Manitoba·School Violence

Student-on-student sexual violence highest in Prairies, CBC national survey finds

A national CBC News survey of more than 4,000 young Canadians found that students in Manitoba were most likely to report being the victims of unwanted sexual comments.

More than a third of Manitoba students say they have been the target of unwanted sexual comments

A blurred photo shows the backs of students wearing backpacks walking up a set of stairs in a school.
A CBC News survey that asked more than 4,000 young Canadians to describe their experiences with violence on school grounds found the Prairies had some of the highest rates for sexually related incidents. (Warren Kay/CBC)

This story is part of School Violence, a CBC News series examining the impact of peer-on-peer violence on students and parents.

For Gillian Crognali, having her buttocks slapped and her chest groped were as much a part of high school as attending classes and writing exams.

And she wasn't the only one. A male schoolmate frequently touched her and her friends, the 18-year-old recalls, even though they told him to stop.

"People don't see him slapping my ass or trying to grope my boob as being sexual assault. But it makes me uncomfortable, and I said no. So … realistically, it is," said Crognali, who attended a high school in rural Manitoba.

She did not tell her teachers about the sexual violence she experienced for fear of being branded a victim or complainer. She knows how social media can amplify gossip.

"I didn't want to be known as 'that girl.'"

Liliana Lopez, 21, says when she was in high school, a friend was sexually assaulted at a party. She never reported it to the school. But when the girl's classmates heard about it, they called her a "slut."

"Unfortunately for my friend, she had that label forever," said Lopez.

Stories like Crognali's and Lopez's seem to be part of the reality faced by many students in Manitoba schools.

Gillian Crognali, who attended a high school in rural Manitoba, says she was frequently touched inappropriately by another student but never reported the incidents to school staff out of fear of being further victimized. (CBC)

In the absence of reliable statistics across Canadian school boards, CBC News commissioned a survey of more than 4,000 Canadians aged 14 to 21 to understand the verbal, physical and sexual violence experienced in schools.

The results are sobering:

  • Nationally, more than one in four girls (26 per cent) said they have experienced unwanted sexual contact at school.
  • Over 40 per cent of high school boys said they were physically assaulted or threatened with violence.

When compared to other regions in the country, students in the Prairies reported significantly higher rates of sexual violence in many areas:

  • 20 per cent of respondents on the Prairies said they were victims of sexual rumours and messages spread by their peers.
  • 50 per cent of students in rural high schools said they had been physically assaulted.

Manitoba stuck out as the province where students were most likely to report unwanted sexual comments (35 per cent of respondents). What's more, 66 per cent of Manitoba students surveyed said they've been on the receiving end of hateful name-calling or comments.

Sex ed should be universal: advocate

Nicole Chammartin, executive director of Klinic Community Health Centre in Winnipeg, says decision-makers have zeroed in on the issues causing these behaviours, but shouldn't forget the role attitudes about gender play.

"It's still that the majority of sexual violence is experienced by women. And so though all genders experience it, we have to recognize that there is a piece there that is about gender roles in our society," said Chammartin.

Lopez agrees. She believes part of the problem that encourages the kind of shaming her friend experienced is that boys and girls are taught at a young age that they are not equal.

"Even if you look at the way we enforce dress codes, why is a girl wearing a spaghetti strap a problem, but the guy wearing a tank top isn't?"

Nicole Chammartin, executive director of Klinic Community Health Centre in Winnipeg, says sex and health education should start at an earlier age in school and parents should not be allowed to opt their children out of the courses. (Wendy Buelow/CBC)

Klinic's Chammartin thinks teaching consent and respect for women and girls should start at an early age and be mandatory for all students. The province currently allows parents to opt out of sex ed for their children.

"If we could look at having universal access to good updated health and sex curriculum for schools, I think that's really what we need," said Chammartin.

"Technology has really opened a gate to being bullied in a whole new way that I think we have to start to understand."

The Manitoba health education curriculum for issues related to sexual assault and sexual harassment was created in 1999 and was fully implemented by 2005, said a spokesperson for Manitoba Education.

Changes to the Public Schools Act in 2013 address cyberbullying and other forms of harassment related to sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression, the spokesperson said. The act also requires school divisions to have a written policy for the use of cellphones and other mobile technologies within their schools.

The province says it is actively working on updates to the drug awareness component of the curriculum, but isn't planning changes to sexual education.

"There are no current plans to review the sex ed portion of the curriculum and no plans to lessen parental choice as it relates to this part of the curriculum," said Minister of Education and Training Kelvin Goertzen in an emailed statement.

No reliable statistics on student violence

Under The Public Schools Act, each school is required to develop a code of conduct that includes lists of unacceptable behaviours, states that gang involvement and weapon possession are not tolerated, and affirms that technology must be used appropriately.

And while the CBC survey suggests thousands of violations occur each year in Manitoba schools, there is no reliable data on these incidents to help spot trends.

Manitoba's education department says it has developed a standardized form for reporting serious incidents that schools can use, but it does not require them to make use of it.

"Responsibility for reporting serious incidents concerning schools resides with school division administration. Each school board will have a protocol for collecting and reporting serious incidents that occur within their divisional schools," said a departmental spokesperson.

The department also confirmed that while it is "encouraged and expected" that schools will report their statistics to the province, it is not a requirement.

Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Board Association, says he's open to discussing mandatory reporting with his membership.

"I'm well positioned to bring this matter forward to our executive at our next executive meeting, which is in November," said Campbell. 

A man in a suit looks serious in front of a wall covered with children's artwork.
Alan Campbell, president of the Manitoba School Boards Association, says he’s open to discussing mandatory reporting of serious incidents with his membership. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

But he says that any direction taken by his association would have to come at the behest of its membership.

"I think we would possibly have a conversation with the province that says which of our member boards are doing very well at consistently reporting, [and] which are not," he said.

"But the objective should be that everyone is reporting consistently within what the province is asking."

Results 'concerning': board association

Campbell says the results of the CBC survey are concerning, and they highlight the need for more support.

"Our No. 1 priority is to provide a safe learning environment for students and a safe teaching environment and support environment for staff," he said.

Crognali believes if she had gone to a teacher about the student who was touching her inappropriately, the teacher would have done something about it.

But the fear of being shunned by her peers for speaking out was just too overwhelming.

She would have reported it, she says, "if I knew that all the people around me would not be texting about it behind my back or whispering about it in the classrooms."

Notes on methodology:

  • The study was undertaken by Mission Research on behalf of CBC News.
  • Findings were derived from a total of 4,065 online interviews with Canadians aged 14 to 21 (half were currently in school, while the other half were asked to reflect on their school years). The data was collected between Aug. 26 and Sept. 6, 2019.
  • A corresponding probability sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 1.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
  • The methodology and questions were developed in collaboration with  Debra Pepler and Tracy Vaillancourt, two leading Canadian researchers/psychologists on childhood violence.

With files from Joanne Levasseur, Caroline Barghout and Vera-Lynn Kubinec