Bigger Kids

The safe schools guide

What are the real dangers in schools today?

By Today's Parent and Todays Parent
The safe schools guide

We’ve all seen the headlines — shootings, stabbings, strangers in our schools. It would seem that educating our kids has become a high-risk proposition. Indeed, a 2008 survey of more than 1,600 parents and stakeholders in the Durham District School Board, just outside of Toronto, revealed that school safety was the number one concern, eclipsing literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.

Without question, we’re worried. But what should we be worried about? While guns and knives steal headlines, they aren’t the only hazards — in fact, they happen rarely and mainly in high schools. The real issues for our elementary kids are less dramatic, but no less real. We’re talking about air quality, asbestos, playground safety, bullying. We’re talking about what really lurks in the halls and hides behind the walls.


Ask most kindergartners, and they can probably tell you what the word “lockdown” means. The “no one in, no one out” drill effectively turns our schools into fortresses. And while the military-like exercise has had some fallout (namely over-anxious younger children), overall our schools are thought to be safer places because of it. How safe? That’s difficult to measure, largely because, says Stu Auty, president of the Canadian Safe School Network, it is impossible to know just how many assaults were prevented. “How do you measure the absence of crime?” he says. “All I can say is that the potential liability of not locking down is huge.”

What we do know for sure is that the Toronto District School Board (the country’s largest) had 101 recorded lockdowns in the 2007/08 school year. While some of these were full-blown — kids were under their desks and the emergency task force was in the hall — most were called because there was a robbery blocks away, or a pit bull was spotted off a leash a few streets over. Experts — including the police, principals, parents and board officials — believe that these vagaries justify new partial lockdown terminologies. Specifically, for non-life-threatening situations, they’ve changed the name to “hold and secure,” — meaning that a school locks its doors, but allows business as usual inside.

But lockdown is an emergency measure. More and more schools are installing cameras and buzzer systems for security. “Most schools in Canada are old stock,” says Auty. “They were built at a time when no one worried about safety. So many of them have multiple entries and exits.” Cameras and buzzers, he says, allow controlled access — doors can be locked when the school bell rings. Children’s World Academy in LaSalle, Que., for example, has 16 cameras to alert staff of intruders and other incidents. “The cameras also help me look back if I need to investigate an incident,” says principal David Meloche.


That’s the idea, anyway. But buzzers and cameras cost money and because they are not yet a legislated safety measure, it’s up to each board to get the necessary funds. That means fewer than half of all Canadian schools have cameras. In Manitoba, for example, Keith Thomas, risk manager for the Manitoba Association of School Trustees, estimates that 30 percent of schools have surveillance equipment. And that’s too bad, he says, because cameras don’t just protect kids from outside threats; they offer a first line of defence against bullies and vandals too.

While schools struggle to find funding for expensive cameras, many are adopting free common-sense measures. At Withrow Avenue Public School in Toronto, parents (and all visitors) must report to the office to get a visitor’s badge before proceeding through the school. And the children can’t roam the halls freely — they must first get a hall pass and, unless they are visiting the restroom, they travel in pairs. What parents can do • Make sure your school has two lockdown drills a year. • Is your principal aware of the proposed “hold and secure” protocol? If not, share this site: • Ask your child what he’s been taught about lockdown. If he’s anxious, remind him that this is simply a drill, much like a fire drill. • If your school does not have a camera, speak with the principal and trustee about parent fundraising efforts. • Are doors locked after the entry bell rings? If not, lobby your parent council to ensure they are. • Are visitors required to report to the office for passes? Again, speak to the parent council about setting up this simple protocol.

School safety

What does Calgary police sergeant Jeff Harder consider the biggest threat to kids’ safety? Bullying.

Bullying includes cruelty, physical aggression, threats and exclusion. But, says Hetty van Gurp, founder of Nova Scotia–based Peaceful Schools International (an organization that promotes school-based anti-bullying initiatives), what is really dangerous is that it’s not a one-shot deal. “Bullying is hurtful behaviour that persists over time,” she says.


