December 19, 2018 3:54 pm
Updated: December 19, 2018 3:57 pm

COMMENTARY: We count on kids to be our first line of defence in abuse cases — and that’s a problem

Toronto police say their investigation into alleged assaults at St. Michael's College School has found no other incidences outside of the alleged perpetrators or beyond this past school year.

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There was a particularly sad moment at the press conference at Toronto Police headquarters on Wednesday morning. I wonder if anyone else noticed.

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The press conference had been called so that the police could provide an update into their investigation into various incidents at St. Michael’s College, a private school in the city. As was widely reported last month, police had become aware of a video depicting a sexual assault of a child, committed by other children. Six males under the age of 18 — who cannot be identified here as they are minors — were arrested in regard to that incident, and several others that the police had become aware of during their investigation: a physical assault, some instances of threats being uttered.

And on Wednesday, the police announced that they had become aware of another similar sexual assault, and had made five arrests. All accused, again, are under the age of 18. Four of the five, in fact, were already facing charges from the other incident.

READ MORE: Toronto police arrest another student, lay additional charges in St. Michael’s College School investigation

The tone of the update from the police was that the investigation is now mostly complete. At the press conference, Insp. Domenic Sinopoli said clearly that the police were not investigating any further incidents, though they were aware of others in which the victim did not wish to proceed with charges. He said that no one had come forward to make any allegations of past abuse at the school. And he said that the police had thoroughly investigated the conduct of school officials, and found no grounds to lay charges there, either.

And then he did one other thing.

Insp. Sinopoli, before taking questions, made a special point of thanking the boy — unidentified, obviously — who’d made the investigation possible. One of the horrible details of these allegations is that the assaults were filmed, with the videos being shared widely on social media and via smartphones afterward. That’s not just illegal — the sexual assaults qualify as child pornography under Canadian law — it’s also a revictimization of the boy who was attacked. According to Insp. Sinopoli, it was another boy who saw that video, was horrified and brought it to the attention of a school principal that allowed the police to move ahead. And Insp. Sinopoli wanted to make a point of thanking that child for what he’d done.

And isn’t that depressing.

READ MORE: President and principal of St. Michael’s College School resign amid assault investigations

Not that the child stepped forward. That’s obviously wonderful. And certainly not that Insp. Sinopoli made a point of thanking him. That’s certainly warranted. But what is grim is the fact that of all the kids who saw this video — the police have told us it was widely shared — only one stepped forward (that we know of).

Maybe there were others. Perhaps the one thanked by the police was simply the first of many. You have to hope so. Because if we’re ever going to make progress on really making schools safe places for all, it’s not going to be by tweaking the rules at the top for teachers and administrators, as important as it is to have proper accountability there. It’s going to have to come from the students themselves. It will have to be because students and children know what is right, what is wrong and what to do when confronted with the latter.

WATCH BELOW: 7th student facing charges in St. Michael’s College School investigation

We aren’t there yet. And I’m not sure I was any different. Though never privy to something as horrible as what happened at St. Mikes, there are certainly things that I shrugged off as a teenager that would horrify me now. I didn’t know any better. Teens don’t.

But that’s the problem. Kids aren’t just our most vulnerable citizens. They are, sadly, also our first line of defence. I’m glad someone came forward to the police. I’m glad Insp. Sinopoli took the time to thank him. I just wish the entire thing didn’t seem quite so exceptional as to require special thanks to the young man who had the courage and the brains to step forward and report a child assault to the proper authorities. That shouldn’t be exceptional. And until it’s not, we won’t make much progress at combating these horrific crimes.

Matt Gurney is host of The Exchange with Matt Gurney on Global News Radio 640 Toronto and a columnist for Global News.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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