Reality Check

NOW   Jan 17, 2008
The Falconer report on school safety paints a disturbing picture. But was the media too quick to jump on the more alarming bits? Take a look at the numbers.

The perception left by headlines
Sexual assaults, guns and drugs are rampant in T.O.’s predominantly black schools, to the extent that police dogs should be called in for locker searches.

Lost in the mob coverage
The numbers released by Falconer’s panel on student perceptions of crime “may be somewhat inflated.”    The report itself acknowledges that the shooting death of Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys CI, the incident that gave rise to the panel’s review, may have “significantly increased the number of students who feel weapons are a problem.”

“It is also difficult to determine exactly what students mean when they state that weapons are ‘a serious problem,’” the report cautions. “Are the respondents trying to tell us that many of their fellow students carry weapons to school on a regular basis?

“The results leave many questions. Were students at C.W. Jefferys exposed to the same gun carried by the same individual?”

Glossed-over numbers
Despite the sensational headlines, 81 per cent of students surveyed by Falconer’s panel at C.W. Jefferys feel either “very safe” or “safe” at their school.

Exposure to guns at C.W. Jefferys “is highly concentrated among gang-involved students,” according to the Falconer report. To boot, most of the incidents involving guns, some two-thirds of all those reported to the Falconer panel by current gang members, took place off school property.

Falconer’s report stresses that the victimization figures presented “should not be used to argue that C.W. Jefferys is more violent or crime-ridden than other high schools in Toron-to.” For example, more than half the sexual assaults reported by C.W. Jefferys students occurred outside of school.

In fact, the C.W. Jefferys numbers are quite consistent with the only other survey of student victimization conducted by the board – the 2000 Toronto Youth Crime and Victimization Survey of 3,393 students in 30 different high schools (20 public, 10 Catholic).

Worst-case scenario: Westview
During the panel’s consultations on C.W. Jefferys, another school, Westview Centennial, emerged as a greater concern among some students, parents and trustees. The school rates as the most needy in the city, according to the board’s Learning Opportunities Index, which ranks median income, housing, level of education and immigration.

But Westview’s numbers, as they relate to guns and violence, mirror C.W. Jefferys – which is to say that 74 per cent of Westview students feel “very safe” or “fairly safe” at their school.

Shooting straight
Again, numbers released by the Falconer report relating to guns – 5.5 per cent at Westview claim to have been threatened with a gun at school – come with two huge qualifiers:

1) There are no incidents involving firearms at Westview in two years’ worth of school reports reviewed by the Falconer panel.

2) Of the eight weapons incidents investigated by police at the school over the last two years, only one involved a gun.

“One might expect that firearms would be more likely to be detected at Westview,” the Falconer report points out. “There are 73 cameras in place in Westview.”

Colour code
The report also notes that the gang presence at Westview – 39 students who responded to the survey claim to be gang members – “may sometimes be overestimated,” since many students wear red or blue colours, which are also gang colours, as a signifier of their home community.

Blame amalgamation
While much of the blame here has been laid at the feet of the school board, the Falconer reports points out that amalgamation has had a devastating effect on the school system.

“The end result was a mammoth school board operating on a fraction of the funding it needed but continuing to struggle with a growing population of unassisted complex-needs youth.”

A bomb was dropped into this boiling cauldron in 2000 with the Harris Tories’ passage of the Safe Schools Act, which made suspensions and expulsions and police involvement mandatory for many forms of student misconduct – and gave rise to charges of rampant discrimination by minority students.

A significant proportion of students surveyed by Falconer’s panel (almost two-thirds) believe that schools discriminate against minority students in grading practices and in handing out expulsions.

Says the report, “It could be argued that until these difficult questions are fully answered, the school environment will not be seen as safe [the report’s emphasis] by many students of colour. Indeed, dealing with the issues of racism should be central to any broader discussion of school safety issues.”