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Sexual incidents in schools likely worse than reported, say victim advocates

Victims’ advocates say new data shows students in Newfoundland and Labrador need better protection from unwanted sexual behavior in schools — and that the situation is likely worse than statistics suggest.

The Newfoundland and Labrador English School District says hundreds of incidents of a sexual nature are reported every year, ranging from consensual displays of affection, such as students kissing, to inappropriate gestures, such as extending a middle finger, to inappropriate touching and more severe behavior, including sexual assault.

“Sexual violence is occurring within our schools whether we like to admit it or not,” said Paula Sheppard Thibeau, executive director of the Corner Brook Status of Women Council.

Thibeau and others are calling for more to be done to prevent such incidents.

“Unless properly addressed, we will continue to have these type of incidents occur,” she said.

The Corner Brook Status of Women Council asked the school district for the statistics on sexual violence in western Newfoundland, after several high-profile court cases involving students in the region.

That included a situation at Stephenville High where students raised concerns about an alleged perpetrator continuing to attend school with them.

Nearly 400 incidents of a sexual nature, including everything from displays of affection to sexual assault, have been reported in western Newfoundland since 2015, when a program called Review 360 was introduced to track data on behavioral incidents in the NLESD.

CBC received the same data, for the province as a whole.

Those numbers show that from 2015 to May 2019, 268 incidents of inappropriate, non-consensual touching were reported, and 316 incidents of other inappropriate sexual behaviour.

“It’s very easy to be dismissive of single incidents, or what’s perceived to be single incidents, whereas when we look at the bigger picture, we know that this is a pervasive problem that is occurring and is impacting our school environments,” said Sheppard Thibeau.

The executive director of the NL Sexual Assault Crisis and Prevention Centre says sexual violence is far more prevalent than the statistics would lead people to believe.

“Sexual violence is not a one-off,” said Nicole Kieley, who said statistics consistently show that the vast majority of sexual assaults go unreported.

“It’s in every school, it’s in every classroom, because this is something that happens everywhere.”

More analysis needed

The NLESD declined to do an interview with the CBC about the statistics.

But in a lengthy email, the district said significant change came about last fall, when the provincial government amended legislation to make it possible for the district CEO to remove a student from school under certain conditions, such as if their presence endangers another student.

The email also outlined other improvements, such as school administrators receiving a half-day of training from the province’s sexual assault crisis centre, and  training how to use the database to track incidents.

The email also stated there is also now a district-wide sexual violence committee that is “actively looking at potential policies/protocols/programming to address this issue.”

But advocates for victims say record-keeping and protocols are only part of the solution.

Sheppard Thibeau said she’s worried no one is doing big-picture analysis to understand the scope of the problem with sexual violence.

“What kind of environment are we creating for our students if we’re not really looking at the data and putting things in place that will keep everyone safe?” she asked.

Add consent to the curriculum

Advocates also want to see more focus on prevention.

Kieley, whose organization presented the half-day of training to school administrators, said that was a promising start, with a focus on how to respond when a student discloses an incident of a sexual nature.

“It’s really just a snapshot,” she told CBC Radio’s Newfoundland Morning. 

“It’s the starting point of a conversation.”

But the district needs to ensure the conversation doesn’t stop there, said Keiley, and improve education on consent.

“There is absolute value of knowing how to respond and how to react to a situation in which somebody has experienced sexual violence, to make sure the survivors feel supported and that the community is able to heal. However, really our focus is let’s prevent harm from happening in the first place.”

Kieley is calling on the district to make education about consent mandatory across the curriculum.

Without that happening at every level of the school system, Kieley said, the statistics on sexual violence in N.L. schools won’t change for the better.