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‘They’re nervous as hell’: Gun deaths highlight simmering traumas inside Toronto schools


‘They’re nervous as hell’: Gun deaths highlight simmering traumas inside Toronto schools

In the halls at Woburn Collegiate Institute, students knew a fight was brewing before class let out at 3:15 p.m. on Halloween.

Outside, the anticipation was palpable as at least one teen pulled out her cellphone and started filming, her voice rising as at least four boys appeared to get into it — one backing through the parking lot with three others moving toward him. There was shouting. Some students seem to gather around knowingly as others headed home.

Then the shooting started.

An 18-year-old, Jefferson Guerrier, a recent graduate of nearby Lester B. Pearson, was killed. His body fell to the ground as other teens ran toward him. A school community, some who were locked down inside classrooms, were left reeling.

Weeks later, Mansoor Khan, whose kids attend Woburn and who is himself an alumnus, is puzzled by an uncomfortable truth: it was common knowledge amongst young people a conflict was set to tee off. So why didn’t the adults know?

“I think we’re in big trouble,” said Khan, who has taken to picking up his kids every day after school near Markham and Ellesmere roads. He’ll arrive at the side entrance, sometimes before a now daily presence of rotating police vehicles take up position. He wonders what good they’re doing there.

“I’m not confident anybody’s doing anything about it.”

After the teen’s disturbing video of the shooting circulated on social media, bringing wider attention to violence at Toronto schools, youth advocates and experts say it shouldn’t have taken this latest incident to realize the kids are not all right.

Those working directly with youth say the kind of trauma this violence creates — perpetuated by social media — demands a renewed focus on how young people and their mental health are supported in the first place.

Already, just weeks later, the Woburn shooting is old news.

On Nov, 14, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student was sent to hospital following a stabbing at Birchmount Park C.I., another Scarborough school — just one of several violent school incidents in the city this year.

And Woburn wasn’t the only fatal fight. In February, 18-year-old Jahiem Robinson was allegedly shot from behind by another 14-year-old student in the hallway of David and Mary Thomson C.I.

It also wasn’t the only violence at Woburn in recent memory. Those in senior grades remember another fatal shooting in 2020 when 15-year-old Safiullah Khosrawi was hit by a stray bullet while walking home. Though a young person was originally arrested, his charges were withdrawn after a police investigation cleared him of being the shooter.

And it’s not just Scarborough.

Earlier this month, staff refused to go to work at York Memorial C.I. near Keele Street and Eglinton Avenue West after a hallway fight led to two staff members being allegedly assaulted — a conflict that had apparently been escalating since earlier in the school year.

In Brampton on Nov. 18, an 18-year-old student was sent to hospital with gunshot wounds after a daytime shooting in the back parking lot of Castlebrooke Secondary School. Another teen was later arrested.

“Why did it take a pandemic to know our children need better resources?” asked Mohamed Ahmed, the coexecutive director of the non-profit Success Beyond Limits.

Their in-school model at Westview Centennial Secondary School in North York’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood provides mentorship and advocacy to students not only after school or during summer and March break programming, but throughout the school day — offering a unique, in-school safe space for students to talk through their problems and plan for the future with community members who look like them, sound like them and had similar experiences.

Ahmed says their work differs from what the school board offers in the wake of violence — counsellors on-call for a short time after an incident occurs. Young people, he said, have told them they’re not always comfortable walking into a room they’re not familiar with to talk about their feelings with an adult they don’t trust.

Who might kids trust? “Most of the time, it’s folks like us who are from the community who have been growing with them and supporting them,” Ahmed said.

Having access to that kind of consistent counselling throughout the day is key, Ahmed said, when incidents can happen overnight and many youth programs only run after school.

A student who might be willing to take the brave step of talking about their issues “would have to hold those thoughts and feelings until the end of the day,” he said.

Ahmed said programs like theirs prove how to help students address their mental health and trauma, preventing future violence, but a lack of resources and funding continue to plague such grassroots efforts to continue the work they do, hire local leaders and to expand to other areas.

Marcell Wilson said part of the problem is governments, schools, community agencies and parents still operate in silos instead of working together to intervene when violence is brewing.

Raised in the Swansea Mews housing complex downtown, he founded a group of former gang members and reformed criminals to help stop youth from following the path he took.

He gave the example of information they were getting about escalating violence at one Toronto school. He said their group, One By One Movement, went to warn teachers, vice-principals and parents of the issues but were simply told, “we’re aware of the situation” instead of being invited to work together to prevent further incidents.

