The rising number of violent incidents in and near schools in Canada is being described as, “alarming” and at “crisis levels,” depending on where you live across the country.
“We need to recognize that learning loss and the pandemic have caused significant after-effects,” says Dr Paul Bennett, director and lead researcher at SchoolHouse Institute, an independent consulting practice focused in the education space. “We are not going to be able to simply return to what we had before the pandemic,” says the retired teacher and administrator who has worked in both public and private school settings.
Dr. Bennett has previously written about school violence, both prior to COVID-19 and following the school closures fuelled by the global pandemic.
During an interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk, he describes the root causes of this growing trend and potential strategies to address the rising incidence of school violence.
“Student behaviour needs to be at the centre of the plan,” says Dr. Bennett. “There needs to be changes in the way we manage schools, the way we engage parents and the way we discipline children.”
Click for video transcription
Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is an educator, researcher, policy analyst and author. Dr. Paul Bennett is director and lead researcher at Schoolhouse Institute, and adjunct professor of education at St. Mary’s University. He has previously been a teacher, administrator and trustee, having worked in both public and private schools. He’s authored 10 books, and he’s also a father. He joins us today from Halifax. Thank you so much for being here.
Very pleased to be with you. Thanks for the invitation.
Very important topic that we’re talking about, because it seems to be in the headlines just about every day, depending on where you live in this country. Dr. Bennett, what would you say concerns you the most about school based violence, we’re talking about violence happening, you know, in schools, around schools near schools, that we continue to hear about every day.
The incidence of violence involving students, on students on students on teachers is alarming. It was quite an issue up to about 2019, when the Globe and Mail did a feature story on the extent of violence and its effects on teachers and educational workers. It was a national story, it got a tremendous amount of attention, then the pandemic hit, and kids were out of school. So the incidence and reporting of violence disappeared with the pandemic. But we now know, with the resumption of normalcy in schools, that there’s been a tremendous resurgence. And it’s, it’s everywhere. And a my recent story in the National Post, which got on front page was all about how serious the problem is, and how we got to have a problem that is, as really, really testing teachers, educational administrators, and particularly educational workers on the front lines.
When we talk about the seriousness of the issue, some statistics show that school based violence has more than doubled, since the pandemic, then before the pandemic, however, it has not just been as a result of the pandemic. So when you look at the big picture, Dr. Bennett, what would you say are some of the key root causes of this escalating increase that we’re seeing?
So complicated matter? Lianne, and you have to unravel a whole series of factors that have contributed to this problem we have right now. So I’ll try to break it down for you as simply as I can for your listeners, so that we can all have a part of this conversation. I think, first and foremost, we’ve been through the most serious global disruption in our lifetimes. And there’s tremendous collateral damage, and that is in twofold. It’s it’s learning loss affecting a whole generation of kids, and the social and I would say psychosocial effects of being out of school, being lonely and being kind of dislocated at a critical time in your life. So that’s first second, I think we’ve underestimated how important teen mental health challenges are. And it is connected with a social media addiction. I’m quite alarmed by what I called tick tock brain. I’ve written a few stories on this. And I think there’s something that’s fundamental that’s happened to teens in particular, that makes them very, very hard to teach. Whether we had a pandemic or not, I think we were facing that. I’d say thirdly, is family dynamics have changed as a result of being home, people working from home, and I guess we have a precarious economy, where more and more people are not sure of, of the their income stability. So I think that’s a factor. In some parts of the country we have. We have child poverty, and they suffered the most through the pandemic. So that’s complicating a family dynamic. And I think a really important and under recognized factor is a progressive school discipline. What’s happened is, in 2006, to 2008, there was quite a debate in Ontario about whether Ontario should embrace, get rid of zero tolerance policies. So almost overnight, suspensions and expulsions were gone. And a new form of discipline was put into place. It’s called progressive discipline in the public called this, but it then morphed into trauma informed approaches during the pandemic. And now what we’ve got is a school system that’s kind of having trouble keeping it It control. And we don’t have the tools we need to ensure that there is proper student behavior. I think it’s time we started recognizing that.
So let’s talk about the tools then that you’re that you’re suggesting are missing. What are they and you know, for a second, if you could put on your headmaster or your principals hat that you wore for many years in different schools, and all of the other factors that you outlined there that now administrators and schools and teachers have to deal with, on a daily basis, how would you go about managing that if you were in their shoes?
