Are Toronto students afraid to go to school?

Late yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to leaf through a 1,000-page document released by the Toronto School Community Safety Panel that outlined several recommendations on how to make Toronto public schools safer environments for all students.

The report, prepared by a panel led by lawyer Julian Falconer, was commissioned by the Toronto District School Board after the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute last year. The full findings can be obtained through the TDSB and the School Safety Panel, but many major media outlets in the city have already been analyzing the 120 recommendations in the massive report.

I didn’t have a chance to get through all of the recommendations during the hour or so during which I was flipping through the document, but there was one thing that came across very strongly in the few pages I was able to peruse: going to school is a very scary experience for many students in Toronto.

Growing up, school wasn’t a scary place for me. Sure, as the class bookworm I was an easy target for bullies, but there wasn’t a single day when I was fearing for my life by stepping inside my school. I grew up and went to school in Rexdale — which is one of the areas of Toronto that is often cited for violence and crime — but I never felt as though my learning environment was threatening to my personal safety.

Not so much these days. The report released yesterday stated that there was an abundance of guns in our city’s public schools, that sexual assault and harassment is widespread, and that some schools are breeding grounds for gang violence.

Color me naive, but apart from a few incidents that I knew of growing up, these kinds of concerns didn’t cross my mind when I was going to public school in Toronto.

While this news might be frightening for parents, I applaud the Toronto District School Board for opening up and acknowledging that there is a problem. A statement released yesterday by the Chair of the Board and the Director of Education promises more accountability:

As we have demonstrated throughout this precedent-setting process, we will continue to be completely accountable and open with the public and with our staff as we move forward. Regular updates on our website and through the media will ensure that our staff, students, parents, and communities remain confident in the work that we are doing every day to support every single one of our students.

Minister of Education Kathleen Wynne also released a statement yesterdayreferencing the report, assuring parents and Ontario public that she “strongly believes that our publicly funded schools offer Ontario students the best education possible. Ontario’s schools should be as inclusive, welcoming and safe as possible.”

Among the recommendations that I was able to find in the report are measures such as school uniforms, identity cards, and new disciplinary actions. Underneath it all, however, was still the feeling that students now feared going to school.

I may have dreaded going to school some days when i was growing up, but I never actually feared for my life. Is that just me, or have schools in Toronto really changed that much? Did you get this feeling when you were growing up?

(Originally posted to blogTO on January 11, 2008.)