Fights, guns, overdoses: Staff at York Memorial warn school on brink of crisis
Posted November 25, 2022 5:58 am.
Last Updated November 25, 2022 5:46 pm.
Violence against adults, fights in the hallways and reports of weapons on the property. Staff at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in York say the school is in crisis, and the board isn’t doing enough.
“The expectation was, ‘Hey, show up to work and pretend as if nothing happened all through the day. Cross your fingers, hope to God that it will not happen again,’” said a staff member, whom CityNews has agreed to keep anonymous.
Fourteen of the school’s 80 staff members staged a one-day work refusal campaign due to safety issues, an unprecedented number at a single school, a union representing secondary school teachers in Toronto said.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) said more than 75 health and safety concerns from York Memorial teachers have also been submitted to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).
“We have never seen this high number of formal health and safety complaints or work refusals,” said Michelle Teixeira, president of OSSTF’s Toronto teachers’ unit.
Several teachers and two administrators have also gone on medical leave due to safety issues, the federation confirmed, adding representatives have heard complaints from the majority of teachers at the school.
Two staff members agreed to interview with CityNews anonymously, with a third providing more information over the phone due to the risk to their careers.
A source confirmed to CityNews that 14 staff members are presently on leave from York Memorial Collegiate due to safety, but the TDSB did not provide a response.
Staff members say the issues began when York Memorial was merged with George Harvey Collegiate Institute at the start of this school year.
“Since September, there have been fights almost every day, multiple flights per day, often with suspected use of weapons,” explained the first staff member. “The vice principals have received death threats to their faces from students. There has been storming of the main office more than once where there was actual damage to the main office.”
“There have been teachers that have been physically intimidated and swarmed and assaulted. That goes along with the daily incidents of intimidation and violence that the students have to live with,” the first staff member continued.
They added that the majority of the students are great, and it’s around 100 students who are causing the issue: “This is a small number of students who are hijacking everyone’s learning and teaching environment.”
A ‘riot within the school’
The staff members say matters came to a head on Oct. 28 when there was “a riot within the school.”
“We were talking about groups of students of anywhere from about 60 to 80. They were storming the main office; they were fighting in the hallways,” said the second staff member.
“It was absolutely the most terrifying experience of my career”
The second staff member said a young teacher was also hit on the head multiple times.
“She was just trying to help. Another staff member was swarmed and verbally assaulted, and threatened. It was absolutely the most terrifying experience of my career and, from what everyone else has described, for their careers as well.”
It was after that incident that teachers decided to refuse to work. The staff CityNews spoke to say the deciding factor was that school administration was waiting to hold an emergency staff meeting after the school day on Monday, Oct. 31, instead of having it right away.
The Ministry of Labour was notified of the one-day work refusal on Nov. 8. A spokesperson confirms an investigation is underway but would not provide any further details.
Just a week later, on Nov. 15, Toronto police were called for reports of a gun on school property. The staff admitted that this is a regular occurrence, claiming police are called up to three times a week or almost daily.
CityNews reached out to police for information on how often officers have been called to York Memorial in recent weeks and the nature of those calls. A spokesperson declined to provide those details, saying it could only be recovered through a Freedom of Information request.
Bathrooms within the school have also become a huge issue, staff say, with teenagers filming sex, drug deals and violence.
“There were three overdoses in the school since September. Thankfully, all three teenagers are okay,” the second staff member said. They continued: “We also have, dear God, a Fight Club-type environment where you have Grade 12 students standing around videotaping younger grade students having to participate in fights.”
The staff members said school policy doesn’t allow an adult into the bathrooms. Meanwhile, other students have become fearful and avoid using the bathroom facilities.
Video evidence of these incidents has been circulating beyond the school, and staff members say the school leadership, including the superintendent, has received copies of the videos.
“We are never informed of how it’s dealt with,” said the second staff member.
A source provided CityNews with three separate videos which show an incident of a fight involving students in the hallway and another fight between students in the bathroom.
The last video provided to CityNews showed over two dozen students “storming” the main office, according to the source.
Teixeira said many of the health and safety forms submitted to the TDSB corroborate the details shared by the staff members who spoke to CityNews.
“Many of these forms cite issues such as violence in the hallways, verbal abuse and threats, the lack of lockdown procedures, students hiding their faces/not identifying themselves, and numerous facilities issues such as a lack of locks/doors/keys for classrooms and [announcement] systems not working.”
In response, staff members say they’ve been advised to simply tell them to lock the doors of their classroom as a safety measure.
“This was communicated to us as if you have a door that locks, then, therefore, you are in a safe environment,” said the first staff member said. “Our position is an environment where you need to be behind a locked door is not a safe environment.”
Staff add there has been a lack of stable leadership at the school, with a “revolving door” of administrators.
“We did not begin the school year with an assembly outlining the expectations of the code of conduct for our school. There was no introduction of the new leadership of the school. The students had no idea even who their administrators [were],” the first staff member noted.
“The students had no idea even who their administrators were and, in part, because our administrators did not turn out to be permanent administrators.”
This has led to the appearance of zero consequences for some students.
“There was an incident where a student was walking around with a backpack full of marijuana. The backpack was confiscated and brought to the office and put inside the office vault … the same student [then] walked into the main office, pushed aside the vice principal, took the backpack full of marijuana back and left.”
The first staff member said that the student is still walking the halls.
Safety issues continue despite TDSB saying issues have been resolved
The Toronto District School Board tells CityNews they have worked to address safety concerns brought forward by staff members and say, “the majority of these concerns have been addressed.”
“We will continue to work closely with any staff, student, or parent to address any future challenges and concerns. In the meantime, we believe York Memorial CI continues to be a safe, welcoming school, and we have brought in additional staff to help support this newly forming school community.”
When asked if York Memorial is a safe school, the staff members both responded with a “hard no,” adding, “we do our best. But truly, we walk into school every day knowing anything could happen.”
The staff members have asked for the school board to add more measures to address violence in school, for more safety monitors to be present at the school and for more consistency within the school administration.
Fire destabilized school community
In 2019, a six-alarm fire destroyed York Memorial’s historic building. In the aftermath, the board sent its students to George Harvey.
In 2021 the TDSB decided the two schools would be consolidated under the York Memorial name and while staying at the George Harvey location until repairs on the original building could be completed. The estimated return date to York Memorial’s location is 2026.
The staff members say both the school board and the building were not ready for this merging of schools.
“Our school board has failed this underserved community.”
“Not only in pushing for a merger that we’re not ready for, but the school board was also not ready for this facility,” said the first staff member.
They added they believe if this school were in a different part of Toronto, more would be done to prevent the violence.
“If you were to go to a school in any number of neighbourhoods in Toronto, even one of these incidents would cause such an immediate reaction from the community and immediate response because that’s what parents would demand. The parents in our community do not carry this influence,” the first staff member said.
“They’re not comfortable advocating, so it falls on us as teachers because we know their kids deserve better. We know their kids, our kids deserve better, and therefore, we have to advocate on behalf of them and the parents.”
The staff associates both say they are all working to educate and provide a safe space for their students, but they have not received any support from the school board to be able to do that.
“It’s just mind-boggling that we do not receive any support, and in fact, we’re traumatized by all of this on top of everything, but we can’t show that trauma to our students because they’re already experiencing enough in this environment.”