I start by being clear about student conduct. And the way it’s phrased as student behaviour. I make that a priority student behaviour, and don’t pretend that it’s, it’s something that takes care of itself. And we also have a brand new book by Tom Bennett called running the room, which is he’s the head of Research at international. And Tom makes a very clear point that we’ve lost sight of how important it is to set up structures, and to properly guide students and not to apologize for it, particularly incoming teachers. If you look at the faculties of education, there’s next to no focus on preparing them on student behavior, and that their worries are when they enter the classroom, for the first time in class management is the biggest concern of new teachers, but there’s next to no support. And you’re almost encouraged to hide it, work it out on your own. And we’ve got too many complex problems facing a teaching and learning today for that to be the case. And, you know, we’ve got kids with complex needs. We have like today’s classrooms are much more complicated. And it’s a shame, I think that the current generation of teachers haven’t had an opportunity to focus more on how you establish student behaviour, how you scaffold that behavior, how you establish consistency, and how you establish a cooperative relationship with kids, on your terms, not on theirs. And after the pandemic, there’s a serious issue of trying to reclaim the minds and attention of kids. And you’re not going to do it by standing back and saying it’s going to take care of itself.
So that’s one part of the equation, obviously very important, how teachers are trained in what’s going on in the classroom. The other big piece, though, is what’s going on in the home. And what a parents role is, in this entire equation, understanding as you’d mentioned, that the family structure is not straightforward as it perhaps once was. There are different types of families today, what would you say is a parent’s role in terms of discipline, and hopefully, it then not escalating into, you know, misconduct and unruly behavior, potentially, in the classroom.
We animo, I’m more realistic. Now, after all these years, I’m a firm believer, as you may know, in parent engagement, I think parents have to commit themselves to education. And I think they deserve to be respected. And I think they need to be involved to a higher degree in their children’s education and where they are, these problems aren’t as severe. For example, I documented the case of Sarah Marie, in the PA High School her her son was going to school, I think it was in grade nine, first year, he shows up and he’s beaten up, and he’s kicked kneed in the head. And he goes home, he tries to hide it from his mother. And she she was so upset that the school did not inform her did not. And when she confronted the school, they almost like hushed it up. And they said we don’t talk about traumatic experiences in this community. Now, that’s a little help to a parent. So I think it’s incumbent upon school systems to engage parents to establish better relationships. What better time than after a disruption likely been through, to reach out and re engage with parents after really keeping them at a distance? I know this social distancing. This is not only in the classroom, social distancing was everywhere. And school systems were not actually embracing parents. They actually, it’s amazing to me that we went through all of that remote learning, and you would have expected stronger relationships with parents to come out of it. But oh, no, there’s actually a more tension that’s come as a result of all of this.
So with that example that you put provided of that mother in the Nepean high school we are talking about, quote unquote, a culture of silence in schools. And how much does that in your estimation, exacerbate or fuel the problem of school based violence even further.
It breeds distrust. And when you make inquiries as a parent, and all of your listeners are parents, so you know, when you go to a school and you make inquiries, and you get nowhere, or you get deferred, or you get delayed, or you basically get pulled off, or it’s all hushed up, you begin to have suspicions and then that breeds further distrust. So I think that speaks to a lot of what’s going on right now. We need to get to work reestablishing the trust. That’s the basis of every relationship that’s meaningful between parents and schools. And I’m a huge advocate of not only parent engagement, but meaningful IT roles for parents in schools, and I play safely since they only want us here to give us good news, then parents, for the most part, won’t, won’t appear. And you’ll get about 12 people that will be on the School advisory council. And they will be the only ones that will be prepared to make to limit their commitment to just supporting the school and its objectives.
Could you give us some examples of what you mean, when you say meaningful engagement of parents in this particular equation.
I am a big believer in something that is engagement, not consultation. I’m very, very dubious and concerned about the way engagement is managed. Parents don’t want to be managed. They want to be involved and how you bring them a problem. You don’t bring them a packaged solution, maybe call a meeting. And they quickly since they’re telling us what they’re going to do. They’re not asking us for our advice on what they should do. They’ve already made up their mind. I think that’s where a lot of parent engagement falls apart. And I’m actually a big believer in deliberative engagement practice, that takes the fear out of the institutions, because they’re afraid they’re going to lose control, if they consult and work with parents, in fact, that that prevents them from meaningful engagement with parents. But what they need to do is to take take control of engagement, and realize that the rules have changed. People want to be asked, what are the problems? And what are the solutions much earlier, for example, to solve a serious problem of student violence in a school, and to engage the parents, you have to involve them. And that means you have to be honest, you have to expose yourself a bit. And you have to engage them and say we need your help, because we’re all in this together. And that’s very true when it comes to the cycle of violence that we’re now seeing in schools. And it begins as early as the primary grades now. So I think everyone needs to be involved.
