Information on sexual assault and harassment of girls in Ontario

Sexual harassment common in high schools, study finds

Sexist comments and unwanted touching a major concern throughout southwest Ontario

February 7, 2021
Toronto Star
By Kristin Rushowy, Education Reporter

Almost half of female high school students are subjected to sexual comments or gestures, and one-third are touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way, says a new study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

In the wake of a report on school safety in Toronto showing troubling trends in violence and sexual harassment, psychologist David Wolfe said his study of 23 rural and urban high schools in southwestern Ontario shows the issue "is not a Toronto phenomenon."

"We're saying it, unfortunately, is a very common phenomenon," Wolfe said.

The study of more than 1,800 students in Grade 9, with a follow-up two years later, found that 46 per cent of girls were the target of sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks at some point in both Grades 9 and 11, and that 30 per cent were sexually "touched, grabbed or pinched" in Grade 9. That dropped only slightly – to 28 per cent – by Grade 11.

Almost one-third of the girls in Grade 11 felt pressured into taking part in unwanted sexual activity, and 15 per cent "had oral sex just to avoid having sex."

Thirty-six per cent of males in Grade 9 were subjected to sexual comments or jokes, which dropped to 27 per cent by Grade 11.

Slightly more than 20 per cent of Grade 11s reported being touched or grabbed sexually and about one-third have been called homophobic insults.

A recent survey of Toronto students at two city high schools, conducted by a safety panel headed by lawyer Julian Falconer, found "alarming rates" of sexual harassment and assault; in fact, 19 per cent of females at one school said they had been sexually assaulted at school in the past two years.

Following the release of Falconer's report last month, the board vowed to take action, especially where sexual violence is concerned.

"I believe we have to address (the issue) in a significant way," said Gerry Connelly, the board's director of education said in a recent interview. "I have met with the minister (of education) and she's also very concerned. We're talking about programs in place, changes to policy and the ways in which we could deal with healthy sexuality amongst our adolescent students.

"That's something I certainly want to make a priority."

Toronto trustee Cathy Dandy, who heads the board's school safety committee, agreed this is a significant issue.

One alarm bell is the increase in extremely violent pornography and degrading music videos and lyrics, she said. The board needs to talk to male and female students about how to relate to each other, as part of the curriculum.

Wolfe said teen harassment used to be more racist and sexist, and is now "more homophobic and misogynistic," a lot of which is driven by what they see in the media.

While such behaviour doesn't harm everyone, "it contributes to the feeling that it's okay to belittle others, and that it's okay as an adolescent to break all kinds of rules" that adults follow.

"This is the type of thing kids live with every day, and we in our jobs would have something to say about it. Kids don't think they can."

He also said people don't realize how tough it is for Grade 9 students and that more needs to be done to prepare and support them for the transition to high school.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has created a program called "The fourth R" – relationships – that teaches teens to relate better to one another and is run in about 35 Toronto schools. And while the study found boys are doing most of the harassment, against both other males as well as females, the program targets both sexes.

Sexual harassment is considered a risk factor for substance use, low self-esteem and depression.

Girls accepting sexual assault at school as fact of life: reports

February 22, 2021 Staff

When you went to school, chances are the worst thing you faced was the schoolyard bully, the occasional fight in the field or some less than good-natured teasing. Hard as it may seem to believe, those were the good old days. It appears a growing number of young girls are not only being sexually assaulted on campus, but have come to think of it as a normal part of their educational experience.

"It's totally unacceptable and it's unfortunate that our young teenagers feel this way. We need to take action. We need to help our young people realize that this is not appropriate behaviour," urged the Toronto District School Board's director Gerry Connelly.

Recent studies from both the Board's Safety Panel and the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health show some shocking stats at one school: 33 per cent say they've been sexually harassed in the past two years; another 29 admit to having been touched or grabbed inappropriately and seven per cent have actually been victims of a major sexual assault.

"You just hear jokes [being yelled out] all the time that have to do with girls doing sexual things," said Madison Fitzgerald, a Toronto high school student.

"There's a lot of groping and touching in our school.," said another.

But Connelly believes it's a problem that's endemic to halls of learning across the country. "One of the concerns is the alarming rate of gender-based violence, and 21 per cent of the students that were surveyed said that they knew at least one student who was sexually assaulted at school. Now there's sexual harassment, which is talking inappropriately and there's sexual harassment which is being touched inappropriately. So the 21 per cent are talking about sexual assault.

"Twenty-nine per cent of Grade 9 girls ... felt unsafe at school partly due to sexual comments and unwanted looks or touches; 27 per cent of the girls in Grade 11 admitted to being pressured into doing something sexual that they did not want to do; 14 per cent of the females reported being harassed over the Internet."

She worries that's becoming the 'new normal' and an accepted mode of behaviour that's just part of going to class everyday. "They take it for granted that this is the way they should be treated," she concludes.

Some experts believe the situation is exacerbated because most kids don't understand exactly what "sexual assault" actually entails. It doesn't have to include any intimate contact at all. "Sexual assault, from the perspective of the development of a young girl, is any unwanted sexual touching or name-calling," points out Amanda Dale of the YWCA.

What is the Board doing about the problem?

