Physical, sexual violence common in Atlantic schools, national survey shows
A lack of national data on violence and bullying prompted CBC News to ask young people about their experiences
More than one-quarter of young people surveyed in Atlantic Canada say others had shared sexual rumours or messages about them while they were in school.
Reflecting on their years in school, one in 10 of those surveyed also said a sexual act had been forced upon them.
The CBC News-commissioned survey asked more than 4,000 young people across Canada about their experiences with violence, bullying, racism and homophobia in school.
It was prompted by a months-long CBC News investigation that found a lack of national data on the amount of violence that happens in Canadian schools, along with a culture of underreporting.
The survey suggests peer-on-peer violence is common in Canadian schools, and in some cases, it starts as early as elementary school.
The findings were disappointing for Glen Canning, who has made it his life's mission to share the story of his late daughter, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons.
She died after a suicide attempt in 2013, following what her family has described as repeated bullying. Her parents have said it began after Parsons was sexually assaulted at a house party two years earlier and a photo of the incident was circulated online.
"Somewhere in your statistics is somebody whose life is on a thread," Canning said.
Canning has spent the last 6½ years sharing his daughter's story in schools across Canada.
Hearing that so many students in the region have endured sexual violence and bullying "points to a failure" to address the root issues, he said.
He believes people need to learn about consent at a young age, and young men need to be involved in fixing the problem.
"Six and a half years after Rehtaeh Parsons died, we're still dealing with much of the same kind of sexual objectifying of people and harassment and abuse," Canning said.
The name Rehtaeh Parsons also came to mind when Paul Bennett saw the findings of the survey.
"It does surprise me … that after all of the discussion and all of the measures that were introduced after the Rehtaeh Parsons case, that we don't seem to see much improvement in terms of student behaviour," said Bennett, who is director of Schoolhouse Institute, an education research and consulting firm based in Halifax.
"And we don't seem to have made a whole lot of success in putting an end to this abusive forum of cyberbullying."
Physical violence, hateful comments
More than one-third, or 34 per cent, of Atlantic respondents in the survey also said they were physically assaulted (slapped, kicked or beaten) in elementary or middle school.
For students in high school, the number creeps up to 38 per cent, slightly higher than the national average.
More than one-quarter of young people surveyed said they faced being called hateful names or comments that are racist (29 per cent) or homophobic or transphobic (26 per cent) at least once while attending high school.
Bennett would like to see a reliable, national source of data on student behaviour. Across the country, the data is incomplete and there aren't consistent definitions of behaviours.
"Since 2011, we have not had a national body that collected, organized and reported on data on students," he said.
"That was called the Canadian Council on Learning. There's a huge hole in the Canadian educational system in that we find it difficult to compare data from province to province or to discuss things in a way that's similar from province to province."
Half of students didn't report
Nationally, the survey found that nearly half (45 per cent) of students who experienced violence in high school didn't report any of the incidents.
A smaller proportion, 35 per cent, reported some incidents to school officials, while only 17 per cent said they reported all of the incidents to school officials.
The survey was carried out for CBC by Mission Research. The findings were derived from 4,065 online surveys completed by Canadians aged 14 to 21 between Aug. 26 and Sept. 6. In a probability sample of this size, the results would be considered accurate within 1.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
When Canning speaks to students, he always tells them to tell someone what's happened to them until someone listens.
He believes teachers need to create an environment where young people feel they can speak up and they'll be believed.
"In all your statistics out there, there's a Rehtaeh Parsons," Canning said.
"There's someone's child out there who has been assaulted, who's been bullied, who's been put down and pushed around. Somewhere out there is some kid thinking, why doesn't anybody care?"
What should be done?
For respondents who had experienced violence and bullying and who weren't satisfied with the school's response, the survey asked why that was the case. Most respondents said no action had been taken by the schools in response to their complaint.
One said, "Nothing ever seemed to be done. Everything just seemed to come back to the same routine of hate after about a week."
"They told me they couldn't regulate what happened online, and since the girl had a bad home life they didn't want to punish her," said another.
The survey also asked what more should be done to make students feel safe.
Some respondents made suggestions like having strictly enforced zero-tolerance policies, instituting new training for students around sexual health, race, ethnicity and LGBTQ issues. Others suggested more teachers or security staff are needed.
"Physical and sexual assaults should be handled by the police, not the schools,"said one. "Why is it OK to commit crimes, at school, and not anywhere else?
"The rights of bullies to an education should not trump the rights of all the other students to a safe [learning environment]."
"I wish I knew," replied another.
Kids Help phone counsellors are available 24/7 at 1-800-668-6868, on social media at @KidsHelpPhone or by texting CONNECT to 686868 for youth who need support.
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