A recent CBC-TV News series (October 24-25) featured hair-raising stories of violence, physical, psychological and sexual, inflicted on students in today’s schools (CBC Marketplace 2019). All of this came hard on the heels of the horrendous stabbing death of 14-year-old Devan Bracci-Selvey in front of Hamilton’s Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School.
Raising our consciousness about the dangers students face is much easier than grappling with why Canadian schools are falling short in addressing the chronic problem of violence, bullying, and sexual harassment. Twelve years after the groundbreaking January 2008 Toronto District School Board panel report1, The Road to Health: A Final Report on School Safety, it is hard to see much progress in ensuring student safety in schools.
School authorities from province-to-province, we learned, collect incident reports on student violence in vastly different ways, producing a crazy-quilt patchwork of data with far too many zero reports. Only two of the provinces, Ontario and Nova Scotia, require schools to share their school violence statistics with their education ministries. In the case of Ontario, that data was found to be incomplete and inaccurate. Given the paucity of reliable statistics, it was next-to-impossible to analyze this disturbing social trend in our schools.
To get to the bottom of the problem, CBC’s Marketplace commissioned a survey of 4,000 young people, ages 14 to 212, in September of this year, Nationwide, the results were startling: Two out of five (41 per cent) of boys reported being physically assaulted in high school; one in four girls (26 per cent) of girls experienced unwanted sexual contact at school; and one in four students first experienced sexual harassment or assault before Grade 7 in elementary grades.
Five key factors can be identified, based upon the CBC investigation and credible research on violence in schools.
1. Head-in-the-Sand’ Denial:
Much of the school violence experienced by students is treated as isolated incidents or events where it requires time-consuming investigation to assign blame or responsibility. In the absence of required reporting, it goes unacknowledged and, all too often, swept under the rug.3, 4
2. Ineffective Implementation:
Reporting of student violence incidents is expected or required, but not deemed a priority, unless or until a publicized incident hits the media and arouses parental unrest. School-by-school reports may be filed, as in Ontario, but oversight is weak or non-existent and zero reports are not questioned, even when it involved incidents featured in local media reports.5
3. Under-Reporting of Incidents:
School reports generated by principals and administrators normally under-report the actual school violence incidents, as revealed when compared with student-reported data. In American states, where student violence reporting is more established, data generated from the victims is incorporated into the official statistics.6
4. Fear of Reputational Risk:
School administrators are protective of a school’s reputation and reluctant to report higher counts which might result in being labelled a “dangerous school” if their numbers are high or rising from year-to-year.7, 8
5. Feeble Public Accountability:
Educational oversight by elected school boards and district educational councils is woefully inadequate. In Manitoba, the provincial school boards association president Alan Campbell claims that maintaining “a safe learning environment” is the “no. 1 priority,” while public disclosure of data is non-existent and levels of sexual harassment and hateful name-calling are higher than any other province in Canada.9 Why elected boards do not insist upon full public disclosure is hard to fathom, especially when it’s their responsibility to identify critical needs and allocate district resources.
Much can be learned from American school research and critical analyses of Ontario’s violent statistics regulation implementation over the past eight years. UCLA Professor Ron Avi Astor has published more than 200 academic studies on violent behaviour in schools. In the CBC-TV News investigation, he confirmed that Canada has no real system at all for collecting data10, exemplified by uneven provincial policies, lack of consistent definitions for offenses, varying collection systems, and inaccurate/incomplete statistics.
One of Canada’s leading experts on children’s mental health and violence prevention, University of Ottawa Education professor Tracy Vaillancourt points out that weaknesses in violent-incident and cyberbullying reporting undermine the effectiveness of school safety and prevention programs.11, 12 Acknowledging and measuring the problem is a critical first step in combatting bullying, cyberbullying and sexual harassment in schools.
Ontario deserves credit for requiring mandatory reporting, but the system does not stand up to close scrutiny. Most recent data documented 2,124 violent incidents in 2018-19, averaging more than 10 incidents province-wide each day.13 It simply does not stack up because 18 of Ontario’s 76 school boards have reported zero incidents for several years, eight show radical variations from year to year, and four boards are in non-compliance having failed to file reports for some years. While the CBC survey documented serious levels of violent incidents, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of Ontario schools reported zero incidents over the previous year.
Negligence in reporting and underreporting simply compound the problem. When the violence statistics go unreported or are full of zeros, it becomes guesswork in allocating resources, not just funds but counsellors, psychologists, and social workers to rectify school problems with student behaviour.
1 Julian Falconer, Peggy Edwards and Linda MacKinnon (2008). The Road to Health: A Final Report on School Safety. Panel Report to Toronto District School Board. Toronto: Toronto District School Board, 4 January 2008. https://www.falconers.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Safety-Vol.-1.pdf
2 CBC News Marketplace (2019). School Violence, 24-25 October 2019. David Common, Anu Singh and Caitlin Taylor, CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/school-violence-marketplace-1.5224865 and https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/marketplace-school-violence-sexual-violence-1.5329520
3 Julian Falconer, Peggy Edwards and Linda MacKinnon (2008). The Road to Health: A Final Report on School Safety. Panel Report to Toronto District School Board. Toronto: Toronto District School Board, 4 January 2008. https://www.falconers.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Safety-Vol.-1.pdf
4 Shawn Jeffords (2015). Ontario’s school violence statistics criticized for inaccuracy. Toronto Sun, 31 January 2015.
5 CBC News Marketplace (2019). School Violence, 24-25 October 2019. David Common, Anu Singh and Caitlin Taylor, CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/school-violence-marketplace-1.5224865 and https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/marketplace-school-violence-sexual-violence-1.5329520
6 Ron Avi Astor, Nancy Guerra and Richard Van Acker (2010). How can we improve school safety research? Educational Researcher, Vol. 39, No. 1, 69-78.
8 Valerie Ouellet and Caitlin Taylor (2019). Why so much student violence still goes unreported. CBC News, 24 October 2014.
9 Jacques Marcoux (2019). Student-on-student sexual violence highest in Prairies, CB national survey finds. CBC News, 24 October 2019.
10 Valerie Ouellet and Caitlin Taylor (2019). Why so much student violence still goes unreported. CBC News, 24 October 2014.
11 Tracy Vaillancourt, Robert Faris and Faye Mishra (2016). Cyberbullying in Children and Youth: Implications for Health and Clinical Practice. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry (19 December 2016), https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0706743716684791
12 CBC News Marketplace (2019). School Violence, 24-25 October 2019. David Common, Anu Singh and Caitlin Taylor, CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/school-violence-marketplace-1.5224865 and https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/marketplace-school-violence-sexual-violence-1.5329520
13 Valerie Ouellet and Caitlin Taylor (2019). Why so much student violence still goes unreported. CBC News, 24 October 2014.