Violence report reveals culture of fear in Toronto schools

Jordana Huber   dose.ca   Published: Thursday, January 10, 2008

TORONTO – A panel investigation into school-based violence said the Toronto District School Board should consider using firearm-detecting canine units to randomly conduct "non-intrusive" searches of student lockers and all potential storage areas to ensure weapons are not being hidden, according to a leaked report that includes shocking revelations about the extent to which violence and sexual harassment are prevalent in Toronto schools.

Nearly 1,000 pages in length, the final report of the School Community and Safety Advisory Panel, due out Monday, makes 126 recommendations to address school safety aimed at both the Toronto District School Board and the province, which, according to the report, is under-funding the education system.
"There is a community-wide crisis of confidence in the ability of the TDSB to ensure violence-free and weapon-free environments in all of its schools. The panel shares this concern," the report said.

In making its recommendations, the panel noted a pervasive culture of silence and fear both among students and staff at the TDSB that is leading to unreported incidents.

Led by human rights lawyer Julian Falconer, the panel found neither the school board nor police are in a position to effectively track the number of weapons going in and out of schools.

"The youth carrying guns exhibit sufficient 'street smarts' to, in the vast majority of cases, avoid detection," the report said.

To address safety concerns, the panel recommends a number of initiatives, including posting adult supervision at the entrance of schools during regular hours and identification tags for students.

In order to develop an enhanced presence in their schools, teachers should increase their supervision duties, according to the report, which calls for the TDSB to negotiate with the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary Students Teachers Federation for increased remuneration to reflect the additional workload.

Prompted by the shooting death last May of Jordan Manners, 15, at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate, the TDSB appointed Falconer to lead an investigation into school safety procedures at the high school.

As part of its investigation, but unrelated to Manners' death, the panel uncovered allegations that a Muslim female student had been sexually assaulted in a school washroom at C.W. Jefferys the previous year, but that the incident was not reported by school administrators.

Citing serious safety concerns during the course of its investigation, in June the panel expanded its mandate to look at other schools in the area, including Westview Centennial.

According to the Falconer report, in October 2006, several C.W. Jefferys students approached a female teacher and reported that a group of boys had sexually assaulted a female Muslim student in the second floor boys washroom. The report said the girls confided in the teacher because they feared the teens were targeting female students who were unpopular and isolated. The teacher and students then reported their concerns to the principal, the report said.

But there was no follow-up, according to the panel. The alleged sexual assault was not reported to police or the alleged victim's parents because, according to the report, the administrator had concerns that due to the alleged victim's ethnic background she would be the subject of abuse at home.

The report said as students at C.W. Jefferys heard rumours of an attack, the alleged victim became the subject of intense sexual harassment and ridicule by other students.

The panel notes some steps were taken to curb the bullying and abusive behaviour but it continued to the point where the young woman was eventually transferred to another school at her own request and that of her father.

The report said no further steps were taken to remove the alleged perpetrators from the school. Indeed, no further actions were taken until the panel uncovered the allegations this summer and reported them to the TDSB, which in turn, reported them to police.

Six males were arrested in September and face charges of forcible confinement, gang sexual assault and conspiracy to commit an indictable offence.

In February, the principal and two former vice-principals of C.W. Jefferys will appear in court to face charges under the Ontario Child and Family Services Act that they failed to report an incident contrary to their obligation, according to Toronto Police.

Indeed, the panel found that "sexual assault and sexual harassment are prevalent in TDSB schools," the report said.

According to a student survey conducted at Westview Centennial, 33 per cent of students surveyed reported being a victim of sexual harassment in school over the past two years. Twenty-nine per cent reported being the victim of unwanted sexual contact, including touching or grabbing at their school, and 29 female students or 7 per cent of respondents reported being the victim of a major sexual assault at their school.

The panel calls for a series of initiatives to address the issues of sexual harassment, including a public awareness campaign concerning sexual assault and gender-based violence. In addition, each school should establish a student hotline staffed by students trained in reporting and aware of appropriate supports for students being victimized.

The panel also recommends the TDSB develop a sexual assault and gender-based violence prevention strategy. In addition, the TDSB should partner with community agencies that provide services for women and girls who experience violence in order to enhance supports available to students to help prevent and respond to gender-based school violence.

The four-volume report also takes the government to task over its funding formula. The panel recommends increasing the benchmark costs for all components of the formula in order to close the gap between funding provided and actual costs.

It also recommends the minister of education strike an implementation task force to oversee recommendations.

Further recommendations in the report include:

. The hiring of 20 new full-time social workers.

. The policy that safe school transfers only be used in exceptional circumstances and not as a discipline.

. The province creates a standing educational justice committee.

. The TDSB amend its transfer process to permit teachers at schools in at-risk communities to be transferred to a different school upon request.

. Develop an inclusive curriculum that explores ways to incorporate African-centred perspectives and other forms of cultural knowledge.

. Require principals to stay five years in priority communities.

. Revise and broaden online code of conduct to include acts of cyber violence and the consequences for students who engage in such conduct on or off school property.