Toronto, Calgary, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Bowmanville, Brampton, Scarborough, Tabor, and Etobicoke–what do all these places have in common? They have all been the sites of newsworthy incidents of school violence.
- Tabor, 1999: a former student entered a school and shot two students; one died.
- Toronto, 2003: a student was wounded by gunshot fire outside a school for alternate studies.
- Toronto, 2004: one student stabbed another to death at a restaurant during their school lunch break. In an unrelated domestic incident six days later, a teacher was shot in the head in a school parking lot.
- Bowmanville, 2006: a student opened fire in a school with a pellet gun.
- Toronto, 2007: a boy was shot to death in a high school.
And so it goes: Winnipeg, Etobicoke, Scarborough, Calgary–knives and baseball bats, pellet guns, injuries, and sometimes death. Perhaps the title of an academic publication says it best: “School Violence: Not Just in the U.S.”
For many years, the Canadian attitude seemed to be that violence and school crime were the products of U.S. culture, and hardly to be found in that country’s neighbor to the north. But by the mid-1990s, Canadians were seeing a noticeable uptick in school violence. In fact, one research article, stating that risks for physical aggression were higher for U.S. students than for Canadian students, was careful to point out that the “magnitude of the differences was modest” and that “rates of aggression” were quite similar between the two countries. Other survey results indicated that more than 90% of Canadian adults found school violence to be a major concern. It is fair to say that school violence has now become more of an issue in Canada than it was before.
One study indicated that 46% of Canada’s 16- and 17-year-old children were the victims of harassment, verbal aggression, threats, and physical assault at school. Other types of violence found in Canadian schools include violence and verbal abuse against teachers, gang violence, sexual assault and harassment, shootings, stabbings, assault with baseball bats, and, of course, bullying.
A 2002 study reported the frequency of bullying among grade-school children in Calgary, Alberta to be higher than rates found in earlier studies. The research indicated that 27% of students were the victims of both physical and verbal bullying, and 21% and 5%, respectively, were the victims of just verbal bullying or just physical bullying. An earlier study of small-town violent behavior indicated that more than two-thirds of seventh to 12th graders reported being verbally put down or bullied at school.
Bullying can also lead to other types of violence, such as suicide among school-aged children. A 14-year-old girl in Mission, British Columbia (2000), and a 14-year-old boy in Halifax (2002), both of whom committed suicide, left notes alluding to horrendous bullying at the hands of their schoolmates.
Although many believe that violence has escalated in Canadian schools over the years, some debate continues over this issue. One study of self-reported incidents indicated that the number of assaults increased from 1985 to 1999, but then declined in 2001. This study does not specify how many of the assaults occurred in school, although the authors do speculate that part of the decrease could be due to passage of Ontario’s Safe School Act in 2000.
Regardless of Whether or not violence has actually escalated in the schools, there certainly is a strong perception that it is getting worse. In a survey of school students, aged 14 to 18 years old, in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario, more than one-third believed that violence had increased in the schools over the previous five years. (Slightly more than 40% believed the rates were the same, and less than one-fourth believed violence had decreased.) The same study looked at the types of violence reported by students. While the most common incidents involved seemingly less serious behavior, such as arguments, name calling, and so forth, other more serious behavior was also reported, albeit at a lower rate. These less frequent but more serious behaviors included fighting and being beaten up, bullying, assaults, physical threats, sexual harassment, and inappropriate touching. Some instances involved as many as six participants. It should be noted that long-term persistent verbal abuse, although categorized as seemingly “less serious,” can be quite devastating and detrimental to the victim over a long period of time.
