HomeMain NewsReport: Toronto schools witness students’ violent and inappropriate behaviour increase amid staff shortages

Report: Toronto schools witness students’ violent and inappropriate behaviour increase amid staff shortages

Report: Toronto schools witness students’ violent and inappropriate behaviour increase amid staff shortages

A recent survey found that student behaviour was more challenging than before the pandemic, and that the lack of staffing as well as an uptick in absences made the task of managing that behaviour more difficult. About 74 per cent of principals said they had challenges with student behaviour and about 80 per cent said they do not feel equipped to maintain school safety because they are not properly staffed.

The Toronto School Administrators’ Association (TSAA), which represents 1,000 principals and vice-principals, recently surveyed its members on their working conditions. About 56 per cent of members responded to the survey.

The survey found that about 40 per cent of administrators said violent and inappropriate behaviour was on the rise, including fights, verbal abuse and, in some cases, the possession of weapons. The TSAA said the lack of response from the school board to principals’ requests for more supports when students are in crisis was likely tied budget restraints.

“The current situation in schools approaches a veritable perfect storm, a conflation of factors impacting the daily work school administrators engage in to promote a safe and healthy environment for all,” the report stated.

“Some administrators have indicated that almost 90 per cent of their days are spent dealing with issues related to student behaviours, crisis intervention, or student well being.”

Safety and student behaviour, particularly at the Toronto District School Board, has made headlines lately after several serious incidents of youth violence in and around school buildings. The school board says it’s working with police, community groups and faith leaders to address root causes.

Ralph Nigro, chair of the TSAA, said that what principals are seeing in schools reflects what’s happening in the wider community with the rise of violent behaviour on public transit, for example.

“It’s not a coincidence that we’re seeing all of this postpandemic and I’m not sure that we will fully understand the impact for some time now,” Mr. Nigro said.

The association said principals report that more children as young as those in kindergarten are having issues listening and following routines, such as lining up to go outside for recess. Incidents of scratching, biting and hitting adults and other children are happening more often.

“There aren’t enough supports,” Mr. Nigro said. “We’re looking at scenarios in schools every day, not just in Toronto but across the province, where principals struggle to have enough adults in a building to offer appropriate supervision and keep everyone safe.”

Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the TDSB, said the board invested more money than what it receives from the province into mental health and well-being services.

“The supports are there although admittedly staffing is not always available given the finite resources of the board,” Mr. Bird said, adding that community groups are experiencing similar backlogs for services.

Tracy Vaillancourt, a Canada research chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention, said risk factors for behavioural issues climbed over the past three years, with children spending more time on screens and less time doing physical activity. Research has shown that family adversity and violence increased, she said, adding that she’d expect youth violence and misbehaviour to also climb as a result.

“When there’s that erosion of civility, then you see that sliding of behavioural norms,” Dr. Vaillancourt said.

To start changing direction, she said that “we need to recalibrate our norms. We don’t accept incivility. We don’t accept rudeness. I think we need to go back to these basics.”

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.

“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, “Lockdown. Lockdown. Lockdown.” Students and staff 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.

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.

And it is also 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.

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.”

Part of the article was reported by Globe and Mail.