School violence: How we can fix at least one of the reasons it persists

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This story is part of School Violence, a CBC News series examining the impact of peer-on-peer violence on students and parents.

A recent CBC News series featured heart-breaking stories of violence — physical, psychological and sexual — inflicted on students in today's schools. All of this came hard on the heels of the horrendous stabbing death of 14-year-ol 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 in the first place.

That challenge has confronted us for more than a decade since the release of Julian Falconer's massive January 2008 report The Road to Health,which looked at tackling student violence in the Toronto District School Board.

School authorities from province to province, we learned from the CBC investigation, still collect incident reports on student violence in vastly different ways. The result is a crazy-quilt patchwork of data with far too many schools and regions that file no reports at all.

Only two of the provinces, Ontario and Nova Scotia, require schools to share their school violence statistics with their education ministries. Even so, in the case of Ontario, that data was found to be incomplete and inaccurate.

Given the paucity of reliable statistics, it's 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 nationwide survey of 4,000 young people, ages 14 to 21, in September of this year.

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) experienced unwanted sexual contact at school; and one in four students first experienced sexual harassment or assault before Grade 7 in elementary school.

Five key factors can be identified, based upon the CBC investigation and credible research on violence in schools:

  • 'Head-in-the-sand' denial: Much of the school violence experienced by students is treated by officials as isolated incidents, or events requiring too much time-consuming investigation in order to assign blame or responsibility. In the absence of required reporting, it goes unacknowledged and, all too often, is swept under the rug.
  • Ineffective oversight: Even where reporting of student violence incidents is expected or required, it's often 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 the absence of reports is not questioned, even in some cases when it involves incidents featured in local media reports.
  • Under-reporting: Many principals and administrators under-report the number of 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.
  • Fear of reputational risk: School administrators are often protective of a school's reputation and reluctant to report higher counts, which might result in them being labelled a "dangerous school" if their numbers are high or rising from year to year.
  • Feeble public accountability: Educational oversight by elected school boards and district educational councils is woefully inadequate.

Illustrating that last point, Manitoba provincial school boards association president Alan Campbell says that maintaining "a safe learning environment" is the "No. 1 priority." However, public disclosure of data is non-existent there, and levels of sexual harassment and hateful name-calling are higher than any other province in Canada.

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.