When we talk about school violence, we’re talking about crisis levels of incidents that have been reported, post pandemic in, especially in described in various cities across the country. Is this surprising to you in any way Did we see this coming, because as we mentioned earlier, this is not a new phenomenon caused by the pandemic, this was in place well, before the pandemic.
We should have seen it coming. In 2019 and 20, it was a major national issue. There were teacher union leaders speaking about this. It was it was actually about kids with complex needs, and how difficult they were to manage, and how educational workers and teachers were living in fear. And many were having to wear, you know, protective vests, and various other equipment, and that parents were speaking out about, they were frightened for their kids in the class, one disruptive kid, and one is one incident. A school was disrupt class was disrupted 12 times in one month, over one student. And the solution was to evacuate all the kids and to isolate that child, not to remove that child or move that child somewhere else. So there’s some fundamental issues involved in how we’re choosing to deal with some of these issues. Everyone believes in inclusion. I do everyone That’s, we’re not going back. But how you include kids varies. And I think you’d want to find the most enabling environment for each child. And that’s not necessarily in the same congregate setting.
When you talk about discipline as being a potential contributor, and root cause of the issues that we’re seeing in schools of a violent nature, I mean, how much does inappropriate discipline, or a lack of adequate consequences for unruly student behaviour actually contribute to that student potentially becoming violent down the road. So in other words, are the small, you know, Misbehaviours that are potentially not managed, when they’re small, you know, potentially turn out to be larger down the road.
Low Level disruptions are the kryptonite of a teacher’s existence, it slowly sets in and before long, you don’t have control of your own class. And you’re kind of trying to keep up with them. It’s the tables are shifting. So it begins with low level disruptions. But what you’re, what you’re describing is, we need to have a full and I would say, open discussion about positive behaviour supports as a model for the behavioural codes across Canada. There’s one common approach that’s taken over it’s called progressive discipline, but it’s actually positive behavior supports. So it’s all designed to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Because that was seemed to be what what we needed to get rid of, because the kids who were being suspended, and that were being expelled to happen to be ethno cultural minorities, blacks and Indigenous kids disproportionately. So we did do that. But we created a far bigger problem, which involves all students, it’s, it’s really hard to get them to cooperate. And particularly after they’ve been used to being on their own over a two year period, where they were more or less left on their own for long periods of time. And there’s now the complicating factor of, of cell phone addiction, which makes it next to impossible to gain and hold the attention of kids. I’ve spoken above this. And I’ve also written about that we need to teach habits of attention to our inner faculties of education, education, we need to start teaching the things that we’ve taken for granted, again, because we have to rebuild, what is missing in the school system.
It’s such a daunting task, right? When you you know, at the outset, you described it as such a complex problem with so many layers, and some of it, so much of it outside of the control of teachers, right, they’re inheriting whatever is going on at home, whatever that child is exposed to on social excetera. So how do you break it down into sort of vital chunks, because presumably, we’re at a crisis point, depending on who you talk to in this country, where we’re hearing about these violent incidents in schools, essentially, several times a week. So what would be a reasonable starting point, for example, if you’re a parent, and then separately, if you’re a teacher or a school administrator to meaningfully tackle this issue?
