Canada·School Violence

'I get nightmares': How racial violence in high schools is taking a mental toll on students

A CBC News survey shows high levels of both violent and racist attacks in Canadian schools, and it's having serious effects on students and their families.

Canadian schools have high levels of both violent and racist attacks, CBC News survey shows

E.H., a teen in York Region north of Toronto who had to leave his high school because of racist taunts and violent attacks, shoots hoops to take his mind off his tormentors (his image has been blurred to protect his identity). (Jared Thomas/CBC)

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

Even when surrounded by kids at a busy basketball court steps away from his home, E.H. is alone. He is a lot of the time. Over and over, the 15-year-old puts up shots to the net trying to get one in — it's a distraction from the trauma.

"Sometimes I get frustrated, I don't know. It just feels nice to keep on shooting. So that helps me calm down," he says.

Away from screens and social media, he says it helps him filter out thoughts of the racist name-calling and physical attacks he's suffered at school. But it all rushes back into his mind at night.

"I get nightmares. I get nightmares and I wake up early in the morning and I can't go to sleep."

In a first-of-its-kind survey commissioned by the CBC with 4,000 youths aged 14 to 21, more than half of young people that identified as visible minorities say they've been subjected to racist names or comments. One in eight said it happened more than five times.

The survey also revealed that 41 per cent of boys reported being physically assaulted in high school, and 21 per cent have been threatened with a weapon — a significantly higher percentage than girls.

They're shocking statistics that E.H. (his name has been changed to protect his identity), knows about only too well.

His mother, J.H., says it keeps her up at night too.

"I have to be up making sure that he's OK, because he will be looking out the window thinking people are after him because they threatened him, saying that they know where he lives."

Even when he's shooting hoops by himself, E.H. is on guard because the people who assaulted him told him they know where he lives. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

Singled out

When E.H. started Grade 9 at Dr. J.M. Denison Secondary School in York Region north of Toronto last year, he says he was excited for what high school would bring. 

Then the racist taunting started.

He was called the n-word repeatedly and told to "go kill himself."

That escalated to physical attacks, each one worse than the last and with more and more kids involved.

A youth named E.H. describes the violent physical attacks he faced from other students at his high school. 0:10

He was singled out and beaten up, at times on camera. One video shows him being piled on and punched in the head in a school hallway. Another shows his head being slammed into a water fountain, an injury that gave him a concussion.

Both the incidents caught on camera happened inside the school, and were shared widely on social media. Some of the students involved were given suspensions, and so was E.H.

"I'd tell the teachers. They didn't listen. They would get five teachers to follow [me] at the school and make me look like a bad kid with their walkie talkies," he says.

His mother, J.H., says she noticed he was reluctant to go to school, but didn't realize the severity of the situation until she saw those videos and heard what was being said to her son. She had meetings with the school in the hope that the violence would be stopped.

"They kept assuring me that my son will be OK, [they] said to have him stay in the school. Do not withdraw him, let him stay. Except it happened again," says J.H.

Racist pressure

By April this year, J.H. made the decision to pull her son out of school. 

While the school board refused to comment specifically on E.H.'s case, citing privacy concerns, Cecil Roach, the YRDSB's superintendent of Indigenous Education and Equity, said he was sorry to hear that E.H. and his family have had this experience.

Asked what he would tell a parent who pulled their child out of school due to racist bullying, Roach says, "We're sorry you're not having the kind of experience that we would want you to have. We also acknowledge that, for example, your child is experiencing racism. Your child is experiencing anti-black racism. And we also tell them that that's not what we stand for as a board." 

Cecil Roach, the YRDSB’s superintendent of Indigenous Education and Equity, says racism in its schools is 'not what we stand for as a board.' (Jared Thomas/CBC)

He points to the prevalence of race-related hate crimes in Canada as the core of the problem.

"I'm not surprised that is happening in our schools," Roach says. "Our schools are not immune to that, clearly, because we are part of the society."

Roach adds that the YRDSB has made concerted efforts to address racism in its schools. Last Monday, for example, 12,000 faculty and staff from every school in the board underwent anti-racism training during a professional development day.

Meanwhile, E.H.'s mother, frustrated with the lack of support from the faculty and the York Region District School Board, filed a lawsuit in May for $1 million. A statement of defence has yet to be filed by the board. 

The family's lawyer, Darryl Singer of Diamond & Diamond LLP, says the school failed to follow the policies that the board and ministry have already put in place to help victims like E.H. 

"They're violating their own policy and their own protocols in terms of what they're supposed to do. That's number one," says Singer. "Number two, they're not implementing the safe schools policy."

Singer says the school failed to come up with a safety plan for E.H., a requirement outlined in the Safe Schools Policy.

While Roach maintained that the board couldn't speak about E.H.'s case, he says the YRDSB does have resources in place to help the victim, including social workers and psychologists, after a violent incident at one of its schools.