It’s also common. In a World Health Organization survey of bullying among school-aged children, 27 percent of girls and 34 percent of boys aged 11 to 15 reported being bullied in the two months prior to the survey.

But what’s worse, experts now know that the consequences of bullying are grave. For one, bullying is linked to other juvenile delinquencies. But another issue is that, without intervention, many bullies don’t outgrow the behaviour. A 1999 study found that children who bully are 37 percent more likely to commit criminal offences as adults. In 2007, Queen’s University professor Wendy Craig and York University professor Debra Pepler reported that childhood bullying is closely linked to adult anti-social behaviour. The outcome isn’t brighter for the victims. Bullied children are three to five times more likely to suffer depression, which follows them through adulthood.

In response, Public Safety Canada and the National Crime Prevention Centre have outlined several bullying-prevention programs. Many are built on the same planks — the creation of a respectful and caring school environment — and strategies (conflict resolution, anger management, leadership) that influence the behaviour of bully, victim and bystanders.

One such program, called Together We Light the Way, was tested in selected schools between 1999 and 2007; of those schools, three in Ontario reported a 60 percent reduction in bullying three years later. What worked, says Kendra Godin-Svoboda, who was one of the program’s facilitators, is that the program was integrated into every aspect of school life. “There were workshops for students on communication and problem solving, there were info nights for parents, and there was explicit teaching in classrooms — not just what respect is, but what it looks like, sounds like, feels like.”

Soon, says Godin-Svoboda, schools began to come up with their own ways to cultivate respect. At R.A. Sennett Public School in Whitby, Ont., principal Mary-Ann Nova constructed a tree from branches and twigs that is proudly displayed in the school’s lobby. Kids caught being good — helping someone out or resolving a playground squabble — have their name put on a paper leaf or blossom, which is stuck onto the tree.


That’s not all that Nova does to cultivate a “culture of peace” at her school. She routinely brings small animals into classrooms. “Each creature has a message. Lionel the lemur loves to hold hands, so I ask the children what they can do to lend a hand. A baby kangaroo sleeps in a pouch. I ask where their safe place is.”

Mary Hall, director of Safe Schools Manitoba, applauds those efforts. “There is no simple solution to the problem of bullying, but one thing we do know for sure is that we need to start early — at preschool age — before aggressive behaviour becomes entrenched.”

Ending bystander apathy is a big target for anti-bullying experts like Hall. “About 85 percent of the time, there are bystanders witnessing someone getting bullied,” she says. “They need to be given strategies.”

One of those strategies is reporting. Researchers and school administrators have pointed to a huge gap between the incidence of bullying and reporting of it — it’s like it never happened. But reporting just got a big boost; in March of this year, the Ontario government introduced legislation that will make it mandatory for school staff to report bullying to principals. Further, principals would be required to contact parents of the victims.

What parents can do • Does your school have a comprehensive anti-bullying program? If not, talk to the parent council about adopting one of the “blueprint programs” listed on this site: • Find out if teachers are trained to intervene. • Are students encouraged to report? Is there an anonymous drop box? • Are incidents of bullying reported to parents? • Gain support from other parent groups. Go to to find a few of them.


Health and well-being

While security and bullying issues tend to get attention, the most common dangers at our kids’ schools are barely on the radar — things like uncleared ice, broken bottles and unsafe play structures. And then there are the dangers that lie hidden behind walls — asbestos and even mould.

But how exactly do our schools define a safe environment? For risk managers like Thomas, safety encompasses everything from the air our children breathe to the ground they walk on. That’s a lot of turf. But keep in mind that, like any other public structure, schools have to meet the building and health codes laid down by a wide variety of government departments. That means that, at a minimum, you can expect your school to be fire-safe and clean.