“Step one is kind of breaking down those barriers and there being a kind of open line of communication,” he said.

He agreed with others the Star spoke to that in-school counselling offered by the boards is often “reactionary” and that more preventative measures are needed, including leadership in schools that have lived experience in the communities where those schools are located.

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Wilson also said the curriculum itself needs to change to include violence-prevention, tailored as well to younger kids as the ages of both victims and perpetrators continue to decline.

Neil Donaldson’s organization, Stolen From Africa, has built its programming with mental health, anger prevention and culturally relevant history in mind.

Known better by his artist name, Logik, Donaldson runs the non-profit, which started as a T-shirt campaign to spark pride in the Black diaspora’s success stories. Interacting with young people in Toronto sparked the desire to do more to help with gun violence. They created programming to intervene by focusing on students’ well-being.

The group’s “responsibility” program has reframed topics like anger management and mental health in ways teens and also parents can relate to, such as learning about how to have a “discussion” rather than an “argument” and covering topics like toxic relationships, decision making and social media.

“It’s about, how do we create these types of spaces to develop emotional intelligence and resilience,” Donaldson said.

He said the key to their success — whether it’s in-person school programs or weekly virtual mentorship — is consistency. Trauma, Donaldson said, and healing is not always linear. One day their kids are OK, the next they’re not.

Though the organization currently works in five schools, Donaldson said they still need to work on making the work they do more systematic, scaling to more TDSB and Catholic board schools.

Those who work with youth noted social media has added another layer of both complication and trauma as young people seek clout and status in posts and music videos on websites like YouTube and Tik Tok. There, conflicts can easily escalate with instant back-and-forth messaging.

“You can get these really horrible exchanges going on in social media that are then followed-up with in-person continuations of it,” said James Garbarino, professor in humanistic psychology at Loyola University in Chicago.

“You get taunting online between groups and then they face off.”

When it comes to violence, Garbarino, who spent time living in Toronto’s east end with his partner, said he fears Canadian cities are on the wrong path.

“I always had this feeling that Canada was like the United States only 20 to 30 years back,” he said.

“There’s a road that as an American we were walking down and I felt like turning around and saying to my Canadian counterparts, ‘Turn around, go back.’ ”

School violence is still a relatively rare occurrence in Toronto; the death of Grade 9 student Jordan Manners, shot inside North York’s C.W. Jefferys C.I. in 2007, was the first such fatal incident in Toronto’s history.

But there were indications that youth violence was on the rise, pre-pandemic.

More than 300 young people under the age of 29 have been killed over the last decade, according to a Star analysis, with 28 young people killed so far this year — three under the age of 18. Those numbers remain on par with the last three years through pandemic lockdowns, down slightly from pre-2019 levels when violence across the city peaked.

The level of school violence on display in recent years is troubling those who work with these teens, as is the lack of response.

Following Manners’ death, the board called for an inquiry on school safety that led to 126 recommendations, new programs and funding and the introduction of a controversial school resource officers program.

After the stabbing at Birchmount, Mayor John Tory called for a “high priority” meeting with the school board; it’s not yet clear what might come from the recent violence.

In an emailed statement, Tory said he would meet with the TDSB and Toronto Police “this coming week” citing the need to work “alongside our partners in the community and other levels of government.

“I’m extremely troubled by the recent incidents of serious violence in schools as we all should be,” he said, noting the city earlier budgeted $20 million for youth and community safety programs.

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said in an emailed statement there are a number of safety measures always in place at school, including hall monitors at middle and high schools, security cameras and safe school committees. He added an additional caring and safe schools adviser was added to the Scarborough area “to engage with youth and provide additional support to schools in the area.”

“The principals of area schools, together with TDSB Caring and Safe Schools staff, and Toronto Police will be holding regular meetings to increase co-ordination around emerging community and school safety issues,” Bird said.

Bird said their in-school counsellors, who are trained social workers, are “critical” in responding to incidents, but stressed they are just one part of that response.

Khan, the Woburn parent, wants to see leaders like Tory do more than just mourn the loss of students and the TDSB to assure parents they are going to engage with students in a way that keeps them safe.

His kids came home last week again saying a student was walking around saying something was going to happen. Rumours continue to circulate.

For the time being, with police visible at the school, Khan said it feels like they’re in a holding pattern. When the officers are no longer there, he worries old patterns of violence will return. Regardless, his kids and others will still have to walk through those doors.

“I think they’re nervous as hell.”

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based crime reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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