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Experts say schools need to do more to address harassment

Last Updated Oct 25, 2020 at 7:45 am EST

A 13-year-old Toronto catholic school student says she’s been feeling “unsafe and unconformable” for the past two years every time she goes to school.

The student says she repeatedly told Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) officials about instances of sexual harassment from two boys and that harassment eventually led to an alleged assault. It’s something experts say happens far too often when it could have been prevented.

CityNews is not identifying the school to protect the identity of the 13-year-old girl and the minors involved in the alleged assault.

Two weeks ago, one of the boys pushed the other onto her outside during recess. She says the boy then physically simulated a sexual act on her from behind. She told the principal and then went to washroom in tears.

According to the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s own website, for grades 4 to 12, any student who engages in sexual assault or bullying should be immediately suspended while the principal investigates whether they should be expelled.

But in this case, that never happened. The investigation did not begin until four days after the alleged assault and with pressure from her family.

The two boys were suspended for two days, a week after it happened. They are now back in school with the young girl. It’s unclear whether further action will be taken by the TCDSB.

Sexual violence education and advocate for gender justice, Farrah Khan, says schools have a responsibility to act when reports of sexual harassment are made and to more broadly address the systemic issues that allow these cases to go unchecked.

“We need to take it seriously and not just say ‘Oh, it’s just words’ or ‘Just boys being boys’ or just brush it off. It’s not funny, it’s not ok, and it’s making her feel unsafe in her learning environment,” said Khan. “She has a right to her education and right now, she’s not getting that.”

Khan says the boys’ behaviour must also be addressed by the school.

Education expert, Kathy Bickmore, agrees with Khan. She says cases like this are a harsh reminder of what could have been done in the two years before the harassment became physical.

“For me, the lessons of these really painful situations are: let’s go back to our process for solving problems, rebuilding relationships, recognizing harm, and repairing it, and teaching respectful behaviour,” said Bickmore. “Nothing was done for the young men or boys either in this situation.”

Khan said it was very brave of the young girl to say that it wasn’t ok.

“It was really brave and amazing that she felt safe enough to tell her family when she wasn’t getting the answer from the school she needed,” said Khan. “The school needs to affirm that she has a right to feel safe and when they don’t do that, they’re telling a different story.”

As for next steps a student or family can take if they feel the school has not done enough, Khan says it’s possible to file a complaint with the human rights tribunal. They can also speak to a school social worker or reach out to the many sexual assault centres for young girls in Toronto.