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Violence increasing in schools, local trustee asks 'why?'

Simcoe County schools reported 129 violent incidents last year; the reasons for the rise in violence vary depending on who you talk to

A local school board trustee is pushing for more information to better understand an increase in violence occurring in area schools and how to curb it.

At the public school board’s last meeting before summer break, Collingwood/Wasaga Beach public school board trustee Mike Foley put forward a notice of motion, calling on the Simcoe County District School Board to release information to trustees on 2022/23 violent incidents in Simcoe County schools.

“I’ve spent a fair bit of time talking to parents, teachers and students. I’ve spoken to local police. They all seem to have pretty significant concerns about the level of violence that seems to be increasing at this point in time,” Foley told CollingwoodToday following the school board meeting.

Violence is on the rise in both elementary and secondary schools across Ontario coming out of the pandemic, according to provincial and school board estimates. The Collingwood/Blue Mountain Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) noted 42 violent incidents in schools in their catchment area — a 56 per cent increase — across both elementary and secondary schools in South Georgian Bay in the 2022/23 school year.

“I think we need to get a handle on it before it’s out of hand,” said Foley. “I really want to get that information, so appropriate (actions) be put in place to make kids feel safe.”

While the province has pledged funding to help address the issue and Simcoe County school boards have put new procedures in place to address the increase, the reason why the shift is happening differs depending on who you ask.

According to a Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) report presented during their June 14 program standing committee meeting, trustees heard the results from a school climate survey completed by 89 per cent of elementary students and 67 per cent of secondary students.

Foley noted the survey results showed one in five elementary students and one in four secondary students reported not feeling safe at school.

“I guess the question is, why?” he said.

For the 2021/22 school year, the public school board reported a total of 122 violent incidents to the Ministry of Education across the 87 elementary schools and 15 secondary schools within its purview.

The board did not identify specific schools, but noted there were no violent incidents reported that year at Collingwood Collegiate Institute.

The Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board reported seven violent incidents to the ministry in the 2021/22 school year across their 42 elementary and nine secondary schools.

There was one incident each recorded at Monsignor Lee Separate School in Orillia, Notre Dame Catholic School in Orillia, St Bernard's Separate School in Orillia, St. Catherine of Siena Catholic School in Barrie, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Elementary School in Barrie, St. Peter's Secondary School in Barrie and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School in Tottenham.

Since 2011, school boards across Ontario have been required to report violent incidents to the Ministry of Education annually.

Violent incidents are defined by the province as possessing a weapon (including possessing a firearm), physical assault causing bodily harm requiring medical attention, sexual assault, robbery, using a weapon to cause or to threaten bodily harm to another person, extortion and hate/bias-motivated occurrences.

According to a public board report on 2021/22 suspension data, there were 4,548 suspensions at schools across the SCDSB that year, marking the highest number of suspensions overall in five years of data recording.

For comparison, in 2017/18 there were 3,496 suspensions, in 2018/19 there were 3,859 suspensions, in 2019/20 there were 2,774 suspensions and in 2020/21 there were 1,329 suspensions.

Of those suspensions in 2021/22, 465 were due to fighting/violence, 61 were due to possession of a weapon, 13 were due to use of a weapon to cause bodily harm, 397 were due to activity motivated by prejudice/bias/hate and 22 were physical assault.

Sarah Kekewich, manager of communications for the Simcoe County District School Board, said the board reported more violent incidents in its suspension breakdown than in the provincial report because the board considers violence to include incidents even when no one was physically harmed or requires medical attention.

“A fight may not meet the ministry definition of a violent act and therefore is not included in the violent incident report. A fight may result in the suspension of students and would appear in the suspension report,” said Kekewich.

“For example, if two students shove one another and, as a result, are suspended for fighting, we would record the suspension as such. If the shoving did not result in bodily harm requiring medical attention –as per the ministry definition – it would not be recorded in the violent incident report,” she said.

The SMCDSB told CollingwoodToday they do not provide a board report on suspension data, but may provide such a report in the future.

When asked by CollingwoodToday to provide Ontario-wide violent incident numbers for comparison, the province’s Ministry of Education said overall 2021/22 data was not yet available for reporting, citing work being undertaken to ensure accuracy and completeness of overall data.

Data for 2022/2023 is not yet available as it is submitted by school boards to the province in the fall.

‘It’s a pretty stressful place out there right now’

“We’ve always had violence in schools, unfortunately,” Simcoe County Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation bargaining unit president Jen Hare told CollingwoodToday. “What is more prevalent now is definitely mainstream violence. The things we hear about in our office are things like constant defiance, students becoming belligerent, lots of cursing and hate-based language being used.”

“Knock on wood, but we haven’t seen a ton of injuries. We hear about vandalism...and repeated non-compliance. It’s a pretty stressful place out there right now,” she said.

Hare says there are a lot of mental health concerns in schools, but is reluctant to attribute all of the violence in schools to the stress students may feel coming out of the pandemic.

“Students aren’t used to having to interact, but I think a lot of our members would say there’s a lack of resources in our schools. Our administrators are overwhelmed as well. Unfortunately, some of the behaviour is going unchecked. There’s just too much for it to be constantly addressed,” she said.

Michele Rich, a registered psychotherapist and one of the organizers behind the Headstrong program, a youth mental health program run out of the Collingwood Youth Centre that started last year, said increased violence in schools is not surprising but it is disappointing. 

“One of the emotions (that signal) depression can be anger,” she said. “A kid who is presenting with significant anger is dealing with something way bigger.”

Rich said most of the mental health concerns she and her colleagues hear from local youth are anxiety, depression, relationship issues and stress.

