Lockdowns, fights, weapons: Angst and fear in Toronto schools over rise in violence

Lockdowns, fights, weapons: Angst and fear in Toronto schools over rise in violence

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Fights in hallways. Teens carrying knives and scissors for protection. Lockdowns amid reports of gun sightings.

Principals in schools across the city are struggling to cope with frightening incidents of violence made all the more concerning because calls to the board for support staff to intervene in crisis situations can go unanswered as they too are stretched thin.

A recent report by the association representing principals and vice-principals in Toronto’s public schools paints a grim picture, depicting administrators as stressed out and grappling with how to manage problematic student behaviour.

Further complicating the issue around school safety, say administrators, is that some exterior doors, public address systems and security cameras are not working properly — and requests for improvements are often delayed.

“Our school leaders are saying loudly and clearly that we don’t have enough resources to deal with the problem,” says Ralph Nigro, chair of the Toronto School Administrators’ Association, which surveyed its members. “It’s a very, very difficult situation.”

The report sheds light on the challenges around school safety, which is a major concern for many educators, students and parents. The rise in violence on school premises — just last month a drive-by shooting outside Weston Collegiate Institute left a teen in critical condition — has 2022-23 on track to being the worst since the Toronto District School Board began collecting data in 2000.

‘Lockdown, lockdown, lockdown’

“Students living in Toronto feel scared,” says Neela Ethayakanthan, a Grade 10 Weston student and member of the TDSB student senate, which represents kids across the district.

“It’s insane that students are bringing weapons to school to protect themselves,” she says, referring to pocket knives and scissors. “There’s a lot of violence in schools, a lot of fights. Nowadays, bullying isn’t cyberbullying or making comments about people. It’s actually jumping people and physically abusing them. That’s what’s scary.”

Being on the student senate, Ethayakanthan, 15, speaks with kids from various schools — topping their list of concerns is safety, followed by mental health.

Teens are currently dealing with a lot of stress and anger, which manifests in violence. Some of that, she says, is connected to having been socially isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, but family issues, financial strains and food insecurity are also key. Some students have told her their families are on the brink of becoming homeless.

She says students feel “forgotten” and while there are incidents that make the headlines, “no one actually looks into how students are feeling.”

Some of those headlines include the fatal shootings of two teens — one at David and Mary Thomson Collegiate Institute in February 2022 and another outside Woburn Collegiate Institute in October — and the stabbing of a student at Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute in November. At York Memorial Collegiate Institute, 14 teachers refused to work in the fall because of unsafe conditions resulting from facilities issues and escalating violence, and students there staged a walkout in December.

Last month, Ethayakanthan’s own school was rocked by violence when a 15-year-old in the parking lot was shot three times in the chest during a drive-by shooting. He ran to the office where staff supported him until paramedics arrived to rush him to hospital with life-threatening injuries. (Two 17-year-olds were later arrested in Peel region and face a slew of charges.)

When the lunchtime shooting happened, Ethayakanthan was in the gym watching the girls’ volleyball team practice when an announcement came on the PA system: “Lockdown. Lockdown. Lockdown.” Students and staff who had been in the gym hunkered down in a changing room. After a flurry of phone text messages amongst teens — some that included rumours of a gunman inside the building — they learned of the shooting.

“My heart dropped,” she recalls, adding those with phones quietly called their moms to say they loved them. “It was heartbreaking,” says Ethayakanthan, who borrowed someone’s phone to text her sister and told her to watch the news for updates.

She says staff “handled everything under pressure,” which eased her fears. And when the lockdown lifted, she says, administrators came back on the PA system, noting, “They were reassuring, but you could tell they had been through a lot.”

At Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute in North York, a lockdown in January when a gun was reportedly spotted left many parents shaken, although no gun was retrieved by police.

“Parents were literally crying,” recalls father Yogesh Kumar, co-chair of the school council. “That time was very emotional.”

“Now there’s the concern of, ‘What has the school done so far?” he says, adding parents have even offered to pay for security.

Fighting, verbal abuse, weapons

When the association representing principals and vice-principals noticed an influx of calls and emails about issues such as workload, student behaviour and school safety, it surveyed its roughly 1,000 members — 548 of them, or 56 per cent, responded.

The vast majority attribute challenges around student well-being, behaviour and safety to a lack of staff, resources and support. About 80 per cent say school staff have a tough time managing student well-being, with 74 per cent expressing challenges dealing with student behaviour. Just over one-third say violent and inappropriate behaviour — fighting, verbal abuse and, in some cases, the possession of weapons — is on the rise. And some administrators report spending most of their days dealing with issues linked to student behaviour, well-being or crisis intervention.

The report notes 46 per cent say requests for extra supports from central departments to help students in crisis went unanswered or were denied, likely due to budget restraints. Those support requests could be for anything from dealing with a violent incident to seeking help with a special needs student.

Nigro says often those requests go unanswered because “there are no more resources left to give because they’ve all been allocated to other schools and they have no more staff to deploy.” Further complicating things is the fact high staff absences and unfilled positions mean there are fewer adults in the building, making it tougher to provide kids with ongoing support.

“With the conditions the way they are right now, we’re really worried that some really good classroom teachers, who should be considering going into school leadership, will stay away because of what they’re seeing their principals and vice-principals dealing with on a daily basis,” he says. “That harms the entire system when our best people are not coming forward into leadership positions … and considering moving to other sectors.”

The TDSB says it’s working with the province, central staff and unions to address staffing shortages. And, that in times of crisis, health and safety issues are prioritized and principals are always supported in emergencies.

When it comes to facilities, administrators say requests for improvements are often met with delays, backorders, backlogs or a lack of funding. For instance, 43 per cent said their PA systems are antiquated, not working well, or repeatedly breaking down; 28 per cent said exterior doors were deficient, including not locking properly, being propped open or needing repairs; and 66 per cent reported issues with their security cameras, saying they either required repairs, needed more of them in certain locations or had none at all.