You can also expect your school to have a play structure that meets the safety standards outlined by the Canadian Standards Association (CSA). “In Manitoba, about two-thirds of all reported [safety] incidents occur on playgrounds,” says Thomas, making the policing of playgrounds one of his biggest concerns. And his number one recommendation? That playgrounds have a “forgiving” ground surface — namely sand, gravel or wood chips. “No matter how safe the actual structure, spills are going to happen,” he says. “Our guidelines dictate having a soft ground cover that is 10 to 12 inches deep, six feet around all equipment.”

Thomas also mandates weekly inspections of playgrounds and play structures and has enlisted school custodians to help him protect kids from broken glass and broken play equipment, inappropriate graffiti, dog poop and even needles. What about the actual school building? Chances are if the school was built before 1975, it contains loads of asbestos: The once-ubiquitous building material was used in everything from insulation to ceiling tiles. When we learned that breathing in asbestos fibres led to serious illness, the material was outlawed in many products. But for now, your child may be surrounded by what is, essentially, a banned substance.


In 1980, the US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 8,500 American schools contained asbestos and more than three million children were potentially exposed. In the United Kingdom, roughly 90 percent of all schools contain the stuff and a 2006 study concluded that, based on the statistical analysis of all deaths from mesothelioma (an asbestos-related disease) and teacher deaths, “there is a direct relationship between asbestos in schools and teachers’ deaths from asbestos exposure.”

Despite those worrying reports, however, Canadian school boards have taken a hands-off approach. Why? Because, according to Chris Broadbent, manager of health and safety for the Toronto District School Board, “asbestos is only a hazard if it starts to deteriorate and crumble [which]. Making sure that doesn’t happen is a big part of what I do, and what school caretakers do.”

Along with that map outlining fire escapes, most schools have maps that delineate where the asbestos is and what state it’s in. In Toronto, health and safety inspectors examine every school annually. Furthermore, as she makes her rounds, your caretaker is trained to look for signs of weakening asbestos — every day.

But what about the stuff — like mould — you and the caretaker can’t see? Chances are if your school has a flat roof or uses a portable, it will have mould. Health protection bodies, including Health Canada, agree that no amount of mould indoors is safe. But apart from routine checks for the creeping black fungus on the exterior of walls, roofs and baseboards, schools boards are not required to explore what lurks behind walls and under roof tiles. And because doing so is expensive, they don’t.

In fact, in the spring of 2008, the rural southwestern-Ontario district of Lambton Kent stole headlines when national news outlets reported that for years, teachers there had been suffering from symptoms ranging from nose sores and breathing difficulties to red rashes and chronic congestion. Between 2002 and 2005, teachers at Lansdowne Public School in Sarnia, Ont., filed more than a dozen complaints before inspectors unearthed metres of mouldy material behind portable walls and under its floors. (Unfortunately, those teachers are unable to speak with us; by the fall of 2007 the Lambton Kent school board agreed to spend $1 million cleaning up the mould, but only on condition that the teachers keep quiet.)


So, while you can expect speedy cleaning of visible mould, fixing the root of the problem is problematic — and political. “There just isn’t the funding to fix all the leaky roofs,” says Broadbent.

But not getting rid of mould can have even greater costs to health. Apart from coughs and rashes, long-term exposure to mould can lead to immune and respiratory problems. Air-quality testing can detect a lot, but schools generally don’t have the high-tech equipment that can detect mould. So the best a concerned parent can do is be alert for signs of mould-related illness and contact both the school principal and trustee to ensure an authorized firm conducts testing.

What parents can do • Find out if your school has a carbon dioxide detector. • Does your school have an asbestos map? Are the caretakers trained to detect deteriorating asbestos? If not, call the principal and/or trustee. • To arm yourself with more information on mould: • Be on the alert for mould-related symptoms like wheezing, rash and persistent cough.

Is your school fire-safe? • Does your school conduct at least 10 fire drills per year? • Are halls and exits kept clear? • How much artwork adorns the walls of the hallways and classrooms? (In Manitoba schools, no more than 20 percent of the wall space in hallways, and two percent of the wall space in classrooms, may be covered with paper.) • Is displayed artwork secured on all four corners, making it harder to ignite?

This article was originally published on Aug 04, 2009

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