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Toronto schools aim to outgun the guns

  • June 13, 2007
{mosimage}TORONTO - This summer Fr. Henry Carr Catholic Secondary School is moving a few blocks south to Doomstown — to the corner of the street where 19- year-old Jose Hierro Saez was gunned down June 3 in another case which pits police seeking leads against a community too afraid to break the code of silence. Doomstown is the local nickname for Jamestown, the neighbourhood off Martin Grove Road south of Finch Avenue, and one of Toronto’s poorest and most violent.

That’s the physical move, but spiritually the school is headed for a very different place.

“A lot of people think that when you say you’re from Carr that you’re just a troubled child. It’s not true,” said Grade 11 student Stephanie Athayde.

The prim, smart and focussed Athayde is one of a group of Fr. Henry Carr students applying to spend their summer training to lead a school- and parish-based program of forgiveness and reconciliation. The provincially funded $82,000 program promises to divert at-risk students from violence, bullying and academic failure.

As Toronto faces another summer of the gun, and the shooting death of a 15-year-old C.W. Jeffreys Collegiate student in a school hallway has the city on edge, provincial and city politicians are casting about for answers. Toronto Mayor David Miller told The Catholic Register he believes schools and parishes have the best chance of making a difference in their own communities.

{mosimage}“Church participation at the neighbourhood level is terrifically important, and has a very positive impact,” he said.

With funding from the Ontario Ministry of Education and support from St. Andrew’s parish pastor Fr. Carlos Sierra Tobon, the students at Fr. Henry Carr believe they can demonstrate how young people can prevent violence and bring about healing in their own community.

“We can help them (at-risk students) get to know each other and help them to get to know themselves,” said Grade 11 student Karoleen Abdel-Shahied.

The Fr. Henry Carr students see themselves directly attacking the atmosphere of fear and distrust in the neighbourhood.

“That’s what starts war in this neighbourhood,” said Abdel- Shahied.

The students describe their school as an island of safety, calm and purpose in an urban sea of despair and blight. They also say their school, with its discipline, security cameras, capable vice principal Anne Bellissimo and close ties to St. Andrew’s parish, is far superior to other schools in Toronto’s northwest.

The school suffers from the reputation of the surrounding neighbourhood, and enrolment has been declining, said students.

{sidebar id=2} “If there is violence in the suburbs, it’s hushed up. Our area gets criticized,” said Athayde.

Grade 10 student Alyan Louis blames the media for “boosting” news of violence in her neighbourhood.

These students are applying to spend a week at a summer camp learning how to bring forgiveness and reconciliation to their school community. The program is based on the Espere Schools for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, which has roots in Colombia — the most violent country in the Western hemisphere, famed for its Medellin drug cartels. Consolata missionary Tobon used the program while working with gangs and in prison ministry in Columbia. He describes it as a program that fits with his training as a psychologist.

The same techniques can work on bullying in schools, said Tobon.

In a school of about 650 students, there were 326 suspensions last year. Not all of them were for violence or bullying, but it’s part of the landscape, said religion teacher and chaplaincy co-ordinator Deb Gové. Gové is screening the students who will be selected for a “training of the trainers” at Ontario Pioneer Camp north of Barrie, Ont. The 12 teachers and students who go through the program will run peer mentoring, bullying workshops, circles of reconciliation and run four separate week-long camps for atrisk students. The program calls for a base of 100 student-leaders responsible for implementing Espere.

“If 100 students change, that could change our community,” said Louis.

Despite all the headlines, policy makers are failing to get at the causes of violence in Toronto’s poor neighbourhoods, said Tobon.

“We are not addressing the proper causes of violence here,” said Tobon. “It is not a problem of sports complexes. It is not a problem of whether you have schools here or there. It is a problem that goes beyond.”

Espere is aimed at addressing what Tobon calls the “subjective causes of violence.” While poverty, unemployment, poor education, unaffordable housing and other objective factors may contribute to the problem, it is spiritual and emotional factors that lead directly to violence, said Tobon.

Tobon admits he will be training academically gifted students who are likely headed for university educations and a ticket out of the neighbourhood — not the kids at risk of joining gangs or turning to drugs for quick cash.

“There is a gap. To connect with them (at-risk students) is still a work to be done. You know, they don’t want to listen to you. They don’t want to listen to their parents. They don’t listen to their schools. They don’t listen to anybody,” said Tobon.

But Tobon is certain the student leaders trained in Espere will be able to bridge the gap.

“I have been working in prisons. I have been working as director of youth in my country. And so, I am putting in place what I understand, and I believe, and I love,” he said.

He also regards work with teenaged students at Fr. Henry Carr as integral to running a good parish.

“A parish must become a missionary parish,” he said. “When we talk about a missionary parish there are two dimensions — within and outside. The mission within is with the churchgoers. But Program promises to divert at-risk students from violence we have to have in mind those who are without. And those who are within, we have to provoke them in order to have them be missionaries going out.”

So, if the gangsters aren’t coming to church on Sunday morning, Tobon wants his parishioners going out to meet the gangsters. The parishioners he trusts most to do the job are studentleaders at Fr. Henry Carr.

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