Safe School initiatives and “No Tolerance” policies have been around since the mid-1990s, but school boards and provincial education authorities across Canada are now collecting and beginning to publicly report on acts of school violence. It’s also headline news because of startling figures, inaccurate reports, and hair-raising tales of violence against teachers.
Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union president Shelley Morse topped them all in February 16, 2015 in a CBCNews Nova Scotia report. “I’ve been kicked, punched, bitten. Had chairs and desks and rocks thrown at me, ” she said. “I’ve had students spit on me. Have been verbally abusive to me. They have destroyed my office, because I’m a vice principal as well.” Teachers, Morse claimed, call the NSTU in fear of their students it gets so bad at times.
Cracking down on school violence is not new. It goes back to 1994, when American President Bill Clinton passed the Gun Free Schools Act banning guns from public schools and cracking down on school violence. After the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, the majority of U.S. schools adopted “No Tolerance” policies for violence, tobacco, alcohol, drugs, firearms, and weapons other than guns. Since then, Canada’s provincial school systems have adopted their own versions of such policies aimed at combating bullying, managing youth violence, and controlling unwanted aggression.
Twelve years ago, when British Columbia Premier Christy Clark was Education Minister, a government task force called for province-wide policies for dealing with bullying, harassment and intimidation in schools, including annual reports from school boards on how they handled violent incidents. Since then, safe school policies in many urban schools in Ontario have featured security guards, electronic surveillance, student identification tags, discipline, and zero tolerance.
Implementing simple “No Tolerance” policies ran into unexpected difficulties. In 2000, the Ontario Ministry of Education passed the Safe Schools Act, which set out a list of offences that could trigger expulsion, suspension, and other disciplinary responses. Interestingly, it did not define safety. In a parallel move, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) adopted The Equity Foundation Statement in 1999 – a comprehensive commitment to equity and a rally against racism, homophobia, sexism, and oppression based on class. Those two initiatives have, in effect, exposed differences in students’ and teachers’ perceptions of safety and equity, and how they experience bulling and harassment on a day-to-day basis.
Public disclosure of violence and bullying is now far more common. In 2011, Ontario’s Ministry of Education responded to public concerns by amending the Education Act and requiring the 73 school boards to report the numbers for incidents like weapon possession, serious assaults and sexual assaults in its schools With the passage of the Nova Scotia 2012 Respectful Schools Act, reporting acts of violence became mandatory in public schools.
The official figures for acts of violence in school can be alarming. Last year teachers, principals and school staff in Nova Scotia recorded 4,730 acts of physical violence in a provincial system with only 400 schools, 122,000 students and 9,300 teachers. So shocking, in fact, that Minister of Education Karen Casey attempted to downplay the figures. “I think it’s misleading to suggest that 4,700 of those are truly violent acts,” she told CBC News. She thinks there’s a distinction to be made between students with emotional or mental difficulties acting out and students who are intentionally violent or aggressive.
Winnipeg public schools have their share of violence and bullying, directed against students and teachers. Over the past two years, CBC News revealed that 931 physical assaults took place, 797 attacks against students and 137 on staff. Affter learning that 15 per cent of the assualts were on teachers, Winnipeg School Division trustee Mike Babinsky replied, “Wow. That’s high.” The Manitoba Teachers Society claims that the numbers are even higher. “You are discouraged from reporting,” says MTS president Paul Olson, “for fear it’ll blight the reputation of the child or the student.”
The posted data from the Ontario school boards has generated much controversy. In 2011-2012, 2,659 violent incidents were reported from almost 5,000 different schools. In 2012-2013, 2,188 incidents are listed. Judging from the Nova Scotia disclosures, those figures look to be remarkably low.
The Ontario school boards were later found to be under-reporting or inaccurately reporting their incidents of violence. The Peel District School Board, appears to lead the pack with 641 total incidents in 2011-2012 and then again in 2012-2013 with 478. The largest board in the province, the Toronto District School Board reported only 177 incidents in the first year and 178 in the second year of tracking the incidents. York Region, which is around the same size as Peel, reported 30 incidents and 38 incidents. In all, 10 of Ontario’s 73 school boards reported no incidents in 2011-2012, and 11 reported no incidents in 2012-2013. Twenty boards reported less than 10 incidents in 2011-2012 and 22 boards report less than 10 incidents in 2012-2013.
After Stu Auty, founding president of the Canadian Safe Schools Network, raised concerns about the accuracy of the reporting, and the Ministry of Education eventually conceded that the numbers were problematic for comparative purposes. Trafficking drugs the Peel public schools, for example, was reported to the province as a violent incident, even though it lay outside the reporting guidelines. A quick look at the figures highlighted a number of other irregularities. In 2011-2012, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board reported 191 violent incidents. The next year, it reported zero.
Educational experts from Pedro Noguera (1995) and J.A. Baker (1998) to Stephen Jull (2000) tend to dispute claims made by school officials and teacher unions about the incidence of, and motivations behind, acts of school violence. Declining enrollments and recent crime statistics suggest that violent conduct and behaviour may not be as prevalent as reported, and that the student interactions are inseparably connected to the “learning climate” and rigidity of school discipline policies. Scare stories about student violence, experts claim, tell only part of the story and may reveal more about the level of coercion in schools and the effectiveness of school policy in promoting social and cultural acceptance and inclusion of those who are severely challenged or marginalized
A series of school disciplinary policy changes have been implemented over the past 20 years in an attempt to curb violence in schools and to stamp out bullying in hallways and playgrounds. Whatever happened to the Zero Tolerance and Safe Schools policy initiatives? Are acts of school violence and bullying escalating as much as is being reported? If one out of ten acts of violence are directed toward teachers, is that a worrisome trend? How reliable are the current school violence reports as a basis for framing school discipline policy?