Give parents detail on school violence

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Do you know how many times fights broke out in your child's school? How often threats among students were made, intercepted by teachers, or how often teachers themselves have had to fend off similar attacks? Manitoba parents have no good information on the relative safety of their schools, even though violence -- physical attacks -- was the primary reason for student suspensions at the Winnipeg School Division, Manitoba's largest.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/01/2015 (2869 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Do you know how many times fights broke out in your child’s school? How often threats among students were made, intercepted by teachers, or how often teachers themselves have had to fend off similar attacks? Manitoba parents have no good information on the relative safety of their schools, even though violence — physical attacks — was the primary reason for student suspensions at the Winnipeg School Division, Manitoba’s largest.

Of the 1,381 student suspensions over 16 months from Sept. 2012, 931 were due to violence, and the vast majority of the assaults were against other students, according to information collected by CBC. That’s among 30,000 students. It may be, then, that violence is rare, but the data are not analyzed in any comprehensive way to know. And, it is not released publicly. News organizations must make cumbersome freedom of information requests to scrape at the bones of detail to compile snapshots, not a full picture.

Trustee Mike Babinsky complains the numbers provided even to the board for approval have been stripped of good detail such that they are vague, a handicap given that trustees need good information to be able to send money and resources to schools in need.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS files Education Minister Peter Bjornson

The provincial government compiles only aggregate numbers of serious incidents at schools, to ensure that schools are safe, that lock-down procedures are adequate and used appropriately. That approach, along with the dearth of information made public to parents and taxpayers, is focussing on the extraordinary and the very rare — bomb threats, violent intruders — when the safety and well-being of students are more at risk from the lower-level violence and bullying that happens routinely in the halls and classrooms.

That’s borne out, for example, by the Toronto District School Board, which makes public the numbers on incidents that trigger suspensions, expulsions and student transfers. By and large, it is the classroom and the halls where fighting, assaults and intolerable conduct occur, making up more than half the incidents listed in 31 categories described in TDSB’s annual safe schools report.

The board reports on the numbers by grade, marking trends over time. Analysis shows students who have special needs and those struggling academically are more likely to be suspended. That seems intuitively obvious, but it is the detail Mr. Babinsky says he needs. He intends to bring the Toronto board’s reports to the next meeting of the WSD trustees.

The WSD says it does not publicly release its reports to protect students’ privacy. The simple solution is to remove identifying details, or control information released on small schools. This is done routinely by researchers or agencies that study demographic trends and characteristics on an array of issues, such as health, the economy and voting habits.

School divisions, their trustees and administrators know this. The fact they continue to block release of the information suggests they don’t want to publicly disclose details that parents deserve.

This is also unfair, and potentially harmful to teachers, who are left to put the picture together from anecdotes of violence. Some 134 of the physical attacks in WSD schools were against teachers.

The provincial government and the school boards insist they take bullying and violence seriously, currying a culture of respect backed by a policy of zero tolerance. But there is little evidence, for or against, that would show the effects of those efforts over time.

Education Minister Peter Bjornson owes a full accounting to parents, students and teachers on the level of violence in schools. He, too, should look to what Toronto does and tell Manitoba’s boards to publish reliable details on threats and assaults happening in the classrooms, halls and school grounds.

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