TORONTO – Bullying continues to be a “systemic” issue at a private Toronto school rocked by allegations of sexual assault despite measures introduced in the wake of the scandal, says a report that examined culture at the all-boys Catholic institution.
The report released Thursday from an independent committee found no significant change in rates of student bullying and victimization at St. Michael’s College School, where seven students were charged last fall in connection with alleged incidents that took place on campus.
“Bullying and other demeaning behaviour do represent a systemic issue at the school, albeit in numbers comparable to the experiences of children of similar age across the country,” the committee wrote. “We can do so much better.”
The school made headlines in November as police investigated an alleged sexual assault recorded on video and shared on social media. Investigators eventually laid charges in two alleged sexual assaults and one assault, all involving one of the institution’s football teams.
The scandal triggered a national conversation on bullying and how it is dealt with in schools. St Michael’s tasked the committee with the review shortly after.
“There are two realities at Saint Michael’s College School. For many students, past and current, the school has represented the very best in schooling,” the committee wrote. “For others, the school failed to ensure that they felt safe and secure or fully included.”
The sweeping 123-page report – titled “A Time for Renewal” – offered 36 recommendations, including developing a comprehensive strategy to address bullying and robust staff training to deal with the issue.
The school said it is committed to adopting the recommendations.
“We are deeply concerned that bullying is a systemic issue,” school president Rev. Andrew Leung said in a statement. “Our goal remains unwavering – to ensure the safety and well-being of our students.”
The committee found bullying is a school-wide problem. That conclusion was supported by the findings from surveys of current students, alumni, staff, former staff and parents.
Those found that 206 boys – about one in five students – reported they had been bullied during their time at school.
“It hasn’t really changed,” one student wrote.
“Fix this bullying issue now and stop being neglectful and lazy,” another wrote.
Surveys found the number of students who reported witnessing bullying went down from last fall to this spring, the committee said, suggesting bullying may have become more covert.
Of those who were bullied, 70 boys said the bullying lasted a year or longer. Fifty-four boys reported being “sexually bullied.”
The committee also found 88 students “reported that they had been bullied because of their race or religion.” And three out of four bullied boys reported subsequent mental health issues that included anger, sadness, difficulties at school, and feeling helpless.
“This chronic bullying may be explained by the school’s inability to fully identify and effectively address bullying,” the committee said.
While bullying was clearly a problem, the committee found hazing was not an issue, although it did exist. The committee said it wanted the school to stamp out mild forms of initiation because it is demeaning.
The committee recommended the school write or rewrite a number of policies, codes of conduct and student handbooks that can be easily accessed by students, teachers, coaches and parents.
It also recommended the school hire more women as teachers, staff and in leadership roles.
“In the context of an all-boys school – especially where hyper or toxic masculinity has been identified as an issue to be mindful of, female teachers and administrators provide much needed perspective,” it wrote.
Seven students were eventually charged last fall with offences that included sexual assault with a weapon, gang sexual assault and assault for three incidents involving members of one of the school’s football teams. The charges against one have since been dropped.
Two police sources have said one of the alleged incidents involved a group of students on a football team pinning down another student and allegedly sexually assaulting him with a broom handle.
The report offered further details on what allegedly happened.
It said the school received a video on Nov. 12 that “appeared to show a sexual assault involving a group of boys.” Around noon the next day, staff identified those in the video as students at the school. On Nov. 14, the school told police about the alleged sex assault.
The committee said the school should have reported criminal allegations to police as soon as it became aware of them, rather than wait 36 hours to allow the alleged victim to discuss the issue with his mother who was out of town. It suggested the school develop protocols with police on how to deal with alleged criminal acts.
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The report also said an alleged assault on Sept. 18 involved students allegedly “striking a student on the buttocks with a broom stick.”
Four of the students charged were expelled, while the other three withdrew from the school in the wake of the allegations that came to light. Four other students were also expelled.
The school’s top two administrators also resigned and several sports teams’ seasons were cancelled.