student behaviour needs to be at the center of the plan. And we need to recognize that that learning loss and the pandemic have caused significant after effects. And we are not going to be able to simply return to what we had before the pandemic, there needs to be changes in the way we manage schools, the way we engage parents and the way we let’s Yes, discipline children. And we need to start talking about that and stop pretending that it’s all going to go away. And I think that’s fundamentally important. Having said that, I think there’s it’s high time that habits which is which is called positive education, Behavior Supports, which is universally used across North America. I think that it’s coming to an end, because it’s not working. And teachers are the ones who are going to bring an end to it because they are themselves, very frustrated. Most of the feedback I get from the school system is from teachers who are absolutely fed up with the lack of control with their way their lives are kind of, they’re not being properly managed because they they’re not feeling good about what they’re doing. And then we have a whole group of educational education workers whose lives are kind of threatened. And they, you know, they do come home bruised, they do come home, actually not wanting to go into work. So we end the case loads for WorkSafe. BC, the, you know, in Manitoba, they’ve declared teaching to be a high risk occupation, and working in schools as being similar to working on a construction site, or, or prison or are in a hospital ward. So I think there’s changes are going on. And we do need to recognize that changes have to come from within to you can’t just point fingers. Here’s one thing I don’t think is helping teachers. I don’t think when leaders have teacher unions tried to make out that it’s all about more resources, it’s all about smaller class sizes, or it will be go away. If we had more learning supports, that’s not going to work. The problem is far deeper, more entrenched than that. So as well, I think they’re there, they have the best of intentions. And certainly they’re they they’re altruistic, and saying, Listen, you know, many parents buy this. Yeah, you know, there’s some people who think that adding psychiatrists or psychologists, why, you know, the report that was released last week, that said, the answer to Ontario School problems, was more psychologists know, oh, come on. They work for the most part in board offices. They don’t work directly with teachers and students, many of them. So I think why are principals asking for more? Psychologists? Shouldn’t they be asking for help in the schools with the kids on a day to day basis? And shouldn’t they be taking more ownership of bringing the schools back to what they should be? So they’re safe, secure, and meaningful places for learning? I think that’s what’s at stake here. So I’m puzzled by why the principals would be advocating more psychologists if I know many mental health professionals, they would recommend that, oh, yes, we need teen mental health curricula. That’s administered by teachers with kids. We don’t necessarily need more professionals. I don’t think that’s really the answer. And that’s that’s a response to much of the news media that’s been going on. I can’t believe how much coverage that report got. And I don’t think it addresses or is aligned with the problems we have today.
The cold hard reality, Dr. Bennett is that, you know, many parents have actually lost their children in a school setting in the recent months, weeks, and certainly the last several years, in a place that is supposed to be the safest place, presumably, for a child who’s going to be spending seven or eight hours there every day. So are we at a crisis point? I mean, are we at a tipping point? Or where are we in terms of actively addressing this issue?
I’d like to say is that we’ve got fists and knives, in our schools, we don’t have guns, and we don’t have many shootings. And I think those who are making more of the shootings, I think they’re doing us a disservice. They’re isolated, and thank God, they’re not too prevalent. And let’s, let’s keep it that way. But we’re talking about how we establish a new way of doing business in schools, so that there’s more cooperation. There are clear rules, there’s more consistency, and then people aren’t inclined to go and take liberties. Tracy Vaillancourt is someone I have great respect for the University of Ottawa. She’s Canada’s leading authority on a teen mental health and bullying. And I when she talks I listen and here’s what she’s saying is knives are a problem, and increasingly a problem, and fists. And we do need to manage that. She also said we need more adults in schools, and that that’s not necessarily police officers. We need more adults. And she said that, you know, where there is more surveillance, in dark corridors and in locker rooms and so on, and yes, in the washrooms because, you know, all the violence that we know, all of these incidents tend to be in hallways, stairwells and washrooms. And, you know, there are teachers that are terrified to go into washrooms. Now, they won’t they, they wouldn’t, you couldn’t get a teacher to go in there. Because they’re, they’re afraid of what they’re going to see. And just to give you a bit of an insight, I was in a school like that. And I was on duty. And students told me Don’t go in there. Don’t put in that washer. I won’t say where it was, it’s in Ontario. And I went in there, and I caught a student, you know, smoking marijuana, and flushing it down the toilet. And I ran them in, and they said, Don’t do it. You know, you’re gonna pay for this. I said, What did you pay for it? Well, don’t you know that? You don’t do that. Now, this wasn’t yesterday. This was three years ago. So it’s been going on for a long, long time. But what we’ve got now is the violence and the students taking liberties in class in front of the teachers, without fear of any rep repercussions. That is new.
Dr. Bennett, what would you say, keeps you optimistic about the fact that this is a problem that will be addressed in the short term in Canada, so that we stopped reading about the deepening severity of these types of incidents in school.
