens, a few sought to bring hope out of sorrow. They pushed the problem of bullying into the light of day.
In this, they were inspired by Manjit and Suman, who forgave Glowatski after he took responsibility for Reena’s death and apologized to them.
Hard though it is for most of us to imagine forgiving our child’s murderer, the Virks have demonstrated that we can’t teach non-violence to young people unless we also show them the power of forgiveness. It’s not an easy lesson to put into practice, as most of us know that teenagers are as prone to the worst of human nature as are the rest of us.
The worst too often includes not only bullying, but discrimination and racism, the inevitable spawn of children’s propensity for picking on anyone who is different. That’s why the message of inclusion has to be part of any campaign against bullying.
Those campaigns have had some success, but as Calder pointed out before the Tuesday event, a lot of bullying has moved from the schoolyard to the smartphone.
“In the ’90s, a student can go home and be safe,” she said. “Now when they’re at home, they’re not safe because they have social media on their devices. It’s almost impossible for these developing brains to turn these devices off.”
Social media have changed the manifestation of the problem, but not its causes. So while we try to get through to the bullies, we also must continue to teach the bullied to protect themselves online, as well as at school.
It is a campaign that likely has no end. Every generation will have to be taught to reject bullying and violence.
If we are in this for the long haul, we will need the courage, determination and strength to forgive that Suman and Manjit Virk have found for the past 20 years.