Schools are supposed to be safe places of learning, cushioned from the harsh realities of the outside world.

But the stabbing death of 19-year-old student Hamid Aminzada at a Toronto high school on Tuesday is the most recent jolting reminder that dangers do permeate school walls. 

Aminzada died after intervening in a hallway confrontation between two other students, according to police. A 17-year-old boy has since been charged with second-degree murder after turning himself in.

In an effort to assuage concerns, the director of education at the Toronto District School Board spent nearly half an hour Wednesday morning telling reporters that schools are safe and that what happened was an "isolated incident."

A spokesman for the board emailed CBC News with a sample list of safety measures "developed over recent years to make our schools safer."

They include: 

  • Creation of Safe School committees in all TDSB schools.
  • Positive school climate surveys and census data to inform programs and support.
  • Fostering strong community partnerships to support students and their families inside and outside the classroom.
  • Establishment of the Gender Based Violence Prevention office. 
  • Clear policies and procedures for managing serious incidents.
  • Additional school-based safety monitors.
  • Secure entrance systems at all elementary schools. 
  • Cameras in schools. 
  • An open communications policy.
  • Numbering and identifying school doors (to help in emergency situations). 
  • Professional learning (both mandatory and optional) to ensure consistent implementation of board safety/equity policies.
  • Mentoring programs.

Stu Auty, president of the Canadian Safe School Network (CSSN), does agree that schools are generally safe and acknowledges there are processes in place for emergency situations. But he says the training teachers currently have is not adequate to deal with those rare times incidents do occur.

Developing 'pro-social' behaviours

"The point I'm making is the kind of training in terms of the need for teachers to have a full understanding of all aspects of children's pro-social behaviours — the importance of that — isn’t there as much as it should be.”

Pro-social behaviour is prompted by empathy and actions intended to help others and is at the core of early intervention programs for which Auty advocates.

'We don't want to create fortresses. We don't want to create situations where our students are patted down and checked before they enter their schools.' - Donna Quan, director of education at the Toronto District School Board

"Often, children don't have the skills to be able to deal with conflict," he said. "They're not familiar with the impact of their actions."

"There’s been an understanding that if you can change child’s direction early on then you’re not going to be faced with the kind of horrific situations that occur when kids do commit crimes," he said.

Auty said one particularly effective program was SNAP — Stop Now And Plan. It's a cognitive-behavioural strategy that was developed in Toronto to help children and parents regulate angry feelings by getting them to stop and think before acting impulsively. It involved role-playing situations and getting kids to solve problems and defuse conflicts. It asked students questions such as, "What do you do when you're angry?"

"Kids will understand that there's danger in acting out in aggressive ways. Danger, for example, in carrying a weapon that they might not think about," he explained.

'Metal detectors are not the answer'

The CSSN had received funding from the federal government in 2009 to deliver the SNAP program to five school boards across the Greater Toronto Area for four years. However Auty said the program was "very expensive" and funding for it wasn't renewed either federally or provincially. 

"School boards are funded, generally, by a per-pupil allocation based on the curriculum," Auty explained. "Often, the safety programs are not embedded in the curriculum itself or the funding envelope."  

He said his concern is when money is spent on what he calls "knee-jerk reactions" — metal detectors or hardware installed in schools.

"That is a discussion that almost invariably happens when there's been an incident, when there's been a tragedy, that I hope doesn't happen in this case."

Indeed, Donna Quan, the TDSB director of education, fielded a number of questions Wednesday morning on why the board doesn't just install metal detectors to keep out knives and other weapons. 

"Tools of destruction, tools that may lead to acts of violence, aren’t necessarily brought in to the school," she said, adding that weapons can be smuggled in through windows and not just through entryways. 

"Metal detectors are not the answer. We don't want to create fortresses. We don't want to create situations where our students are patted down and checked before they enter their schools. We want to have conversations."

Identify warning signs

A simple conversation might be all that's needed, said Auty. 

He urges teachers to talk to their students about "street realities."

"Choosing wisely, who you hang out with, is something that's a very fundamental thing for kids in schools. They want to be popular, they want to be part of a group, but watch out." 

Auty said it's about identifying warning signs. Look for anxious behaviours, acknowledge the students isolated in the cafeteria, he said.

"There are very practical things that can be in school systems that can be helpful. Nobody should be a poor soul in the schools. Teachers should be understanding who those kids are and be providing whatever comfort is available to them."