Sask. K-8 students most likely to have been physically assaulted, national survey on school violence finds
Warning: this story contains disturbing details and language
Nearly half of Saskatchewan elementary students say they have been physically assaulted at school at least once, according to a nationwide poll on school violence conducted for CBC News.
At 44 per cent, Saskatchewan has the highest proportion of respondents to the survey who said that between kindergarten and Grade 8, they had been slapped, kicked or bitten at school on at least one occasion — putting the middle Prairie province well above the national average of 35 per cent.
Patti McDougall, a developmental and educational psychologist at the University of Saskatchewan, said she is surprised the province stands out that way.
"I know that the schools [here] have been so focused on putting out the message as soon as kids enter school that we just don't treat each other this way," McDougall said.
The same online poll found that Prairie students are more likely than students in other provinces to be the victims of certain forms of sexual violence, including having sexual rumours shared about them by their peers.
About the study
The online poll was conducted earlier this year by the firm Mission Research on behalf of CBC News, which drew up questions focusing on experiences of violence in both elementary and high school.
In total, 4,065 online surveys were completed by people aged 14 to 21, representing every province, between Aug. 26 and Sept. 6, 2019. More than half of the respondents were students currently enrolled in high school, and others were asked to reflect on their school experiences.
All participants were granted anonymity to allow them to speak freely about their experiences.
A corresponding probability sample of this size would yield a margin of error of +/- 1.6 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
While offering some fresh insights into student behaviour in Canada — especially considering the lack of past comparable data — the survey arrives with some caveats.
The pool of students polled from the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba totalled 784. But in Saskatchewan alone, a comparatively small pool of 153 students was polled.
Only a small group of Indigenous students — 102 people — were surveyed across the country (no small consideration for Saskatchewan with its sizable Indigenous population).
But the University of Saskatchewan's McDougall said the survey is a good start.
"The findings are a value to Canada as a whole in our ongoing conversation," she said.
While 44 per cent of Saskatchewan survey respondents reported being physically assaulted at least once in elementary and junior high school, that percentage dropped to 38 per cent when it came to high school (though that's still above the national average of 36 per cent).
The drop from elementary to high school is to be expected, according to McDougall.
"If you look at the broader data around victimization, physical victimization tends to be lower than the social or the verbal, and tends to drop off with increasing age," she said.
"Kids start to be better able to regulate their own behaviour."
Brian Trainor, a former sergeant with the Saskatoon Police Service, says he was bullied while attending elementary school.
After he retired from the force, Trainor created a comic book in 2000 about bullying, complete with a parent-teacher guide. He also offers lectures for students in Grades 7 to 12 about the damage and dangers of bullying.
He said a proactive, not reactive, strategy to addressing student violence is key.
"[Being] proactive would be to get at the root of the problem that's causing the aggression, which is poverty and drug abuse and unstable homes," he said.
Students in the wider Prairie region are also more likely than students in most other provinces to be the victims of various types of sexual violence, according to the poll.
That includes everything from inappropriate touching, or grabbing of a person's body or clothing, to unwanted comments about a person's sexuality.
The CBC News survey also asked students about their experiences involving sexual acts that were forced upon them.
In Saskatchewan, sexual violence against students is not as common as in Manitoba or Alberta. But Saskatchewan still falls above the national average in some categories.
One in four Saskatchewan students polled said that on at least one occasion, sexual rumours or comments had been spread about them via text messages or other electronic means. That number is in line with the national average.
"That's purely [the] internet now," said Trainor, whose anti-bulling comic book, Jason's Nightmare About Bullying, arrived years before the launch of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
"And what happens online follows into the school," he said. "The kids don't see a delineation between the internet and real life. It's all one big drama."
Trainor said he's seen children as young as Grade 2 with cellphones during his lecture tours, while parents don't always know how the apps on those phones are used to store and share information between students.
"Honestly, if a parent were to take away that cellphone, it's like cutting off their arm," Trainor said.
'High school is too late'
McDougall said she's surprised the national averages for sexual violence are not higher and wondered whether that area is underreported.
"In some of the data that I've seen [elsewhere] where we've asked students to reflect on their high school experiences, it happens so much that it's normalized," McDougall said of sexual violence. "That's deeply concerning."
Like Trainor, McDougall stressed the importance of teaching children at an early, elementary-school age about the inappropriateness of certain behaviours — even around topics as difficult as sexual touching.
"High school is too late," she said.
"Touching, grabbing — that is all a form of sexual violence, and so when it becomes typical to do those sorts of things in high school … I worry that some of those behaviours then follow up into university, because people seem to not have learned that you cannot be on the dance floor and grab someone like that.
"You cannot come up behind them and grab someone in a sexual way."
More than half of Saskatchewan students polled (54 per cent) said they had been called hateful names or received hateful comments at least once. The national average was 47 per cent.
CBC News asked the students polled in Saskatchewan and Manitoba to describe the comments they received in elementary school. Here is a verbatim sampling.
(Warning: Many of these responses include terms that are offensive.)
One in four Saskatchewan respondents in the poll said they had been called racist names as early as elementary school.
By high school, that number was one in three.
But the epithets recalled by students and former students in Saskatchewan and Manitoba also targeted other aspects of people's identities.
"We had a gay support group that met at lunch," said one Prairie respondent. "Homophobic students would come and insult us."
Most bullies repeat their behaviour, so the fact that students in the CBC News poll were merely asked about one-time experiences only scratches the surface, McDougall said.
"Verbal victimization is very painful and has a huge negative impact, make no mistake."