How a former middle school bully let go of his fist and found his voice
'My mindset was they don't like me, so I don't like them'
This story is part of School Violence, a CBC News series examining the impact of peer-on-peer violence on students and parents.
Isiah Baptiste says he threw his first punch at another student when he was in Grade 7.
He says it started on the basketball court when a boy on the other team got mad over a foul.
"He whipped the ball at me. And like, 'I'm not gonna get punked off like that!'"
That's when it escalated.
"I started swinging hands, like, 'This is what you get,'" says the now 11th grader.
He didn't always use his fists to intimidate others. Baptiste says he liked having power, and would talk down to those who he thought were trying to copy him.
"Was I ever a bully? Yeah, I can't lie."
According to a national survey of 4,000 youths conducted for CBC News, 35 per cent of elementary and middle school students say they have been physically assaulted at least once.
In the GTA, it's similar, with about 3 out of 10 elementary and middle school students (33 per cent) replying that they have been a target.
'They don't like me, so I don't like them'
Baptiste says his home and school life was never stable growing up.
The teen says he was first put in a school behavioural program in Grade 2. He switched elementary schools every two years, and each time he was put in a similar program, he says.
"Teachers just saw some impulsive kid. Some kid who was bad, who was mouthy."
He knew he could be better than that, but he says it was hard to try when nobody seemed to be on his side.
"My mindset was they don't like me, so I don't like them. And that's just how it's gonna go."
He shuffled between living with his mom and his dad — both would take turns having custody of him. By the time he entered Grade 7, he was at his fourth school in Toronto.
It was hard being the new kid in school all the time. And sometimes, his temper would flare.
"I've had incidents where I've exploded. I didn't know why I was angry, but it was like, I didn't know what to do. I was very overwhelmed."
'He saw something in me'
Baptiste says change came slowly, and started with his grade 7 teacher.
"He saw something in me that no one ever saw in me."
Baptiste says the teacher saw that he was bright, and was acting out due to frustration.
"He was the first teacher who was like 'I see you're working like this, I'm going to try your way'," he says.
"That made all the difference."
At around the same time, a man named Randell Adjei had appeared in his life. Adjei is the founder of a program RISE, which stands for Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere.
It's an art collective that also hosts workshops giving youth — particularly marginalized and racialized ones — a space to share their stories through spoken word and hip-hop.
Adjei says he understands why many young people lash out: "There are a lot of broken people. Hurt people hurt people."
One day Adjei and three other youth mentors from RISE showed up at Baptiste's school to run an outreach session with about 10 students in the behavioural program, including Baptiste.
Adjei says his first impression of Baptiste was that he wasn't a bad kid —he was a kid who wanted some attention.
"These are kids who were deemed to have problems, and a lot of times they are heard, but not listened too."
Adjei says he and the other mentors asked those students to share their feelings about all aspects of their life: How they felt at home, what upset them at school, what made them the most angry.
"They became vulnerable, and very open."
Finding a voice
For Baptiste, it was an eyeopener. He says he was used to bottling up his feelings.
He says that growing up, he was taught that 'boys are not supposed to cry, boys are not supposed to talk about their problems. That's for girls."
Five years after he first met Adjei and the team from RISE, Baptiste is an active member of the group, which meets every Monday.
"We do spoken word, singing, dancing. It's just a place for people to feel free and be themselves," Baptiste says.
It's also where he discovered his passion for poetry: "I never realized how good I was with writing and with words."
"Now, I'm a lover, not a fighter," he laughs.
More supports needed, says teacher
Programs like RISE, which strives to help youth better understand their inner worlds, aren't available in every school.
Joseph Smith is a teacher at Northview Heights Secondary School in Toronto. He's only been a teacher for seven years, but has already worked in a handful of elementary and high schools across the city.
He says he wants to see more permanent programs in schools teaching kids ways to deal with their emotions.
Smith says he has seen "some workshops at lunchtime to expose youth to different environments and skills, but there's no perennial force or program that is instituted board-wide."
Jim Spyropoulos, the executive superintendent of human rights at the Toronto District School Board, says schools have hundreds of programs and guest speakers on a range of topics. But those programs, he says, "are supplementary to the work that has to happen within the school, which has to be led by a principal and the other adults."
Smith has created his own non-profit called Generation Chosen to teach young people emotional intelligence and how to confront mental challenges.
The group of mostly boys meet every Tuesday. Most are from marginalized communities.
"Young people need to learn skills to help them mitigate their own internal tensions so they don't unleash it on someone else," he says.
"If they can better deal with emotional world, they can make the world better."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
With files from Derick Deonarain