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Why CBC started looking into violence in schools

We turned to students for answers about the extent of the harm they face at school

By: Jennifer McGuire, courtesy of CBC News, published October 24, 2019

Canada has just come out of an election campaign, and I am very proud of the work CBC News has done serving Canadians with our political journalism. Equally important is a story that we are bringing to our audiences this week about a troubling social trend. 

Today, we launch a special investigation into violence in our schools. This project took us in unexpected directions and required sensitivity. I think it is important that I tell you why.

Our job at CBC News is to make sure that we take on stories that matter, ones that expose what’s wrong and, we hope, produce positive change. The bedrock of those stories is good, reliable information.

A year ago, the team at Marketplace was investigating some troubling instances of students harming other students, physically and emotionally. As they dug deeper, universal themes emerged, one being that kids don’t always tell authorities what is happening to them, perhaps because they fear nothing positive will come of it. So this important issue about the safety of our kids largely remains in the shadows. 

That prompted our journalists to ask if a national database of student-on-student violence exists. The answer, seemingly, is no. School boards across Canada collect information in vastly different ways, creating a messy and incomplete patchwork of facts and figures. That leaves governments in an unenviable position of creating policy without adequate information.

To fill the information gap, we decided it was necessary to go directly to students, and we commissioned a national online survey. The challenge would be to probe deeply but sensitively. We didn’t want to re-traumatize students who’d experienced physical or sexual assault, or racial or homophobic taunts.

What the survey told us

And so, in consultation with leading academics and with established public opinion analysts Mission Research, we settled on a survey of 4,000 young people about their school years from elementary to high school or CEGEP. Our survey was weighted to ensure the sample size was representative of the Canadian population.

Half the respondents were between the ages of 14 and 17, and so we required they get parental consent to fill out the online questionnaire. The rest were 18 to 21, young adults whose school experience was still fresh and very real.

We insisted on this unusually high number of survey respondents so that we could break out numbers by province or region, contrast urban and rural regions, and see how boys and girls compare. 

The results are stark: 41 per cent of boys say they were physically assaulted at high school; 26 per cent of girls say they experienced unwanted sexual contact at school; and one in four students first experienced sexual harassment or assault before Grade 7.

The regional numbers bear reflection: 71% of kids in rural schools in Atlantic Canada and 70% on the Prairies say they were called hateful names at school, significantly higher than their urban counterparts  

The results for Indigenous youth are higher in almost all categories. 

‘I thought he was dead’: CBC survey reveals 4 in 10 boys are physically assaulted at school

Why so much student violence still goes unreported

And maybe the most telling discovery of all: nearly 50 per cent of high school kids don’t report violence they’ve experienced or witnessed. 

But they told us.

A poorly documented problem

Those numbers didn’t necessarily shock our consultants, who already knew that assaults in schools are a serious problem, but as our coverage rolls out, you may see things that surprise you. As a mother with two kids in school, I learned a lot. 

And that brings us back to where we started: how will governments come up with solutions when they lack key indicators? It became clear that when we took on this story, it was also the role of the public broadcaster to try and seek out the missing information to the best of our ability.

Here’s what witnesses say happened before a Hamilton student was fatally stabbed

The survey was just the beginning. In recent weeks, our teams have fanned out across the country gathering illustrative stories that we think are important for you to see and hear.

Our school violence investigation will be available on all platforms from all parts of the country. You can read it online and on the CBC News app, listen on CBC Radio One, and watch on The NationalMarketplace and CBC News Network. Our local CBC stations will have their own take on what’s happening in schools in their parts of the country.  

We hope this will prompt important conversations and, ultimately, actions that will make schools safer for our kids. We expect our reporting will also prompt more kids to come forward, so we’ll offer connections and resources to help kids in trouble

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