'There is lots of violence': North End mom not surprised by high absenteeism rates at schools

A parent whose teenager goes to St. John's High School says she's not surprised that absenteeism is so high in Winnipeg’s North End schools.

Winnipeg's St. John's High School has 16% absenteeism rate, while Kelvin in Crescentwood is at 3%

Police responded to an incident at St. John's High School on Thursday afternoon. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

A parent whose teenager goes to St. John's High School says she's not surprised that absenteeism is particularly high in Winnipeg's North End schools, and says issues like violence and gang activity may be to blame.

Alicia Pifer's 15-year-old daughter, Madison, missed class on Friday after a violent incident outside the school the day before sent four people to hospital.

"I think a lot of the students would rather be somewhere safe. It's just drama when they go in. If they don't feel safe in their own space they are not going to want to be there," she said.

Attendance figures from the Winnipeg School Division say there is a 16 per cent absenteeism rate at St. John's High School, the main secondary school for the North End.

In comparison, Kelvin High School in the city's Crescentwood area, which has 300 more students than St. John's, has a three per cent absenteeism rate.

A 13-year-old boy was charged with several weapons-related offences after a Thursday incident which put St. John's into lockdown for about 20 minutes.

Police said a man received an upper-body injury and is now in stable condition, while three others were brought to hospital as a precaution after being pepper sprayed.

Alicia Pifer says she understands when her 15-year-old daughter, Madison, wants to stay home from school because of concerns about violence. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

Pifer said incidents like that are part of the reason the absenteeism rate at her daughter's school doesn't come as a shock.

"There is lots of violence. There is lots of fighting. There is lots of gang involvement," she said.

"There is lots of other issues that go on in that school that aren't really addressed by the administration."

Pifer said her daughter gets good marks and is a good student, so when she is feeling unsafe Madison is allowed to stay home. She's already missed 20 days this year, Pifer said.

The numbers also don't surprise Mark Wasyliw, a trustee with the Winnipeg School Division, but he said they are disappointing.

"Attendance rates tend to fluctuate depending on the economic demographics of the students," he said.

The division has launched a review of its policies to see if there's a way to update them with more appropriate programs and the right resources, he said.

Three inner-city Winnipeg groups have expressed their concern over high absenteeism rates and are calling on the school board and the province to ensure inner-city youth are involved in an educational program.

Inner City Youth Alive executive director Kent Dueck said there needs to be action to find out why kids aren't going to school, and what can be done to change that. (Brett Purdy/CBC)

"If a kid is not attending school that means their chance of graduating goes way down, that means they are going to be stuck in a dead-end job, that means that they are going to be drawn to the alternative lifestyle of selling or slinging drugs because it pays much better," said Inner City Youth Alive executive director Kent Dueck.

"It just has so many spinoffs that it's something we have to pay attention to."

In a media release, Dueck joined Kyle Mason, executive director and founder of the North End Family Centre, and Point Douglas Residents Committee chair Sel Burrows in saying it's time for real action to find out why students aren't at school and what can bring them back. They plan to make a presentation to the Winnipeg School Division's board at its Monday meeting.

Pifer said she would like to see her daughter's school become safer, possibly by enhancing supervision or having a stronger police presence. But she understands it's not a pressure only for schools — families, parents and the community need to play a role in prioritizing education, too.

"I don't think there is a Band-Aid solution. I think it's going to take a long time for youth today to put a priority on education," she said.

With files from Brett Purdy