Nearly seven months after an elite private boys’ school in Toronto was rocked by allegations of assault and sexual assault, an independent committee has found that “bullying is a systemic issue that must be addressed” and is recommending reinstatement of the football program “with important safeguards in place.”
At a meeting Wednesday night for parents, staff and alumni of St. Michael’s College School, the committee provided its first glimpse into a review of the school’s culture and policies, and the processes it has undertaken, including interviews and survey results. A final report is due mid-summer.
Mark Sandler, chair of the SMCS Respect and Culture Review Committee — created in response to alleged assaults that police say involved members of the football team — said while “hazing does not figure prominently in the culture of the school” there is an issue with bullying, according to his prepared remarks, obtained by the Star.
He said an anonymous survey completed by 1,010 students at the Grades 7 to 12 school, located at Bathurst St. and St. Clair Ave. W., found that 5 per cent of students said they have been subjected to hazing. Twenty-two per cent describe themselves as victims of sexual, physical or verbal bullying and many said it has had “a profound impact” on them. However, the levels of bullying at SMCS “are comparable to those reported by boys of similar ages across Canada.”
When reached by the Star after the meeting, a St. Mike’s spokesperson had no comment.
The school is famous for its sports programs and prominent alumni including hockey players Dave Keon and Tim Horton. But in November, scandal erupted after a video circulated on social media showing a graphic alleged sexual assault of a boy in a locker room. A Toronto police investigation resulted in seven boys being charged in connection to three separate incidents — an alleged assault with a weapon in September; an alleged gang sex assault with an object in October; and a second alleged gang sex assault with an object in November. The matter is still before the courts but no trial date has been set.
Following the incidents, the school expelled at least eight students and suspended one. Its principal and president resigned, amid criticism they had mishandled the situation. St. Mike’s took various steps to address the crisis, including cancelling its football program for the next year, hiring a permanent social worker, bringing in crisis counsellors and setting up an anonymous tip line for boys to report concerns.
It also launched the committee to examine the school’s traditions, social and cultural practices that may have contributed to unacceptable behaviour; its policies, protocols and practices that deal with abuse, including bullying, hazing and the reporting of alleged abuse to police; and support mechanisms in place to encourage students to report abuse.
The four members of the committee have no prior connection to the school. Its chair Sandler is a lawyer with extensive experience in systemic reviews of this nature. The committee also includes Debra Pepler, a York University psychology professor who researches aggression, bullying and victimization involving children and teens; Bruce Rodrigues, a former Ontario deputy minister of education; and Priti Sachdeva, former legal counsel at the province’s Office of the Children’s Lawyer.
Its review is not a “finger-pointing exercise,” nor is it looking into the alleged incidents. But Sandler noted “it is deeply concerning” that the alleged incidents were witnessed “by a number of students” and that the most serious was videotaped and shared on social media.
“These facts confirm the critical importance of introducing robust measures to address not only potential hazing, but also the larger moral issues associated with the observation of serious victimization of fellow students and the misuse of social media to further victimize a fellow student.”
Its final report will include various recommendations. But on Wednesday, the committee made one time-sensitive recommendation of reinstating the football program for the next year.
“We are satisfied that in the upcoming year, the reinstatement of the football programs, if and only if it is coupled with effective measures to prevent or address hazing in particular and bullying more generally, can better the serve the student body while promoting a safe and healthy environment within the school,” said Sandler.
Specific measures to combat hazing and bullying will be in the final report. They will address training and education of students and staff, including coaches, and “a range of safeguards to directly address the issues raised at the school.”
He said some members of the school community characterized what occurred as involving “a few bad apples.”
“When the criminal allegations came to light, there was some highly inappropriate scapegoating of certain members of the student body by some members of the St. Michael’s community,” he said. “Not only was this scapegoating unsupportable by the evidence, it was deeply concerning and will also be addressed in recommendations in our report.”
Of the 1,010 students surveyed, 57 per cent reported witnessing bullying, and of the 22 per cent who had been bullied, one third endured it for more than a year. Most boys who experienced or witnessed bullying said they were scared, angry, hopeless and had trouble with school work. Among those who reported being non-white and bullied, 72 per cent said they were bullied because of their race or religion. Survey results reveal no change in the rates of bullying between fall and spring terms, despite measures put in place by the school after the allegations surfaced.
In another survey of 753 alumni, 40 per cent reported they had been bullied at least once while attending St. Mike’s and that the experience had a negative emotional, social and academic impact.
The committee’s final report will be made public so other schools can benefit from the findings.
“This is an opportunity for the school to take the lead in instituting effective measures to severely reduce bullying,” said Sandler.
With files from Alyshah Hasham