Anna Mehler Paperny and Patrick Cain, Global News
Ask teens in this city how safe they feel, and you’ll get very different answers depending where they go to school.
They feel more secure in richer neighbourhoods with less violent crime. That part may seem obvious.
But it isn’t just the neighbourhood: Students in poorer, more crime-ridden areas are more likely to feel unsafe in school, and on school property, than their counterparts elsewhere.
In 93 out of 115 Toronto high schools included in the data, students said they felt safer in the community than in the outdoor spaces of their own schools.
Across the Toronto District School Board, students are least likely to feel safe in schoolyards, parking lots and playing fields on school property, according to a 2011 census of more than 71,000 teens and preteens – what the board calls “the largest youth census in Canada” – obtained by Global News through an access to information request.
The responses indicate school is by no means a safe haven. And the public system doesn’t give all its students an equal sense of security.
“Anyone who suggests the public-school system is a one-tiered system is absolutely fantasizing,” said lawyer Julian Falconer, who headed a prominent panel on student safety following the 2007 shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners.
The resulting 600-page report found students’ safety was highly dependent on their schools’ environment.
“It is somewhat disconcerting,” the report noted, recounting a survey of students in northwest Toronto, “that a higher proportion of Westview students feels unsafe at school than feels unsafe walking around their own neighbourhood during the day, using the TTC during the day, visiting a shopping mall and going to the movies with friends.”
The report’s 126 recommendations ranged from regular “non-intrusive” searches of lockers to keeping students in their home schools whenever possible. It also recommended hiring 64 new full-time social workers, youth counsellors and attendance counsellors, and ensuring support staff levels were highest at schools with the highest rates of absenteeism and expulsion.
And some of those, Falconer takes pains to emphasize, were followed through on. “There are many things the TDSB has done in the wake of the report that are laudable,” he said.
“The problem is, without a coordinated effort … these problems will persist.”
Last month, the board voted to cut teachers, counsellors, music instructors and other support staff in a bit to save about $27-million of an estimated $55-million deficit. Falconer argues those cuts will inevitably hurt schools in areas where parents are less able to pick up the slack in supporting students.
“With the decrease in funding, parents volunteer time. That’s a luxury that certain income brackets have,” he said. “With these programs being available to kids in the more affluent neighbourhoods that are not available to kids in more troubled communities, obviously you’re going to have more disengaged kids.”
One striking thing the study found is that students across the city feel less safe in schoolyards than they do in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias or outside in their neighbourhoods. York University professor and bullying expert Debra Pepler said that could be due in part to the nature of that space – enclosed, but a little wild.
“We did observations on elementary-school playgrounds with remote microphones, and we were very surprised at the level of aggression. It’s very much a jungle out there,” she said. “There’s low supervision by adults, and many opportunities to corner individuals and bully and harass them. There are almost no rules.”
Ted Libera, Safe and Caring Schools Administrator at the Toronto District School Board, said schools will be studying the results of this most recent census and using those numbers to “pinpoint some areas where some work needs to be done and some specific resources can be brought in to assist staff.”
Keeping the city’s youth safe has been a touchy topic for years after Manners’ shooting and as violence in schools elsewhere in Canada and the United States has made Toronto administrators consider such security measures as guards or metal detectors. In the wake of December’s shootings in Newtown, Conn., former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty pledged $10-million towards cameras and door security systems in all Ontario schools.
In some cases, that appears to work: Several students from North Toronto Collegiate Institute, interviewed by Global News, cited a new facility and vigilant hall monitor as factors allaying any concerns they’d have about security.
But in some cases, the solution could be fuzzier than that. “The health of school environments isn’t about how many metal detectors there are, or how many cameras there are,” Falconer argued.
Several U.S. jurisdictions have found that putting police officers in school leads to students being arrested and charged for relatively minor misdemeanors, the New York Times reported last week.
“Were late to the party,” says Victor Beausoleil, head of Redemption Reintegration Services. “Our neighbours to the south have been dealing with these issues – violence in schools – a lot longer than we have.”
After growing up bouncing around rough Scarborough neighbourhoods, Beausoleil now works with some of Toronto’s most troubled kids: Redemption Reintegration Services has a specialized school program designed for students heading back to school after going through the criminal justice system.
Easing them back into that environment is as much for their fellow students as it is for them, Beausoleil said.
“There’s young people that have been released from correctional facilities that go to schools without a solid intervention model to engage them. … If young people walk through a door and aren’t properly supported, it creates a safety issue.”
Zachary Assue was forced to transfer schools in the middle of Grade 10, kicked out over what he calls “a little bit of an attendance problem.” But shortly after he started at Timothy Eaton Business Technical Institute in northeast Scarborough, he knew he needed to get back.
The environment was “uncomfortable,” he said. “It wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle, but … I just said, ‘Okay, this isn’t the school for me.’
“I took the initiative, went back to [Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute], pleaded with the principal and he got me back in.”
Assue stops short of saying he felt unsafe at the new school. But did kids stand a better chance of being hassled there? “Just maybe, a little more.”
He’s now studying at Redemption Reintegration Services now, with just a couple credits to go before he graduates. He’s trying to decide whether to study auto mechanics at Centennial College or business or marketing at George Brown, so he can grow his nascent clothing business.
Assue can understand why kids might feel scared at school.
“I think it’s common – school could be a big shock for them. For some people, school’s a fear – they just don’t want to go.”
But he hesitates to give the school board advice on how to fix that.
“Keep a little check on them – to see if they’re going through any problems. … Really get to know students, right?” He laughs, at a bit of a loss. “It’s a little difficult.”
With research assistance from Elton Hobson
Part two of three – read the series here