St. Michael’s can ‘take the lead’ on bullying

  • May 30, 2019

Coming out of the much-publicized hazing scandal that led to sexual assault charges against seven of its students, St. Michael’s College School is well-positioned to take the lead in combatting bullying in schools, says the lawyer leading the school’s culture review.

“This can be a real opportunity for St. Michael’s to take the lead in introducing very effective measures to severely reduce bullying within the school population,” said Mark Sandler, who chairs the Respect and Culture Review Committee.

Stakeholders in the St. Michael’s community were given an update May 29 into the findings of the committee established in the wake of the scandal that exploded in late 2018 stemming from a number of alleged incidents surrounding the junior football team. Some of the incidents were filmed and shared via social media.

The scandal shook the 167-year-old Basilian school and led to the resignations of principal Greg Reeves and board president Fr. Jefferson Thompson. Seven students were expelled and face sex assault charges. The junior football and varsity basketball teams were suspended, though the basketball team was later reinstated. 

The school has hired a student wellness officer and the four-member independent committee led by Sandler has been conducting an examination into the school’s culture. It’s expected to make its full recommendations by mid-summer. 

In related news, James McKinnon, director of education for the Bruce-Grey Catholic District School Board, was appointed principal of the school on May 14. He assumes his new role in August. 

The committee is looking into traditions, social and cultural practices at St. Michael’s that may contribute to unacceptable behaviour, policies and protocols that deal with abuse and support mechanisms for those who have been abused. At the May 29 meeting open only to the St. Michael’s community, it shared information from a survey with students, staff, alumni and parents, announced its recommendation to reinstitute the football program and offered more opportunity for stakeholders to express their views. 

The committee found hazing has not been a prominent part of St. Michael’s culture, with approximately five per cent of current students saying they have been subject to some form of hazing. And though the criminal charges stem from an alleged hazing incident and remedial measures are needed to prevent future occurrences, the committee said hazing “can fairly be described as infrequent events,” said Sandler.

But bullying is a concern with more than one in five current students (22 per cent) saying they have been victimized, according to the survey that elicited responses from 1,010 students. And despite measures put in place after the disturbing allegations came to light in November, bullying remains an issue.

Sandler believes the committee and its recommendations will set St. Michael’s up to put in place measures that can help combat the problem.

“Our unequivocal message is we can do better and we can introduce measures to really assist them,” he said.

The four-person committee brings together people with the legal and educational backgrounds to make a difference, said Sandler. A lawyer for almost 40 years, he is a partner at Toronto-based Cooper, Sandler, Shime & Bergman and has been counsel on more than 20 systemic reviews and public inquiries, including the commission examining relations between Thunder Bay police and the Indigenous community and currently the panel reviewing the Toronto Police Service investigation into missing persons following the Bruce McArthur serial killing case. 

The committee is rounded out by Debra Peplar, a research professor of psychology at York University, Prita Sachdeva, former legal counsel at the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, and Bruce Rodrigues, former deputy minister of education and director of education with the Toronto Catholic District School Board. 

“Every student at SMCS has the right to be free from bullying and the right to thrive in a safe and nurturing environment,” said Sandler. “Our recommendations will be designed to meet those expectations. This is an opportunity for the school to take the lead in instituting effective measures to severely reduce bullying.”

The survey also found many parents felt the suspension of the junior football program for this past season and next was unfair to students and made scapegoats of the entire team because of the actions of a few. The report recommends the program be reinstated “if and only if it is coupled with effective measures to prevent or address hazing in particular and bullying more generally.” These measures will be fully described in the committee’s final report, said Sandler.

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