Drug use and fights in the school’s washrooms, students riding on scooters in the hallway, teens in balaclavas disrupting classes and teachers verbally threatened.
Those are among the many reasons given by teachers for why they refused to work at a Toronto public high school, according to a Ministry of Labour report obtained by the Star.
Various concerns about safety and facilities issues were expressed by the 14 teachers involved in the labour dispute at York Memorial Collegiate Institute on Keele Street, near Eglinton Avenue West. They include a lack of hall monitors, crowded hallways with students fighting and teens not disciplined for disruptive behaviour, which includes interrupting classes by banging on doors or walking in and not leaving when asked.
Meanwhile, students at the school have compiled their own roster of complaints — from allegations of racism, to a lack of teachers, leading to cancelled classes and unsafe conditions — that culminated in a mass walkout and protest in front of a Toronto District School Board office on Friday.
“All concerns brought forward by staff, students, families and members of the public are being looked into,” said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird. “Many of the concerns raised as part of the work refusal process have been addressed or are in the process of being addressed.”
After teachers began their work refusal on Oct. 31, the ministry launched its investigation. One teacher said when a large fight broke out in the hallway on Oct. 28 house phones in classrooms weren’t working properly and staff received busy signals when calling the office or were told no one was available to help. Several spoke of unidentified students in balaclavas entering their classrooms and refusing to leave — one said students interrupted their class by flicking the lights on and off demanding to speak with students. One spoke of how “administrative staff have been assaulted and threatened.” Another said a student had thrown a chalkboard eraser at their head. And a few teachers said they believed their name was on a “jump list” created by students — Toronto Police were called to investigate the jump list, according to the report.
The report by the ministry investigator includes complaints of teachers who began job action after the large fight and mounting concerns about facilities issues. It also details the school’s response. Because the investigation is ongoing, the ministry said it cannot comment.
The report, issued last week and whose authenticity was verified by the teachers’ union, looks into what has transpired at York Memorial. In September, the school opened after a merger between George Harvey Collegiate Institute and York Memorial, uniting 1,300 students in a building that wasn’t ready. The original York Memorial site was destroyed in a 2019 fire.
According to the report, teachers’ complaints included poor lighting and visibility in the basement and parking lots, staff bathroom and classroom locks not working, blinds needed in the event of a lockdown missing in some classrooms, and no stable leadership because there’s been a revolving door of temporary administrators.
In response, school administration said dome mirrors were ordered for basement stairwells to boost visibility and lighting in the parking lot was being improved. Staff were also told to use a “buddy system” when going to the parking lots after school hours. Also, the number of hall monitors, who are trained on how to intervene in fights, was being increased to a total of four and they would rotate through areas of concern. Doors on student bathrooms would remain propped open to discourage problematic behaviour, broken locks on staff washrooms were being fixed, classroom blinds were being installed, house phones were repaired and staff would be told where the school’s 70 security cameras are located.
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As for dealing with problematic behaviour, the administration said staff was working with the Caring and Safe Schools division to develop a code of conduct specific to York Memorial. Also, staff members who encounter fights between students are to call the office for help, and as of late November students would be asked to wear photo tags and lanyards. The handful of students consistently wearing balaclavas had been spoken to and their parents contacted. Teens caught riding scooters would have them confiscated and be dealt with according to the board’s protocol for progressive discipline, and the school’s main doors were being locked at certain times to block the entry of scooters.
Even though on Nov. 2 the school conducted an assessment on the risks of workplace violence, it didn’t take into account the impacts of things such as leaving one of the entrances unlocked all day, the amalgamation of the two schools and individuals entering the premises in balaclavas.
As a result, the ministry ordered the school to do another reassessment of the risks by Dec. 9. Those involved in the work refusal will be given the opportunity to provide feedback and the health and safety inspector from the teachers’ union will meet with the principal and board staff next week to review it.
The teachers were individually ordered back to work by the ministry over about a period of two weeks. But the school has been grappling with a staffing shortage and some classes are going unfilled, meaning students have no teacher and are sent to the cafeteria or library.
On Friday, about 300 students staged a walkout to protest what they say is an unsafe learning environment, over-policing and a lack of teachers, which they say is hurting them academically.
Some of the teens spoke of having experienced racism by staff members, witnessed fights and urged teachers and administrators to learn how to de-escalate situations rather than calling police, who they say are regularly at the school.
“We are students that need support, opportunities and a school board that actually cares,” said Khadijah Saho, a Grade 12 student at the protest. “We are asking for a safe environment that protects us physically and mentally. … We have the right to learn.”
After the walkout, students walked to a nearby TDSB office to voice their concerns, which, among other things, also included washrooms lacking toilet paper and soap.
Director of Education Colleen Russell-Rawlins spoke with the students, saying she is listening to them and promised to regularly meet with them.
On Friday night the TDSB emailed parents and students with updates. They include a permanent administrative team to be announced this week, hiring new permanent teachers, exploring virtual learning options for students who feel unsafe going to school, considering staggered exit times, making sure washrooms are fully stocked and ensuring there’s a process to report incidents of racism.
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74
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