Canada: Grappling with student violence
"The whole school was divided among groups. The hallways were designated to different ethnic groups. We had the Chinese hallway, the Punjabi hallway and the Black hallway. Between them it was a fight for who ran the school," says Jessica Bains, first year student at York University in Ontario, recalling her high school experience. While guns in school are not uncommon in neighbouring USA, Canada is not far behind when it comes to youth (the 15-25 age group) violence.
According to 2004 figures from Statistics Canada, a government agency, while the total number of crime cases heard in Canadian youth courts has dropped 20 per cent in the last decade, the number of violent crimes cases heard - homicide, sexual assault, physical assault and robbery - has increased 25 per cent over the same period. This means that although the rate of violence has increased - and the crimes are more violent than they were - fewer cases are coming up for hearing.
Schools and parents are increasingly regarding student violence as a serious problem. Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC), an agency that corroborates facts and figures on public safety issues, defines school violence as a range of behaviour from verbal threats to harassment and intimidation to physical assault. What usually starts as disobedience, bullying and teasing in the lower grades, escalates to obscene gesturing, verbal and physical threats, assault, vandalism, extortion and gang-related activities when students reach high school.
Although bullying is most common in elementary school and physical assaults in high school, the type of violence also differs from school to school and city to city.
One of the most affected ethnic groups is first and second generation Indian-Canadian children. In addition to dealing with ethnic prejudice in society, these children often have parents who work so hard to keep their families financially secure, that they might not notice signs of violent misbehaviour in their children. "Cities like Vancouver and Toronto are hotbeds of violence, especially when it comes to the Indian community," says Jaskaren Benepal, a college student in Toronto. "When fights go to an extreme," she continues, "then the guns come out. In our community, kirpans (traditional Sikh knives) come out. The idea is to intimidate the other group by showing them weapons".
PSEPC agrees that the number of students bringing weapons -- mainly knives -- to school is increasing, and the traditional 'one-on-one' assault has been replaced with group attacks on individual students.
While there have not been many studies that examine violence race-wise, many believe that children of immigrants are often vulnerable. In families where both parents are working, the children often lack guidance and may end up on the wrong side of things. Poverty, violence at home, violent video games, and lack of discipline at school are other reasons commonly cited for violence among youth.
Fights erupt over any perceived provocation. Frequently, rival student gangs within a school or from different schools vie for Supremacy. At other times, as Bains explains, "clashes start over the smallest of things. They originate from absolutely nothing, continue for a very long time and end in violence".
In Toronto in December 2004, Drew Stewart, 16, was chased, beaten and fatally stabbed after trying to discourage a group of youths from harassing his friends. In May 2005, Dwayne Lloyd, 17, was shot and killed after participating in a basketball tournament in Brampton, a Toronto neighbourhood dominated by Indian immigrants from Punjab. Police are yet to identify a motive for the shooting. Lloyd's murder has highlighted another disquieting fact: youth violence is primarily targeted towards peers and acquaintances, rather than adults or strangers.
High school girls are affected by violence too. According to Benepal, "Between girls it's not so much physical assault, but rather psychological warfare. They are vicious when it comes to spreading rumours or giving cutting comments and looks. Their fighting is equally hurtful."
Violence in schools perpetuates a damaging atmosphere where aggressive behaviour is acceptable. For instance, dating violence - which ranges from physically hurting one's date to kissing her without her complete consent - is not defined as violence by young people who, instead, accept it as an unsurprising part of dating relationships. Once students leave for college and school gangs disperse, violence frequently ceases. However, some students -- both victims and perpetrators -- are scarred more permanently by their high school experience. "When you see that fighting can be a way of resolving issues," says Barns, "then you tend to fall back on the same option again and again in your adult life." Problem-solving through aggression and violence becomes a mode of behaviour at home and in the workplace.
At other times, school violence escalates into more serious crimes: for instance, gang- and drug-related homicides have been on the rise in the Indian immigrant community in Vancouver. In the last 13 years, police records indicate that 76 young men of Indian descent have been killed in gang- and drug-related violence.
To counter the situation, the Toronto Police runs a number of school programmes, including the Empowered Student Partnerships Programme, which urges high school students to identify problems locally and then come up with solutions in the form of campaigns. The NGO Youth Assisting Youth also runs a community-based programme that matches youth volunteers, aged 16-29, in a one-to-one relationship with 'at risk' or vulnerable children. The idea is to help vulnerable youth by providing a positive role model in a friend.
The most popular strategy among schools is the Zero Tolerance Policy. This is a 'get tough' initiative, which works on the principle that punishment for violence has to be rapid and in the form of suspension or expulsion. The bottomline, though, is that if the youth receive timely help, there might be no need for a punishment policy.