"Our first task is to talk to a lot of experts in the field and get some recommendations," commented Liz Sandals of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association.

And while that may seem like a logical first step to some, others - like School Community Safety Advisory Chair Julian Falconer - think it's time to stop talking and start doing.

"Here we sit in February 2008 and we're still talking about doing more studies. People ought to be asking the question, 'When do you we stop studying and when do we start acting?'"

"We're looking at ways of having more gender-specific programs that particularly focus on young girls and programs that focus on boys and what is appropriate behaviour," Connelly responds. "We also have set up what we call the Student Safety Line ... we have E.S.P. - Empowering Student Partnerships - in all of our schools, and they can use the Crime Stoppers or Kids Help Phone."

The Student Safety Line was set up after the report on violence in schools was released in January. The early response shows the extent of the problem.

"In 20 days, we've had almost 300 calls from kids, because they feel more comfortable talking to an anonymous voice on the phone. And so we were able to help a significant number of these kids. One of them is as young as Grade 1."

The number to call is (416) 395-7233 (SAFE).

Girls accept sexual assault as 'way it is,' educator says

Team appointed

National Post
By Natalie Alcoba
February 22, 2021

A growing number of teenage girls views sexual harassment and even assault as "normal," says a top Toronto school board official.

Gerry Connelly described the "new normal" phenomenon during her keynote address to the annual Safe Schools Conference in Toronto yesterday.

"A young girl will see somebody being pushed against a locker and fondled inappropriately, or they are being touched inappropriately and they say:
'Well, that's just the way it is,' " said Ms. Connelly, director of education at the Toronto District School Board.

"Well folks, that's not acceptable, but our young girls are treating it like it is acceptable and we have to address that."

The Toronto school safety report released last month found that "sexual assault and sexual harassment are prevalent in TDSB schools."

According to a survey conducted at a North York high school, 33% of students surveyed reported being sexually harassed in the school over the past two years; 29% reported being the victim of unwanted sexual contact, including touching or grabbing at their school; and 29 female students or 7% of respondents reported being the victim of a major sexual assault at their school.

Another report on sexual harassment at 23 Ontario schools by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health showed that 30% of Grade 9 girls and 28% of Grade 11 girls reported having been touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way.

The panel that produced the school safety report, led by human rights lawyer Julian Falconer, said more must be done to encourage students to report all incidents of violence, and urged a sexual assault and gender-based violence prevention strategy at the TDSB.

Ms. Connelly said she was disturbed to learn that 80% of TDSB students said they would not talk to teachers or police about crimes they witnessed or experienced.

"Why? You've heard the expression: snitches get stitches," she told the audience, which included educators, social workers and police officers.

But students also worry that if they tell, their parents will forbid them from associating with certain peers or force them to switch schools, said Ms. Connelly. Many students do not trust police, she said.

Some schools have "safe rooms" where female students can talk freely about their feelings. But more must be done to create more welcoming environments that combat the "code of silence" that appears to be fostering violence directed at girls, said Ms. Connelly, who cited figures from the CAMH study and a TDSB survey that showed the troubling rate of sexual harassment and assault in schools.

For example, 21% of surveyed TDSB students said they knew at least one student who had been sexually assaulted at school over the past two years.

"It's a phenomenon across Canada, and it's a phenomenon that is not well-researched or understood," Ms. Connelly said.

Ontario's Education Minister yesterday announced a team of safety and education experts will examine the causes of sexual harassment, homophobia and gender-based violence and draw up recommendations to prevent the behaviours.

Preventing violence and harassment in schools

McGuinty government making Ontario schools safer

[Ontario government news release] TORONTO, Feb. 21 /CNW/ - Ontario is working to combat harassment and violence in schools by reengaging a team of safety and education experts.

The team will focus on improving school safety by making recommendations aimed at preventing behaviour such as:

- sexual harassment
- homophobia
- gender-based violence.

"One incident of gender-based violence or homophobia in our schools is too many. We have a collective responsibility to take action," said Education Minister Kathleen Wynne.

Research shows that gender-based violence is a serious issue, with far-reaching consequences to individuals, their families, peers, and the community at large. The team will examine the causes of these behaviours, provide recommendations on how to prevent this type of inappropriate behaviour among students and make it easier to report.

The team - called the Safe Schools Action Team - was created in 2004 to examine school safety and review the former safe schools legislation.
Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Education Liz Sandals will lead the team and will be joined by the Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister Responsible for Women's Issues Leeanna Pendergast.

"This is a strong team, and I'm confident we will once again deliver recommendations that lead to positive change," said Liz Sandals, Parliamentary Assistant to the Education Minister and chair of the Safe Schools Action Team.

Research indicates that improvements in the school climate relate to improvements in academic achievement.

This is part of the Ontario government's safe schools strategy and also addresses a number of issues raised by Centre for Addiction and Mental Health's report on sexual harassment and by the Toronto District School Board's School Community Safety Advisory Panel.

For further information: Michelle Despault, Minister's Office, (416) 212-3747; Patricia MacNeil, Communications Branch, (416) 325-2676; Public
Inquiries: (416) 325-2929 or 1-800-387-5514; TTY: 1-800-263-2892