Hamilton·School Violence

Analysis shows history of inconsistencies in how Hamilton school board tracks violence

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, where a student was stabbed to death earlier this month, is one of dozens of boards that repeatedly failed to report accurate violence statistics to the Ministry of Education, CBC finds.

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School board says staff keep 'diligent records'

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board says staff keep 'diligent records' of violent incidents, but a CBC analysis found inconsistent in the figures it submitted to the Ministry of Education. (Christopher Langenzarde/CBC)

Students tearing apart classrooms, smashing windows and "beating the snot out of each other," are just some of the violent behaviours two teachers with the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) say they've witnessed at work.

But a CBC News investigation found that despite the violence the teachers describe seeing every day, the board — like many others in Ontario — repeatedly failed to report accurate figures on violence to the Ministry of Education.

The findings come as the community is still reeling from the death of 14-year-old Devan Bracci-Selvey, who was fatally stabbed behind Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School — allegedly by one of his schoolmates.

Two brothers, a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old are charged with first-degree murder.

When she heard about the stabbing, one teacher CBC spoke with said she was saddened, but not shocked based on what she's experienced at the elementary level.

Photos of Devan Selvey sit among stuffed animals, flowers and messages of support at a makeshift memorial outside the 14-year-old's Hamilton home following his death on Oct. 7, 2019. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

"It's really dangerous what we're enabling the kids to do. They think they have no consequences," she explained, adding she believes the board could see more extreme violence if things don't change.

"I'm not surprised at all that a student actually went through with it. They tell them they're going to kill each other all the time, even at Grade 3 at my school."

CBC's analysis of the ministry's official school violence statistics found at least one-third of school boards across the province have important gaps or inconsistencies in the figures they have been submitting electronically to the ministry since 2011.

"It tells me that they're not taking it seriously," said Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in Children's Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa. "This problem that they are pretending doesn't exist will continue and will likely get worse."

Among the most notable inconsistencies CBC found were figures submitted by the HWDSB.

The board says those issues did not "in any way impact" how the schools responded to violent incidents.

HWDSB incidents include possession of weapons, assaults

Ontario boards are legally required to report the total number of violent incidents on an annual basis to the ministry. Those include all incidents that occur on school premises or during school-run programs, including physical and sexual assaults, weapons possession, robbery, extortion and any racial or homophobic motivated violence. 

According to the ministry, each board is responsible to "collect and analyse data on the nature of violent incidents" and use that information to inform board policies, including its Safe Schools policies.

The ministry's most recent tally of violent incidents shows the HWDSB submitted 13 reports in 2017-18. However, an earlier version of the table obtained by CBC through the Freedom of Information Act shows the board initially reported 252 incidents that same year, by far the highest number in the province.

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Ministry figures also show the school board — which oversees 143 schools and had nearly 50,000 students enrolled in 2017-18 — had zero incidents to report for the previous five years. Yet when CBC reached out for more information, the school board provided details of 51 violent incidents it tracked during those years, including three at Churchill.

Those incidents included weapons possession and physical assaults every year at schools the board oversees, meanwhile the ministry records showed zero reports.

The board explained in a letter last May that, since CBC's request for information, it had discovered that the OnSIS report "did not find and pull accurate data."

The board also told CBC its 2017-18 figures were initially far higher (252 versus 13) because it had initially miscalculated its total incidents.

"The victim(s), the perpetrator(s) and witness(es) connected to the violent incident could have been counted as individual incidents and in some cases more than once,'' wrote Shawn McKillop, the school board's manager of communications.

But that number — 13 — seems woefully low to two teachers CBC spoke with.

Teacher says she sees violence daily

CBC has agreed to not name either of the teachers because of concerns their employment could be threatened if they are publicly identified.

The elementary teacher says she believes the initial 252 result would be much closer to reality, based on what shes seen at work.

"There's no way there's less than 200 in a school year at my school alone," she said, adding she sees acts of violence in the classroom and on the playground daily.

The woman said she's seen kids "beat the snot out of each other" and watched as desks were tossed and windows were smashed.

"Often I would have to teach the kids in the hall because there was a student in there destroying the classroom," she explained, adding the violence leaves her feeling "very helpless and endangered."

An elementary teacher at the HWDSB said she sees violent behaviour at school and on the playground every day. (Christopher Langenzarde/CBC)

In a statement to CBC News Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the HWDSB, said the safety and security of staff and students is a priority.

"Staff work hard to keep our schools safe," he wrote, adding staff keep "diligent records" based on board requirements and those of the Ministry of Education's Safe Schools legislation.

A high school teacher who works with the board says based on his experience, the HWDSB doesn't follow its own policies on bullying, harassment or mental health.

That same lack of action extends to school violence reports, he said, or at least it did, until Devan died outside Churchill.

The teacher said after the 14-year-old was killed he attended a staff meeting where the board started pushing for teachers to fill out incident reports, especially for anything that could lead to suspensions or expulsions.

"Now there's a stack of school incident reports in the mailbox so you can fill it out," he said, adding those forms were not there before. "It was a policy that was never, ever encouraged or anything."

It's a complete about-face compared to the attitude he says teachers at the schools he's worked at have received when attempting to hand in reports in the past, which he claims amounted to "What are you, a crybaby?"

Both teachers say they believe the problem is a board-wide pressure to cut down on suspensions to make administrators look good.

Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, says staff keep 'diligent records' of violent incidents. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Ron Avi Astor, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles who has published more than 200 academic studies on violent behaviour in schools, says his research shows administrators are often afraid of being singled out as a "violent school" if their numbers are high or rising.

"Once that's public, principals and superintendents … may be shamed, he explained, adding in countries where there's a tendency to shame schools "you see an underreporting — or you see no reporting."

In his statement, Figueiredo said it is "absolutely not" true the board is trying to lower suspension numbers and that "any assertion to the contrary is completely false."

He added that depending on the severity of an incident, staff have a range of options when it comes to "progressive discipline measures" from meetings with principals to referrals to social workers, suspensions and expulsions.

'Nobody looks at the paperwork'

The high school teacher said the way the board currently deals with discipline essentially cuts the legs out from underneath staff.

"They're supposed to be the enforcer, right?" said the high school teacher, speaking about principals. "They send the kid right back, they don't even get the teacher's side of the story, so the kid realizes the teachers are powerless."

In past years, he said, it seemed to him being that sent to the office meant something, but that's not true for the HWDSB anymore.

"The halls are wild. Kids do what they want, talk the way they want, it's ridiculous."

At the elementary level the teacher said union officials push members to file violent incident reports, telling them it's the only way they'll be able to show a need for more resources and training, but she hasn't seen any change.

"It's pointless. We've been filling out paperwork for years … nobody looks at the paperwork," she said. "This is a circus and nobody knows."

(CBC News)