'I was just really scared': School violence a reality for many teens
National poll of 4,000 Canadian youth looks at physical and sexual violence
Cierra Iredale was eating lunch at Westmount Mall when she started getting picked on.
A boy called her names, made fun of her body, and threw food at her. His friends joined in.
Iredale, then 14, called the guy a name, told him to back off, and went back across the street to Saunders Secondary School, where she was in Grade 9.
The boy and his friends followed, taunting her the whole time.
"My mom didn't want me to go to school the next day because she had a bad feeling, but I went. The guy told me to meet him outside for an apology," Iredale, now 16, told CBC News.
"I thought they wanted me to apologize for calling him a name, and I thought I should apologize, so I went."
When she got outside the school, 20 students were waiting for her. Some of them jumped her and her friend. The incident was caught on video and one teen was arrested and charged.
The family later got a letter of apology.
According to a survey conducted by Mission Research for CBC News, more than one-third of students between the ages of 14 and 21 say they were physically assaulted at least once before reaching high school.
School boards in Ontario have to report all incidents to the province. CBC News got access to those numbers through a freedom of information request. At Saunders in 2015-2016, the school Cierra Iredale attended the year that she was attacked, there were 160 suspensions and expulsions, 14 of which were reported to police.
It is not however, specified how many of these suspensions and explusions were related to violent incidents.
Anxiety and fear
But the arrest and apology wasn't the end of the teen's ordeal.
Although she wanted to go back to school, sometimes Cierra would get close and have to turn back, afraid of more violence.
"I've never been in a fight before. I was just really scared. There's a lot of mean, mean people, there's a lot of violence. Basically, you have to watch what you say and do because it can all come back to you," Cierra said.
Her mom struggled between wanting to protect her child and wanting her to go to school.
"I feared every day that she went to school, I had anxiety every day that she was at school," said Courtney Iredale. "I didn't want her to go to school, and that's really hard for a mom to say, 'You just stay home,' when we're supposed to encourage our kids to go to school."
Although she was happy with the school's response at first — one student was arrested and Cierra was supported — as the year went on and the teen's anxiety about what could happen grew, school administrators said the family was "just being paranoid," Iredale said.
"When the police were no longer involved, to me as a mom it felt like it didn't matter any more."
Sheila Powell, the Thames Valley District School Board's superintendent of student achievement, told CBC News that violent incidents are taken seriously by schools and the board.
"We understand parents' concerns for the safety of their children. What parents don't often see is the behind-the-scenes things that are going on, maybe the students are working with a social worker, maybe there are learning support teachers. Suspensions don't always change behaviours," Powell said.
"We are looking at a number of progressive discipline strategies that we could be using in our schools."
Cierra Iredale switched schools at the end of Grade 9 and is doing much better.
- An earlier version of this story implied there were 160 suspensions and expulsions at Saunders directly related to violent incidents. The suspensions may or may not be linked to violent behaviour.Nov 08, 2019 4:04 PM ET