"An investigation occurs. Police are contacted depending on the circumstances, consequences are imposed on the perpetrator. Support is provided for the victim," says Roach. "Then the student may have to go to another school. That is the perpetrator, not the victim."

While E.H.'s tormentors were suspended, he was too. And despite the board's protocol as outlined by Roach, E.H. says he wasn't given the support he needed and eventually it was he who needed to change schools.

Legal action

J.H. says she launched the lawsuit to force the board to take action for students like her son. 

"I want accountability for York region. There [are] policies, but they're not being followed," J.H. says. 

"[It] also goes for the teachers and principals as well. They need to follow the policy that they have written down and outlined for the students."

J.H. clutches a tissue as she talks about how worried she is about her son's safety in the wake of the attacks and abuse he's suffered. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

It's not the first time a parent has taken this kind of action.

For Winston Karam, the precedent-setting lawsuit his mother filed against the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board seven years ago played a key role in his healing process. 

"I needed somebody to say, like, we see that you're getting bullied, which is something I didn't get from the school. But luckily, from the court case I was able to get it," says Karam.

While in Grade 8 at Broadview Public School, Karam experienced months of verbal bullying by two classmates. It eventually escalated to being called the n-word and increasingly violent attacks. In one instance, one of the boys snuck up behind him and grabbed him in a chokehold. Another time, his head was bashed into a water fountain, much like E.H. 

Vania Karam, his mother, pulled him out of school after he had a panic attack in class as a result of the assaults. Like J.H., she says that despite communicating with Winston's teachers and principal on a number of occasions, the school failed to keep her son safe.

Winston Karam describes how adults around him didn't seem to notice how severely he was being bullied. 0:40

Winston had to seek mental health counselling to deal with the anxiety and broken self-esteem. It took years for him to feel comfortable laughing again, something his tormentors made fun of. It was his therapist who suggested he and his mom sue the school board.

The legal proceedings took five years and cost Vania Karam over $50,000 — a challenging debt for the single mother. When they won the case, she was awarded only $3,800. Despite it all, she says it was worth it. 

"He came out the other side. He didn't commit suicide. He's not a broken person. He put his parts back together again and … I think the trials were part of those pieces," says Vania Karam.

Winston Karam is now attending college, taking a police foundations program. Since winning their suit against the OCDSB, he and his mom have become advocates for victims of bullying and racial violence within the school system. He has spoken at school assemblies about his experience and at school board meetings.

"I hate the situation. I hate that it had to happen to me. But in the long run, I feel like a lot more positives have come out from it," Karam says.

Marginalized youth

The Parents of Black Children York Region advocacy group was started when several families went public after they or their children experienced racism within the school system. (Turgut Yeyer/CBC)

Other parents of students who've experienced racial violence in schools are pushing for change outside the courts and leaning on each other for support.

Several families from York Region spoke to CBC News about a group they've formed over the past year to help people navigate a school system that has had a history of marginalizing racialized youth. 

Parents of Black Children York Region meet at least four times a year and provide a safe space for parents and education staff alike. Charline Grant says the advocacy group was started when several families went public after they or their children experienced racism within the school system.

"There's been news, more stories in the media, with parents sharing their stories because they felt like they weren't heard. They didn't have any outlet. They either thought it's either the media or it's a lawsuit," says Grant. 

Those at a recent meeting held at the Newmarket Community Centre shared stories and perspectives about violence in schools. Shernett Martin, a community organizer attending the meeting, says when parents come to her to tell her about their child being targeted at school, the outcomes often turn out the same.

"We have known for years about violence against black kids. We've also known that the perpetrators have been allowed to return to school with the victim, and it just kind of sweeps under the rug," Martin says. 

Shernett Martin outlined some of the challenges parents face when advocating for their children:

Shernett Martin speaks with fellow parents at a Parents of Black Children York Region meeting about what happens after a student experiences racial violence in school. 0:25

Grant says she hopes to see other Parents of Black Children chapters form in other regions facing similar issues.

E.H., meanwhile, has been attending a new high school in the region. Though the trauma from the previous school year still feels fresh, he says he's no longer in immediate danger.

However, the rumours and notoriety of the videos of him being attacked have followed him to his new school.

"It made me scared to come to school. A lot people judge in this world," says E.H.

He says when he was younger, he dreamed of being famous and popular. Now, he doesn't like drawing attention to himself and says he wishes that when he gets noticed, it's for the right reasons.

"I don't want to be like out there, like in a bad way. I want to be, like, showing good positivity," E.H. says.

WATCH | The National's story on racism and school violence:

These parents took school boards to court after they say not enough was done to protect their children from bullying. 5:03

Read more stories in the series:

If you have feedback or stories you'd like us to pursue as we continue to probe violence in schools in the coming months, please contact us at schoolviolence@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Joyita Sengupta is a producer with CBC News in Toronto.

With files from Andrew Chang and Nicole Mercury-Brewster

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