Mom speaks about allegations of violence and bullying at middle school in Thunder Bay, Ontario

The mother of a middle school student in Thunder Bay, Ont., has created a social media group to stimulate conversation about the level of violence and bullying she and other parents allege, in the aim of proposing solutions.

Pam Kaartinen said she felt compelled to take action after her child was hit in class and the school’s response, in her view, was “apathetic”.

“I come from a parent’s perspective. I want my children, other people’s children, I want every generation to go to school and feel safe,” Kaartinen said, adding that she doesn’t want not share details about what happened to her child. , but the police were not involved.

The Facebook group surveys parents about their children’s school experiences and allows them to post stories anonymously. It also raises concerns that some students feel unsafe walking in hallways or stairwells, and that children avoid bathrooms.

Other parents in the group shared stories of children being bullied and involved in physical altercations or witnessing school violence.

CBC News has not independently verified the stories on the social media page, and Kaartinen acknowledged “there are many students and parents who have positive experiences at Pope John Paul School.”

Omer Belisle, superintendent in charge of the three Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board (TBCDSB) middle schools, said the board is aware of parents’ concerns. Belisle added that he was confident in Pope John Paul II’s level of oversight and security.

“I can’t just sit down”

Concerns about possible abuse to Pope John Paul II surfaced in October 2021, Kaartinen said, when her child came home and told her a classmate had been beaten up in front of them in the courtyard of school. She said she had requested a meeting with the principal to discuss policies against school violence.

“We all know that school violence exists across the country. It was there before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and it will be there after unless we move forward and keep the policies going. [dealing with violence] to estimate.”

Pope John Paul II has 566 students in grades 7 and 8, with more than 60 staff, including educators, secretaries, canteen supervisors and janitors, according to the school’s website.

When I say to my child, ‘Why is this going on?’ And my child says to me, “Because they don’t care, they know what’s going on and they don’t care”, I can’t sit still.– Pam Kaartinen, mother from Thunder Bay, ON, student

Focusing on suggesting solutions to prevent school violence, Kaartinen said more surveillance or cameras in places like hallways and stairwells could help.

In a meeting with the principal, Kaartinen said she came up with a number of options, such as creating a suggestion box or using online survey tools to see if students agree. felt safe at school. She said she had received no commitment from the school administration or the board that they would further examine strategies to mitigate school violence.

“When I say to my child, ‘Why is this going on?’ And my kid is like, ‘Because they don’t care, they know what’s going on and they don’t care,’ I can’t just sit down,” Kaartinen said.

Then, in early April, Kaartinen said her child told her they had been hit in class. But when she introduced him to school, she added, the school told her their hands were tied.

It was then that she decided to create the Facebook page, for families to share their stories and advocate for change.

“Why is this happening in our schools and not being addressed or being addressed in a way that allows the behavior to continue?” she says.

Staff care about creating a safe school

In response to parents’ concerns, Belisle said that “people have a right to voice their opinions and take action on social media. That being said, you don’t want to overlook the good things that are happening and the good people. who are there.”

He added: “Everyone wants a safe school with clear boundaries, and people [at Pope John Paull II] care, and we know they care.

The school board is working to increase opportunities for students to see social workers, student counselors, and graduation coaches, as well as to increase educator training in mental health and respond to emotional and social needs of students, Belisle said.

“We need to understand the root cause, underlying reason, motivation and triggers that caused a student to behave in a certain way…if we understand the root cause, it allows us to approach the student from respectful manner without relying too heavily on harsh disciplinary action,” the superintendent added.

It’s something he and Kaartinen agree on — neither wants to see an increase in suspensions or expulsions. But on the question of supervision, they do not agree at all.

“We are confident in the level of supervision and support at this time,” Belisle told CBC News, adding that violence is an issue facing schools across the province as people deal with the continued effects of the coronavirus. COVID-19 pandemic.

Evidence is unclear whether school violence is increasing

But whether or not school violence is on the rise remains unclear, according to two experts who spoke to CBC News.

Tracy Vaillancourt holds the Canada Research Chair in School Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa.

Vaillancourt said studies in Canada and around the world near the start of the pandemic showed a noticeable decrease in bullying. She said she had heard anecdotally of more extreme violent interactions and “really horrible online bullying” in recent months.

“I’m not sure if we were on our best behavior at the start of the pandemic, and our supervision was high because we made sure the children were properly masked and adhered to physical distancing requirements, and maybe the things have changed,” Vaillancourt said. .

Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in Children’s Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa, says there is evidence of a drop in bullying incidents around the start of the pandemic, but has heard anecdotally of more extreme violent interactions. (Caitlin Taylor/CBC)

A team of researchers will look again at school violence this fall to get a better idea of ​​what’s going on in Canadian schools, Vaillancourt said.

Darcy Santor, a University of Ottawa professor and clinical psychologist who focuses on student mental health, said while bullying and violence in school is a long-standing challenge, there are concerns that rates are rising amid the pandemic. The reasons may include increasing rates of mood difficulties and frustration, Santor said.

The two experts said solutions to solving the complex problem of school violence may include:

  • Supporting students facing adversity outside of school.
  • Provide social and emotional learning programs that teach students how to better manage their emotional well-being.
  • Increase supervision and create better policies for places like restrooms that cannot be continuously monitored.
  • Have an ongoing dialogue between home and school.

“It’s all well understood,” Santor said. “The challenge is not knowing it’s happening. The challenge is developing effective policies and programs to reduce the frequency as well as the impact.”