Boys in Alberta schools get assaulted, threatened, robbed and slurred more often than rest of Canada
Unprecedented poll of Canadian youth sheds new light on just how common school violence is
Austin deBussac was in Grade 8 when his schoolmate pulled out a knife and showed it to him.
"Are you scared of it?" he recalls the fellow teenager saying, which made him nervous.
Then things escalated. Austin says the student put him in a chokehold and wielded the weapon in a terrifying way.
"He held the knife to my throat."
The student held him that way for a moment, then let him go. It was all a joke, he insisted afterward. But even now, at age 18, it's no laughing matter to Austin.
"I honestly didn't believe him at the time when he said he was joking around," he says.
Some may assume this type of thing is an isolated incident. But a survey commissioned by CBC News of more than 4,000 young people across Canada suggests it's more common than you might think.
Nationwide, 13 per cent of survey respondents said they were threatened with physical violence involving a weapon at least once from kindergarten to Grade 8. In Alberta, it was 15 per cent. And among male students in Alberta, it was 22 per cent — more than one in five.
Experiences with violence and bullying only tended to increase in high school. Roughly two in five young Albertans (of all genders) said they had been physically assaulted — shoved, slapped, hit, kicked or bitten — at least once from Grade 9 to Grade 12. More than a third said they had been robbed of money, cellphones or other valuables. Nearly two thirds said they had been called hateful names, while 40 per cent said they had been subjected to racist comments and 27 per cent said homophobic or transphobic comments were directed at them.
In all these cases, the rates among male students in Alberta were significantly higher than in the rest of Canada, according to an analysis done by Mission Research, which conducted the survey on behalf of CBC News.
Nearly half of teen boys assaulted in high school
Among the nearly 500 Alberta youth who were surveyed, 49 per cent of boys said they were physically assaulted at least once in high school. That compares to 40 per cent of male students in the rest of the country.
Compared to their peers in other parts of Canada, boys in Alberta high schools also reported higher rates of having valuables stolen (33 per cent versus 25 per cent) and being called names that are homophobic or transphobic (34 per cent versus 26 per cent.)
Jake Stika says he was disappointed but not surprised by the survey results. As executive director of a non-profit organization called Next Gen Men, he works to promote "positive masculinity" and to redefine perceptions of what it means to "be a man" in Canadian society.
He notes that Alberta's population, unlike most provinces, has more men than women, thanks largely to the male-dominated industries that make up a large part of the economy here, such as construction and oil and gas.
He notes, too, that those industries have been going through tough times lately, something that has been linked to higher rates of domestic violence and suicide in the province.
"And so I definitely think some of that anxiety, that uncertainty, is transferring over from the breadwinners in those homes to the children, as well as to the broader culture that we exist within here," Stika says.
"Men are unfortunately the primary perpetrators of all forms of violence and, aside from sexual and domestic violence, we're actually the No. 1 victims of all other forms of violence as well."
That's not to say the issue is limited to boys.
'Gay as an insult'
Samantha Robinson, a Grade 7 student who recently started attending a new school in Calgary, says she's so far been shocked at how often students there "use gay as an insult."
"It's like: 'Oh, that's so gay.' Or, 'you're so gay.' Or, 'this is so gay' or whatever," she says. "It makes me feel kind of like an outsider, because some of the kids in my class know that I'm pansexual and … to hear this said from other people who aren't gay, it's kind of just uncomfortable in this situation but it's also kind of hurtful."
Samantha says she's tried to call out the behaviour but it's been difficult, as the new kid.
"If I try to say something, it feels like the whole school is against me," she says. "And the teachers don't do anything, either."
However, with the notable exception of sexual violence (which will be discussed in a subsequent story in this series), the reported rates of bullying and violence among female students in Alberta were not significantly different from their peers in the rest of Canada, according to the Mission Research analysis.
Across Alberta, there are hundreds of school authorities that each set their own policies on bullying and violence. The provincial government leaves it mainly up to each authority to administer these policies but requires that they comply with legislation to ensure "safe and caring" learning environments.
One unusual approach that defies the typical types of school in Alberta is the Phoenix Education Foundation in Calgary. While technically a private school, it caters largely to lower-income families, offering a hybrid of homeschooling and in-class learning for parents who want to have more direct involvement in their children's education.
While it's not the primary source of their enrolment, head of school Diana Stinn says a growing number of parents come to Phoenix because of violence or bullying their children have experienced in other school systems.
"Parents used to come for a variety of reasons. One was higher academic standards, or time together as a family — those kinds of things. Over the last few years, we've seen a significant change to anxiety and bullying being in the top three reasons why families decide to make a change, educationally," Stinn says.
"Oftentimes these families have tried the public system; they've tried the Catholic system; they've tried other private schools and then they end up on our doorstep. So it's not for a lack of trying other options. But quite often when they come, they're frustrated. They're sad sometimes or very broken sometimes or angry. But they still are very much concerned about their student and wanting the very best for their kid."
Incidences of violence are not tracked at a provincial level.
It's up to "local school authorities and local law enforcement" to keep track of such things when they happen, says Colin Aitchison, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange.
'Not all sunshine and roses'
For Austin's parents, the incident with the knife being held to his throat in Grade 8 remains a frustration, even though he's now graduated from high school. They didn't want his photo included as part of this story because they still worry about his safety and don't want him to become a target.
They feel the knife incident wasn't taken seriously enough by the school principal at the time and it left a lasting impression on the family, which had recently moved to Calgary from Saskatchewan when it happened.
"To have your child lay there at night and cry and say 'Mom, I hate it here. Why why did we have to move here?' And you don't know what to tell him," says his mother Tracy deBussac. "And you have to send him back to that school."
His father, Myron deBussac, says the people in charge of education at all levels need to acknowledge the issues more openly if the problems are going to be solved.
"They've got to get their heads out of their asses and realize that there are problems going on there, and there has to be more conversation," he says.
"And listen to the parents. It's not all sunshine and roses."
'An adult who cares'
Stinn, who has seen parents' frustration and students' anxiety first-hand, says bullying and violence are complex issues and systemic solutions will be, too.
But, in her mind, there's one simple way to start making things better.
"The No. 1 thing that makes a difference in everybody's life is having an adult who cares," she says.
"Everybody is capable of doing that. And whether it's the teacher, whether it's involving more parents in the classroom, whether it's other caring professionals that are involved, having an adult who makes an effort, who shows that they care about a student — that is one of the No. 1 factor to ensuring that students are successful in school."
And, as an educator, she hopes parents won't look at the statistics in this survey and become despondent.
"I think schools are amazing places," Stinn says.
"People work very hard. They care about kids. It maybe doesn't always seem that way. I think education is complex. Our world is getting more complex, but I think as long as we always keep the best interests of kids at heart then the school system and education will always be a value. And it will be a good experience for the majority of kids."
This survey was undertaken by the firm Mission Research on behalf of the CBC. The approach and questions were developed by the CBC, in collaboration with two of Canada's leading researchers/psychologists on childhood violence, Debra Pepler and Tracy Vaillancourt.
Read more stories in this series:
If you have feedback or stories you'd like us to pursue as we continue to probe violence in schools in the coming months, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.