Toronto school violence shows need for policy changes, expert says

TORONTO — Policy changes to address knife crimes are needed to prevent violence in schools like the stabbing of a Grade 12 Toronto student on Monday, an expert says.

Tracy Vaillancourt, a University of Ottawa professor and Canada research chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention, said the fact that there are fewer school shootings in Canada than in the U.S. can be attributed to lack of gun access, and knife violence could be approached in a similar way.

"That really speaks to the role that policy and laws play... we just need to be a little more proactive," she said. "Here we haven't done a good job on knife crimes and knife violence."

Toronto police responded to reports of a stabbing inside Birchmount Park Collegiate in the city's east end Monday afternoon just after 3 p.m. as students were being dismissed for the day.

The force said a 17-year-old student was found with apparent stab wounds and taken to hospital with life-threatening injuries, where he remained Tuesday in critical but stable condition.

The stabbing comes two weeks after a shooting outside Woburn Collegiate Institute, another high school in the east end, left one student dead and injured another.

It's also the second stabbing to take place at Birchmount Park Collegiate this year, after a 14-year-old student was stabbed outside the high school in April. The student was taken to hospital by paramedics but not seriously injured.

Despite these recent incidents, Statistics Canada data from 2021 shows that youth violent crime is down in Canada since 2017, as well as its highest rates in 2006. However, Vaillancourt noted that data for 2022 is not yet available, "so things might be up."

Vaillancourt said the recent string of violence at Toronto schools could be the result of a lack of mental health services in Canada, although research shows kids with mental illnesses aren't typically involved in violent crime.

Other factors that could be at play include lower frustration tolerance among youth and increased media coverage of violent incidents, which can inspire copycats, she said.

Another challenge, she said, is that education systems tend to take universal approaches to students' social and emotional development, and often fail to specifically target those who are most at-risk of violent or aggressive behaviour.

"We're just using this blanket approach without actually using a blanket approach plus some concentrated efforts with kids who are really in trouble," she said.

Meanwhile, Toronto Mayor John Tory said Tuesday that he has asked for a meeting with the city's police and the Toronto District School Board in the wake of the incidents at Birchmount Park Collegiate and Woburn Collegiate Institute to see what can be done to prevent such violence.

"This was enough of a repetitive situation that I asked for a meeting involving the school board and the police," he said at an unrelated press conference.

"I hope that meeting can happen in the very near future to look at what more could we do collectively ... to make absolutely sure that all of our schools at all times remain safe."

Birchmount Park Collegiate resumed classes Tuesday and social workers were on site to support staff and students.

Police have not yet released information about a possible suspect, citing the ongoing investigation.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2022.

Tyler Griffin, The Canadian Press