'I just ignored it': Violent, homophobic incidents common in high schools but few students report them
1 in 4 GTA high school students subjected to hateful, homophobic, transphobic comments, survey finds
This story is part of School Violence, a CBC News series examining the impact of peer-on-peer violence on students and parents. WARNING: This story contains graphic language.
There were many firsts in 2016 for Jonathan Samuels as he started high school in Etobicoke, many of them difficult.
He had recently moved back to Toronto from Jamaica, was starting Grade 11 in a new school — and he was gay, which meant he faced insults and hateful taunts from other students.
"They would just be like 'fag' and 'gay boy,' like anything under the sun that you could think of," says Samuels, who's now 20.
Sometimes his classmates would mumble things under their breath. Other times it would be out loud as he walked through the halls. His instinct was to keep moving.
"I just ignored it," he says.
He dreaded going to school and began to withdraw.
"I didn't want to have to deal with people and have to see my oppressors. Just being in that environment, it was very, very difficult."
According to a groundbreaking national survey of 4,000 youths aged 14 to 21 conducted for CBC news, Samuels is far from alone.
One in four students (26 per cent) in high schools in the GTA say they have been called hateful names or have been subjected to comments that are homophobic or transphobic.
Survey results vs. reported incidents of violence
In Ontario, the Ministry of Education categorizes homophobic comments as violent incidents.
Since 2011, public school boards have been legally required to report those incidents to the Ministry of Education.
Last year, the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) reported only 96 violent incidents among a student population of over 90,000.
The largest school board in Canada, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), reported 227 incidents among almost 250,000 students.
But further results from the CBC News survey show almost four out of 10 high school students (38 per cent) in the GTA have been physically assaulted at least once in high school and about the same number (37 percent) said they have been threatened with physical violence.
A spokesperson for the TCDSB declined to comment on this discrepancy without having fully reviewed the survey.
But Jim Spyropoulos, executive superintendent of Human Rights and Indigenous Education at the TDSB, says the numbers are similar to results from surveys conducted by the board itself.
When asked about why the number of reported incidents to the ministry was so low in comparison, he says, "We collect data in different ways; we interpret it in different ways.
"Many of these issues are resolved informally," he adds.
The CBC News survey also showed many students don't report violent incidents.
Nearly half of students (45 per cent) in the GTA who experienced violence in high school said they did not report any of the incidents to school officials.
Karyn Kennedy, the founder of Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre, says that's not surprising.
Kennedy, who works closely with police and child protection workers to respond to youth who have experienced abuse and violence, believes the actual number of students who have experienced violence in school is even higher than those revealed in the survey.
"Not all kids tell. Even in a survey they don't."
Reporting can be double-edged sword
Samuels says he never reported any of the incidents.
He was surprised to learn the verbal assaults he endured in high school were even considered violent incidents.
"I thought, 'Okay, it's just words, not sticks and stones. If it doesn't hurt me physically, there isn't really anything I should do about it.'"
But he says the biggest reason students don't report incidents to school authorities is fear.
"The perpetrator is definitely going to know that you reported it and they're going to come and find you, or they are going to keep on bullying you," he says.
For LGBT students, it can be even more complicated.
Terrence Rodriguez is the program director of Rex Pride, an organization where Samuels is a youth mentor.
Rodriguez started it seven years ago to support LGBT youth.
He was born a female, came out when he was 14, and transitioned into a male in adulthood.
When asked if he experienced a lot of hate-motivated violence when he was in high school, he lists a slew of incidents but says "the scariest moment was when three guys I grew up with backed me into a corner and they actually pulled out their penises."
He never reported it.
Rodriguez says he didn't feel reporting hate-motivated incidents to school authorities would be effective.
"A student says some homophobic slur and the teacher doesn't really respond. So how can I trust that you're going to defend me and take care of me?"
But for students who have not come out yet, Rodriguez says, there's also the fear of what would happen if they do report it.
"Many of them aren't out of the closet so what if their parents find out? What if their other classmates find out?"
Kennedy, the founder of Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre, says she understands how it could be a double-edged sword, but "they still need support, so someone needs to work with them, identify ways they can feel safe."
A community outside school
Rodriguez left high school about 15 years ago, but based on his interactions with young people, he says things mostly haven't changed.
"They don't feel safe reporting it, but the one thing that's changed is there is more of a community now."
At Rex Pride, that community is evident. The group of LGBT youths meets every Tuesday evening at the Rexdale Community Health Centre. They use different art forms to explore their identity. They confide in one another. There is pizza, games, and lots of laughs
"Every person just wants to be heard. They want a place where they can feel safe," Rodriguez says.
But he also knows that's not enough.
His organization is also working within the TDSB to train staff and help set up Queer-Straight Alliances, so that more LGBT youth feel supported within school walls and more comfortable to come forward when confronted by violent incidents.
Samuels is now in his second year of nursing at George Brown College. He has moved past his experiences in high school, and has since reconciled with the classmates who taunted him.
"We had a conversation and I think I opened their minds a little bit, that people have feelings, and people go through things. You don't know what you might say that could push them over the edge."
He says they apologized and he accepted.
The majority of students surveyed, 82 per cent, say students should be required to apologize directly to their victims.
Kennedy says it can be helpful but warns it has to be done carefully.
"If it's done in a way where it's not very sincere, it could actually make things worse."
Both the TDSB and TCDSB say they offer mediation.
Spyropoulos says "that type of conflict resolution, and what we like to call restorative practice, is something that's spreading through the TDSB."
Samuels says, looking back, having that opportunity would have helped him in high school.
He also believes it would be a good idea to have teachers and parents involved in the meeting between the two sides to get a fuller picture.
"There may be things going on at home, like the pressures of the environment, and things going on at school."
"It could be many things compounded that manifests into the behaviour it does," he says.
"A lot of people who are aggressors have been victimized themselves."
This survey was undertaken by the firm Mission Research on behalf of the CBC. The approach and questions were developed by the CBC, in collaboration with two of Canada's leading researchers/psychologists on childhood violence, Debra Pepler and Tracy Vaillancourt.
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 email@example.com.
With files from Derick Deonarain