“What we are noticing across the board is an increase in substance use. When there is an increase in substance use, often anger comes with it,” said Rich. “Kids lost nearly three years of social development. They were stunted, no matter where they were.”

Rich says high expectations from adults may also be partially to blame.

“We need patience. We need a lot of help to help those kids understand how to behave socially. They didn’t get those years of emotional regulation.”

“It’s a shock to the system. Of course, they’re going to freak out,” said Rich.

‘I don’t know if we can blame the pandemic for this’

Collingwood OPP Const. Christine Dineen, who serves as the school resource officer for Collingwood Collegiate Institute and Our Lady of the Bay Catholic School, said there have been many times when she has been called to a local school because a fight from the weekend has spilled over into school hallways.

“We do see a rise in violent occurrences in youth. Of course, it spills over into the schools,” said Dineen. “The violence has gone way up. There is an increase in calls.”

Dineen says she’s specifically seen instances of physical violence increase locally, as well as an increase in students carrying weapons on school property, and threatening other students with weapons.

“I don’t know if we can blame the pandemic for this. We’ve been out of the pandemic for a while,” she said. “I think bullying contributes to it. Kids can be mean to each other.”

Dineen notes most of the youth she deals with are not repeat offenders.

“It’s a wake-up call for some of them,” she said. “If it’s a violent crime – an assault, weapons calls or a threat – they’re getting charged.”

Collingwood OPP Const. Martin Hachey offered a different perspective.

“It’s social media,” said Hachey. “They’re never really disconnected from school. Words might be said or posted and then when they see each other face-to-face the next time – which could be on school grounds – all of a sudden it becomes a threat of violence.”

Hachey notes an increase in violent offences in adults as well coming out of the pandemic, suggesting it might not just be the youth who are struggling with how to behave in social settings.

According to Collingwood/Blue Mountain OPP data provided to CollingwoodToday, the force noted 42 violent incidents (a 56 per cent increase) across elementary and secondary schools in 2022/23 compared to 2021/2022. In the 2021/22 school year, the force noted 27 incidents (or a 69 per cent increase) compared to 2020/21.

At the same time, all youth crime occurrences within the community as a whole also went up by 20.5 per cent.

At a May police services board meeting, South Simcoe Police also noted an increase in road rage and retail rage incidents in their catchment area.

'A lot of people are on the brink of having a meltdown, and it’s becoming more and more apparent in society,' said South Simcoe Police Insp. Henry Geoffroy at that meeting.

An annual report recently released by the Barrie Police Service also notes an overall increase in violent crime.

“I read about it on the news around the province. It feels like there are crimes happening that you never would have imagined before,” said Hachey.

Dineen suggested the best path out is through education.

She noted that since participating in a talk in Wasaga Beach back in March on the rise in Collingwood youth falling victim to sextortion, she hasn’t been called to a local school for another sextortion incident.

While Dineen no longer walks the halls of local schools since the SCDSB and the SMCDSB made the decision this year to no longer allow police officers in schools without an invitation, she still makes an effort to be accessible to students.

“At lunch times, I walk the perimeter of the schools. I talk to the kids. I’m at Hope Chapel (on Cameron St.) on Wednesdays. There are kids who I’ve arrested who will still come to me to have a chat,” she said. “I think a lot can happen when (kids) have a police officer they can trust.”

‘As a system, we are having to respond’

At the end of April, education minister Stephen Lecce announced the province would pledge $24 million for programs that would help reduce the risk of violence in schools.

“With violence rising in the community and across Canada, our government is taking decisive action to protect our schools – that includes for the coming school year additional funding to hire nearly 2,000 more front-line staff, and extending mental health services throughout the summer for students,” Grace Lee, spokesperson for Minister Lecce, told CollingwoodToday. “Our government will work collaboratively with parents, education staff, law enforcement, and community to keep schools safe from rising violence."

Kekewich told CollingwoodToday that the safety of students and staff at the SCDSB remains an important priority. She notes that the board has provided all administrators and school social workers with violent threat risk assessment training in collaboration with the Catholic board, which helps school administrators identify early risk factors that can point to future violent behaviour.

“[The] training provides a framework and the tools to assist teams in determining supports for students who are at high risk, assessing safety, and putting supports in place to reduce risk,” she said.

She also noted the SCDSB approved increased funding through their 2023/24 budget for more staff to support student mental health.

At the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, superintendent of student services Lonnie Bolton told CollingwoodToday that the landscape has changed, and confirmed that research has shown students are two to three years delayed in social and emotional development coming out of the pandemic.

“This doesn’t mean that schools are unsafe places, but it does mean that as a system we are having to respond,” he said.

Bolton said safety is a top priority at the Catholic board.

“We are taking very intentional and proactive measures so that we are prepared and trained to deal with issues when they arise,” he said. “This means mental health promotion, prevention and intervention, training and professional development for staff and working closely with outside agencies when appropriate, including local police services.” 

Bolton also draws a parallel between student and adult behaviour.

“Aggressive and intolerant adult behaviour has unfortunately become all too common place, and so it isn’t surprising that young people are now adopting some of those same behaviours,” he said, adding that the board is taking steps to build a “culture of civility, acceptance, empathy and non-judgment.”

“We do think this is an important step in changing some of the trends we have been seeing as of late,” he said.

Foley’s motion for public board staff to provide a report to trustees on violent incidents in schools will be considered by trustees at their meeting on Aug. 30.

If approved, the report would be delivered no later than Dec. 23 and would include all incidents of possession of a weapon including a firearm or any object used as a weapon, physical assaults requiring medical attention, sexual assaults, robbery, extortion, hate-motivated occurrences, assaults not requiring medical attention, human trafficking and gang activity.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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