In a cross-national study focusing on the relationship between drug and alcohol use and violence in the United States and Canada, U.S. and Canadian researchers observed that the difference in arrest rates for violent juvenile crime in the two countries has been narrowing in recent years. While U.S. arrest rates for these crimes remain much higher than Canadian rates, Canadian rates have been increasing at a much faster rate over a somewhat similar period of time. In Canada, arrest rates for armed robbery (among juveniles) increased 267% during a six-year period, while U.S. arrest rates for juvenile robbery increased by 57% over a nine-year period. In the United States. juvenile arrest rates for aggravated assault rose 70% over the same period, while Canadian serious juvenile assault rates rose 90%. Previously cannabis use was slightly lower in Canada than in the United States, but now the reverse is true. Moreover, the use of drugs appeared to be more closely tied to violence in the Canadian sample than in the U.S. sample. While violent crime among juveniles in the United States has decreased dramatically since 1995, the reverse seems to be the case in Canada, at least as measured by arrest rates. Another study indicated “remarkably similar rates of physical aggression” among students in Canada and in the United States.
Based on their own data, Canadian researchers observed that Canadian self-reported rates of violence against juveniles greatly exceeded those identified in governmental statistics. More than half of children reported being violently victimized or being the target of unsuccessful victimization during the course of their lifetime. There was a greater likelihood of teenagers being victimized at school than anywhere else. In fact, more than 80% of students said they had been victimized at school one or more times in the previous year; the highest percentage of victimizations were for theft, but more than 42% reported being threatened at school. More than half (56%) of the self-reporters admitted participation in delinquent behavior in the previous year. In fact, more than 45% admitted to participating in some violent activity, such as threatening, punching, kicking, or slapping. Additionally, 28% of self-reporters admitted to having a weapon (knives, bats, clubs, pellet guns, a very small number of guns, and other weapons) in school during the past year. Almost half of those students with weapons at school reported a significant level of victimization (in which they were the victim) while at school. Among those who had weapons at school, close to 59% reported a fairly high level of delinquency as well.
Violence, of course, is not the only type of crime found in the schools. In a study of small-town Canadian students, almost 70% were the victims of theft while at school, almost 47% were threatened, and more than half had something damaged while at school.
In an effort to control school crime, and particularly violence, Canada has implemented a number of measures intended to cut down on the number of incidents. For example, in 2000, Ontario passed the Safe Schools Act. The government implemented safety audits throughout the schools to raise awareness, determine safety and security needs, and initiate various remedies. The Safe Schools Act gave rise to a code of conduct and led to the introduction of a list of unacceptable behaviors that would lead to mandatory expulsion or suspension. A partial list of these behaviors includes threatening serious bodily harm and extensive vandalism (both of which would lead to suspension), as well as weapons possession, causing bodily harm, robbery, and sexual assault (all of which would lead to expulsion). Tighter security measures were instituted in many schools, and every public school was required to implement a bullying prevention program.
In 2007, a new law, referred to as Anastasia’s Law (in memory of a student killed in a shootout at Dawson College), was passed. Among other things, it banned firearms in schools, colleges, and daycare facilities, and on school buses in Quebec. The law went into effect in September 2008.
There is one area in which Canada and the United States are very similar: Laws dealing with juvenile offenders have become increasingly harsh and punitive. Canada has also followed the lead of the United States in its implementation of zero-tolerance policies in the schools. Zero tolerance is a philosophy that allows no discretion in dealing with certain types of school misbehavior; in fact, under zero-tolerance policies, suspension and expulsion are the only options for dealing with certain behaviors. Unfortunately, this approach can be used quite inappropriately, as in the cases of the young student who was suspended for bring a squirt gun to school for use in a skit and the 12-year-old student who was suspended for pushing her friend into a snow bank.
While there is some disagreement over whether school crime and violence are increasing in Canada, it is certainly true that there is a perception of higher levels of school violence. It is clear that this problem warrants further research and additional remedies.
- Akiba, M., LeTendre, G., Baker, D., & Goseling, B. (2002). Student victimization: National and school system effects on school violence in 37 nations. American Educational Research Journal, 39(4), 829-853.
- Barwick, M. (2009, April 20). School violence: What you should know, what you can do. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2009/04/20/f-barwick-school-violence.html
- Canadian Safe School Network: http://canadiansafeschools.com/
- Carter, S., & Stewin, L. (1999). School violence in the Canadian context: An overview and model for intervention. International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling, 21(4), 267-277.