The TDSB says its buildings are, on average, about 60 years old, that the repair backlog is more than $4 billion, and it too has been impacted by pandemic-related supply chain issues.

Still, requests related to health and safety get prioritized, the board says, and are addressed as quickly as possible. If the issue is major, such as an exterior door not locking, it is fixed immediately.

While some cameras aren’t functioning properly, the challenge is that they’re so old it’s tough to find parts to fix them. The board is currently trying new security camera technology at two schools, and plans to replace all TDSB school cameras with state-of-the-art devices in the coming years, at a cost of about $20 million. It’s a major undertaking given the number of cameras involved — for instance Weston Collegiate alone has about 80.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has spoken out publicly, saying school violence is a serious issue and a priority of his is ensuring schools are safe and inclusive.

“Ontario’s education budget is at the highest level in the province’s history, almost $35 billion this year alone,” says the minister’s spokesperson Grace Lee. “We have made unprecedented investments, including hiring nearly 7,000 new education workers and approximately 1,000 teachers, while increasing student mental health funding to $90 million. Through our investments our government has shown we will always provide the support our students and families need and deserve.”

TDSB’s action plan

The TDSB is trying to tackle the issue in various ways, including a 13-point action plan released in December that includes more training for staff, working with community partners to develop programming for kids, and the creation of an expert panel that will make recommendations. It has also called on all levels of government to help.

A report detailing that plan notes that the TDSB is on target to having more violent incidents than ever in schools — this includes possession of a weapon, sexual assault and physical assault causing harm requiring medical attention.

It also says the rise corresponds with Toronto Police Service data showing an increase in violence impacting young people between the ages of 12-29. From January 2021 to November 2022, there were 870 firearm incidents in Toronto, resulting in 426 victims, about half of whom were young people, with youth aged 12-17 accounting for eight per cent. Among the young people accused, youth made up 17 per cent.

During that same period, 622 young people were victims of stabbings and 586 were accused, however a TPS analysis showed an alarming 13 per cent increase in youth accused of stabbings. A similar increase was noted for young people accused of assaults or robberies, with youth accounting for a 17 per cent increase in assaults and an eight per cent increase in robberies.

“When we see increased violence and issues in our communities, we’re going to see it in schools,” says Ryan Bird, a spokesperson for the TDSB, which has about 235,000 students in 583 schools. “There are a number of different players that can help support this. … We want to hear from everyone.”

Prior to this academic year, schools were expected to review safety protocols and run through a checklist of sorts. If schools wanted training in emergency preparedness and dealing with threats to safety, they would call Toronto police officer Tony Santeramo, the force’s lockdown/threat assessment co-ordinator. Now, the TDSB has mandated that all superintendents, administrators and office staff must attend training with Santeramo, who reviews board procedures and draws on real examples, such as school shootings in Parkland, Florida; Uvalde, Texas; and Michigan State University.

Mandatory training ensures staff keep up with evolving procedures — for instance, they now say a school is in “lockdown,” as opposed to using a code word. Last month, the TDSB organized an online training session for more than 500 administrators, and afterwards 150 emailed Santeramo asking that he visit their schools to train the teachers.

“We can set all the expectations we want, and write down all the fancy procedures and protocols, (but) unless we provide supports and learning for staff to achieve those expectations they’re not worth the paper they’re written on,” says Jim Spyropoulos, the TDSB’s executive superintendent of human rights and Indigenous education.

For more than a decade, the TDSB’s focus has been on emergency preparedness, which includes knowing what to do in situations such as a lockdown, hold and secure and shelter in place. But now its entire Caring and Safe Schools team is being trained in threat assessment, which involves evaluating and determining if a student or situation poses a danger. The training is done by the Center for Trauma Informed Practices and the goal is for staff to take what’s learned and roll it out across the system.

Beyond training, a key thing the TDSB routinely hears from communities is that kids don’t have anything to do. During March break, the board held tutoring camps at 13 schools, where high school students were paid to help elementary kids with literacy and numeracy. While the TDSB paid for these camps with tutoring funds the province gave school boards for use by March 31, Spyropoulos says this is an example of how the board has been creative in using the tutoring funds to help with safe school issues.

“A student who is engaged feels more connected to school and this contributes to a more positive school climate,” he says. “Those are the investments that are more proactive and help students to behave in more pro-social ways, as opposed to solving the problem with a camera.”

The board has also been working in partnership with community groups to create programming. An example is a pilot project at David and Mary Thomson Collegiate and Winston Churchill Collegiate on Saturdays for teens who are part of the TDSB’s Focus on Youth program. It’s a ministry-funded initiative, and a partnership between the province, school boards and community agencies, aimed at giving teens in high-needs neighbourhoods job opportunities and leadership training.

Teens have been taking certification courses in food handling and safety on job sites, which may help land a job in a restaurant or in the skilled trades. And in the gym, another group of teens in the board’s leadership program coach elementary school kids.

The end goal of a pilot project like this is to “really improve school safety and school climate,” says Emmanuel Papathanasakis, a Caring and Safe Schools adviser, who helped develop it.

During the week, his job includes supporting administrators with behavioural issues and transferring students to other schools because they have been expelled or charged and must comply with conditions that may require them to stay away from specific kids. This year, “we are absolutely swamped.”

But he says a pilot project like this can help keep students on the right track. Kids from different communities are side-by-side, in a safe space, working towards a goal.

“It’s through programs like this that they can talk to a caring adult,” says Papathanasakis, who recently helped two kids resolve a conflict that had started on social media and seemed headed towards a fight. “The bottom line is it’s worth it.”

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

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