I have faith in some of our leadership. I think Karen Littlefield of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation, is on the right track, she’s speaking up about this serious issue. And for once, she’s not just talking in terms of the threat it is to her members of the teacher, she’s very much aware that it involves kids, and it gets past the start with kids. We’ve got to make them safe. And teachers will be safe if kids are safe in schools, and we’ve got to kind of make sure we get that right. I also think that there is hope that, you know, we might have more leadership, people with Backbone that are going to say it’s time to stand up and change the way things are, let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of momentum right now, behind getting coming to grips with this and not turning a blind eye so that we have an opportunity. And I think it might have been the pandemic where we realized, you know, we’ve got to be prepared for a different world and we should be we do need to take action to make sure that our schools are safe. And for everyone.
Dr. Paul Bennett, director and lead researcher at Schoolhouse Institute, thank you so much for your time and your insight today.
Oh, my pleasure.
The country’s largest school board with more than 230,000 students, upwards of 580 schools and 40,000-plus faculty and staff — the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) — is currently on target to record the most number of violent incidents in its schools since 2000, when this data began being tracked.
The TDSB defines violent incidents as:
“possessing a weapon, including possessing a firearm;
physical assault causing bodily harm requiring medical attention;
using a weapon to cause or to threaten bodily harm to another person;
hate and/or bias-motivated occurrences”
Data released by the Toronto Police in a TDSB report released in December 2022, showed, “622 young people between the ages of 12 and 29 were victims of stabbings and 586 were accused of stabbings between January 2021 and November 2022.” The report went on to say, “the increase of violent incidents in TDSB schools corresponds with Toronto Police Service data related to an increase in violent incidents impacting young people within the City of Toronto.”
For his part, Dr. Bennett says any future, sustainable strategy to stem the tide of school violence must include all stakeholders, especially parents.
“I’m a firm believer in parent engagement,” he says. “I think parents have to commit themselves to education, and I think they deserve to be respected. They need to be involved to a higher degree in their children’s education and where they are — these problems aren’t as severe.”
Here is an excerpt of the interview with Dr. Bennett:
Dr. Bennett, what would you say concerns you the most about the incidence of violence happening in schools or near schools in Canada?
The incidence of violence involving students on students and students on teachers is alarming. It was quite an issue up to about 2019, when the Globe and Mail did a feature story on the extent of violence and its effects on teachers and educational workers. It was a national story, it got a tremendous amount of attention, then the pandemic hit, and kids were out of school. So the incidents and reporting of violence disappeared with the pandemic. But we now know, with the resumption of normalcy in schools, that there’s been a tremendous resurgence, and it’s everywhere.
When you look at the big picture, what would you say are some of the key root causes of this escalation in violent incidents in school settings?
You have to unravel a whole series of factors that have contributed to this problem we have right now.
First and foremost, we’ve been through the most serious global disruption in our lifetimes. And there’s tremendous collateral damage, and that is twofold. It’s learning loss affecting a whole generation of kids, and the psychosocial effects of being out of school, being lonely and being kind of dislocated at a critical time in your life.
I think we’ve underestimated how important teen mental health challenges are. And it is connected with a social media addiction. I’m quite alarmed by what I called tick tock brain. I’ve written a few stories on this. And I think there’s something that’s fundamental that’s happened to teens in particular, that makes them very, very hard to teach. Whether we had a pandemic or not, I think we were facing that.
Family dynamics have changed as a result of being home, people working from home.
We have a precarious economy, where more and more people are not sure of the their income stability. And I think a really important under-recognized factor is a progressive school discipline.
Putting on your principal’s hat on for a moment, how would you go about managing this type of student misbehaviour and related issues, if you have to deal with it in the current climate?
I’d start by being clear about student conduct and the way it’s phrased as student behaviour. I make that a priority student behaviour and don’t pretend that it’s it’s something that takes care of itself.
If you look at the faculties of education, there’s next to no focus on preparing them on student behaviour. And their worries are when they enter the classroom for the first time. Class management is the biggest concern of new teachers, but there’s next to no training. And you’re almost encouraged to hide it, work it out on your own.
We’ve got kids with complex needs. Today’s classrooms are much more complicated.
During his interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Paul Bennett also discusses:
- Root causes of escalating school violence
- Discipline and classroom management
- Gaps in educator training practices
- “Culture of silence” in many schools
- Approaches for greater parent engagement
Understanding Youth Aggression and School-based Violence Prevention with Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt
“A Collaborative Approach to School and Community Safety: Report 1,”
(December 2022 – Toronto District School Board)