Fifteen year-old Jordan Manners, a grade nine C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute student described as a "good kid," was fatally shot in the hallways of his school on May 23, 2007. Two seventeen year old boys, known to Manners, have been arrested and charged with first degree murder. What is perhaps most unsettling about this tragic incident is the common sentiment expressed by C.W. Jefferys’ students, staff and community members: "this shooting could have happened anywhere."
In response to this devastating event, the Director and Chair of the Toronto District School Board ("TDSB"), appointed a School Community Safety Advisory Panel to investigate the serious safety concerns raised by Manners’ death. On January 10, 2008, the three-member independent panel, chaired by human rights lawyer Julian Falconer, and staffed by retired educator and administrator, Linda MacKinnon, and community organizer, Peggy Edwards, released The Road to Health: A Final Report on School Safety-a four volume report documenting the attitudes, opinions and experiences of the C.W. Jefferys’ family and providing over 100 recommendations to help improve safety and enhance the culture at TDSB.
The report emphasized that schools reflect the communities they serve. As a result, issues of school safety are "not just a school problem," and any attempt to make schools safer must inevitably address the "ills that our communities face outside the school."
The Panel emphasized that the real change that is essential in making progress on issues of safety is abandoning the entrenched philosophy of curing safety problems through disciplinary mechanisms. The Panel stated that this traditional "one-size-fits-all" approach to students with complex problems has failed in making schools violence-free and weapons-free environments. The Panel explained that marginalized youth cannot simply be punished or suspended into becoming engaged and "matters going beyond academics must be overcome in order to address the fundamental needs of youth who come to school unable to learn because of their challenging lives outside of school." As Louis March, Communications Director for the African Canadian Heritage Association, expressed to the Panel a common sentiment amongst complex-needs youth: "It is easier to get a gun than to get a job."
This notion is indeed reflected in the shocking statistics reported by the Panel. A combination of direct consultations with education personnel, community agencies and anonymous surveying of staff, as well as research in respect of TDSB incident records for the last 24 months, lead the Panel to conclude that there are guns in select schools across the city "in non-trivial numbers." The report’s findings reveal that since January 13, 2006, there have been 177 incidents of violence that have been reported in schools across the city.
While most C.W. Jefferys students portrayed their schools as one with high academic standards, a diverse student body and a safe environment, the numbers simply cannot be ignored. 22% of C.W. Jefferys students indicated that they have been the victim of robbery or extortion on school property and 21% have been the victim of robbery outside of school. 18% of students further report that they have been threatened with a weapon both inside and outside of schools while 11% have been assaulted with a weapon at school and 16% outside of school. In fact, 12% of students had a gun pointed at them (or were shot at) on school property over the past two years. Further, at Westview Centennial Secondary, a highschool in the Jane and Finch area, one of every three female students reported that they have been the victim of sexual harassment at their school over the past two years. 29.3% of female students indicated they had experienced unwanted sexual contact over that period of time and 29 female students (7% of the female respondents) said they had been the victim of a major sexual assault at school.
The Panel emphasized that these alarming levels of victimization observed in the study are consistent with findings of other high-school victimization surveys conducted in Toronto and other North American cities over the past decade. Youth victimization research suggests that the C.W. Jefferys shooting is by no means an isolated incident, caused by factors unique to a "Jane and Finch" school. Rather, the report stated in no uncertain terms that violence may be endemic in a number of Toronto high-schools. The fact that 1 out of every 5 students at C.W. Jeffreys felt that their school is "unsafe" is not just a concern for the C.W. Jefferys community, but for all our communities.
This district-wide problem is further compounded by the pervasive culture of silence that has infused our schools and communities when it comes to reporting violent incidents. "This culture of fear, or culture of silence," stated the report, "permeates through every level of the TDSB." For example, the vast majority of C.W. Jefferys students indicated that they would not talk to the police or school officials about crimes they have witnessed or even their own experiences of victimization.
In response to the staggering numbers of violent incidents, the report provided a wide range of recommendations to end the "community-wide crisis of confidence in the ability of the TDSB to ensure violencefree and weapons-free environments in all of its schools." The report suggested the use of random TDSB-owned K9 units that specialize in firearm detection and regular, non-intrusive searches of all potential storage areas for weapons, including lockers. The Panel further urged the provincial government to amend the Education Act, to include a mandatory reporting obligation for all school staff when it comes to violent incidents, or at a minimum, that reporting provisions require all board staff to report serious issues of school safety.
"We are committed to enhancing our culture of trust and openness," said Gerry Connelly, Director of Education of the TDSB, after receiving the Report. "This will improve our accountability and reporting processes. This will help us make our schools the safest, fairest, learning and working environments they can be." While Ms. Connelly intends to carefully review the Panel’s recommendations and report back to the Board of Trustees, several new safety measures are already in progress, including a pilot student safeline initiative and staff development programs on the importance of increased fairness and safety in schools.
There is a strong, singular theme that emerged from each page of the Panel’s report: ‘change can no longer wait.’ While change did not come soon enough for Jordan Manners, his tragic death may have pierced what the Panel called the "culture of silence" pervading our schools and communities.