Thunder Bay·CBC Investigates

Mom speaks out about allegations of violence, bullying at Thunder Bay, Ont., middle school

The mom of a student at a Thunder Bay, Ont., middle school has created a social media group to spur conversation about the level of violence and bullying she and other parents allege is happening there. But whether school violence in general is on the rise remains in question, according to two Ottawa experts.

Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board says it's 'confident' in supervision levels

Parents with students at Pope John Paul II in Thunder Bay, Ont., have put the focus on whether there's merit to claims of violence and bullying at the middle school. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

The mom of a student at a Thunder Bay, Ont., middle school has created a group on social media to spur conversation about the level of violence and bullying she and other parents allege is happening there, with the goal of bringing forward solutions.

Pam Kaartinen said she felt compelled to act after her child was punched in the classroom, and the school's response, in her opinion, was "apathetic."

"I'm coming from a parent's perspective. I want my children, other people's children, I want every generation to go to school and feel safe," said Kaartinen, adding she didn't want to share details about what happened to her child, but police were not involved.

The Facebook group polls parents about their children's school experiences and allows them to post stories anonymously. It also raises concerns about some students not feeling safe walking the halls or stairwells, and kids avoiding bathrooms.

Other parents in the group have shared stories of children experiencing bullying and being involved in physical altercations or witnessing violence in the school.

CBC News has not independently verified the stories on the social media page, and Kaartinen acknowledged "there are a lot of students and parents having positive experiences at Pope John Paul school."

Omer Belisle, superintendent responsible for all three middle schools with the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board (TBCDSB), said the board is aware of parents' concerns. Belisle added he's confident in the level of supervision and safety at Pope John Paul II.

'I can't just sit back'

Concerns about possible violence at Pope John Paul II emerged in October 2021, Kaartinen said, when her child came home and told her a classmate had been punched in front of them in the schoolyard. She said she asked for a meeting with the principal to discuss policies against school violence.

"We all know that school violence exists across the country. It was there before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and it'll be there afterwards unless we step forward and hold the policies [dealing with violence] to account."

Pope John Paul II has 566 students in Grades 7 and 8, with more than 60 staff, including educators, secretaries, lunchroom supervisors and custodians, according to the school's website.

Focusing on suggesting solutions to prevent violence in the school, Kaartinen said more supervision or cameras in places like hallways and stairwells could help.

During a meeting with the principal, Kaartinen said she proposed a number of options, like creating a suggestion box or using online polling tools to see whether students felt safe at school. She said she hasn't received any commitments from school administration or the board that they would look further into strategies to mitigate school violence.

"When I say to my child, 'Why is this going on?' And my child says to me, 'Because they don't care, they know what's happening and they don't care,' I can't just sit back," Kaartinen said.

Then, in early April, Kaartinen said her child told her they were punched in the classroom. But when she brought it forward to the school, she added, the school told her their hands were tied.

That's when she decided to create the Facebook page, for families to share their stories and to advocate for changes.

"Why does this happen in our schools and it's not addressed or it's addressed in a manner that allows the behaviour to go on and on?" she said.

Staff 'care' about creating safe school

In response to parents' concerns, Belisle said "people have the right to express their opinions and to mobilize on social media. With that being said, you do not want to discount the good things that are happening and the good people that are there."

He added, "Everyone wants a safe school with clear boundaries, and people [at Pope John Paull II] care, and we know that they care."

The school board is working to increase opportunities for students to see social workers, student counsellors and graduation coaches, as well as increasing training for educators around mental health, and meeting the emotional and social needs for students, said Belisle.

"We need to understand the root cause, the underlying reason, motivation and the triggers that drove a student to behave in a certain manner … if we understand the root cause, it allows us to approach the student in a respectful manner without relying too heavily on harsh disciplinary measures," the superintendent added.

It's something he and Kaartinen agree on — neither want to see an increase in suspensions or expulsions. But on the matter of supervision, they disagree entirely.

"We're confident with the level of supervision and support at this time," Belisle told CBC News, adding violence is something schools across the province are dealing with as people cope with the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evidence not clear if school violence is rising

But whether or not school violence is on the rise remains in question, according to two experts who spoke with CBC News.

Tracy Vaillancourt is the Canada Research Chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa.

Vaillancourt said studies in Canada and around the world near the beginning of the pandemic showed notable decreases in bullying. She said she's heard anecdotally of more extreme violent interactions and "really horrible online bullying" in recent months.

"I'm not too sure if we were on our best behaviour at the beginning of the pandemic, and our supervision was high because of making sure kids were masked properly and adhering to physical distancing requirements, and maybe things have changed," said Vaillancourt.

Tracy Vaillancourt, the University of Ottawa's Canadian Research Chair in children's mental health and violence prevention, says there's evidence of a decline in bullying incidents near the beginning of the pandemic, but has heard anecdotally of more extreme violent interactions. (Caitlin Taylor/CBC)

A team of researchers will be looking at school violence again this fall to get a better idea of what is happening in Canadian schools, said Vaillancourt.

Darcy Santor, a University of Ottawa professor and clinical psychologist who focuses on student mental health, said while school bullying and violence have been a longstanding challenge, there's concern that rates are rising amid the pandemic. Reasons may include escalating rates of mood difficulties and frustration, said Santor.

Both experts said solutions to address the complex issue of school violence can include:

  • Supporting students who are dealing with adversity outside the school environment.
  • Offering social emotional learning programs that teach students how to better manage their emotional well-being.
  • Increasing supervision and creating better policies for places like washrooms that can't be constantly monitored.
  • Having continuous dialogue between the home and school.

"This is all well understood," said Santor. "The challenge is not knowing that this is happening. The challenge is developing effective policies and programs to reduce the frequency as well as the impact."