Gun violence spurs teacher to action

  • October 8, 2009
{mosimage}With three of his former students struck down by gun violence, teaching veteran James Flaherty says he was driven to try to make a difference.

The graphics and technology teacher has been at Malton, Ont.’s Ascension of Our Lord High School for 15 years and has used his film-making skills to try to make that difference.

Flaherty and his fellow teachers had their work recognized on World Teachers’ Day. On Oct. 5, students and teachers celebrated with the principal and vice principal donning a chef’s hat and distributing muffins and coffee to teachers.

Flaherty notes that it’s a challenging neighbourhood: Peel Region had a record 27 murders last year.

Some teachers and Peel police have told Flaherty that gangs are trying to recruit young students in the area.

Flaherty recalls coaching one of the students on the basketball team and that the student, who had graduated from the high school, was tragically murdered at a street party years later. The other two student murders appeared to be gang-related, he added.

“I don’t want to be somebody who sits back and shrugs his shoulders,” he told The Catholic Register. “As Catholics, we’re called to not capitulate in that regard.”

Flaherty thought about his own children who were around the same age as the murdered students.

Since that time, the 45-year-old teacher said he has been inspired to make films that can help youth in the school’s neighbourhood. His latest film, Mouse, comes on the heels of an anti-bullying film he first made at the school two years ago.

Mouse presents a gripping portrayal of the pitfalls of life in a gang. The film was made with assistance from Peel Regional Police and its cast was students and teachers with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board.

The movie has netted numerous prizes. In April, it won Best Canadian Short Film at Toronto’s ReelWorld Film Festival. It also won an award for best youth production at the Yorkton Film Festival in Yorkton, Sask., in May.

It has also been featured on CTV’s W5 current affairs program.

Darren Watts, one of Flaherty’s former students, was an actor in the movie. Watts, 19, has just finished the culinary arts program at Humber College. He said Flaherty was his best teacher and “doesn’t give up on his students.”

“He’s always pushed me to go forward and strive for my goals,” he said.

Watts recalls how Flaherty’s “constructive criticism” helped him succeed in his academic career. He said his teacher calmly talked to him about the importance of being punctual because Watts had been coming to class late because of his night-shift after-school job.

Watts said Flaherty also taught him about respecting everyone and to not “burn bridges.”

Flaherty was a filmmaker and partner in a small company specializing in documentaries and corporate videos before making the switch to teaching. After making some educational videos, he found them to be a “powerful” medium. 

There have been some challenging times.

“You don’t see it right away, the influence you’re having,” he said.

Looking back, he says it’s been a rewarding change, especially when students come back to tell him how they’re doing in school and that his teaching has had a positive influence on them.

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