Teacher abuse of students reaching historically harmful levels; schools & boards are failing to protect children, report finds
A new report has revealed the failure of Canadian schools to develop standardized systems to handle allegations of sexual abuse against students by teachers or other staff. The protocols currently in place to shield children from abuse, the report shows, are grossly inadequate.
Released late last year by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection (C3P), the report is one of the most comprehensive accountings of abuse against children at Canadian schools.
It includes the startling revelation that in the five years between 2017 and 2021, more than 500 students were sexually abused, or allegedly abused at the hands of a teacher or school staff member—in cases where gender could be identified, nearly 75 percent of victims were female. The report also notes that in many cases, the true number of victims can not be determined, meaning the actual number of those abused through school-based relationships is certainly much higher.
How these allegations are dealt with by the school and the associated school board varies drastically across the country, but the C3P found, for the most part, reporting mechanisms and complaint protocols when a student comes forward are in need of drastic improvements across Canada.
The burden currently falls on young students to report complex trauma they may not fully understand; there is a lack of independent oversight of these complaints, which can lead to conflicts of interest with principals or senior staff tasked with investigating complaints against their colleagues and friends, and in some provinces this process may be tainted by the involvement of the teachers union; these systems are not designed to catch the early signs of grooming, the precursor to abuse, which leaves students incredibly vulnerable.
Other findings from the report include:
- 37 percent of cases involved physical contact offences
- 167 school personnel had criminal charges laid against them with sexual assault, sexual interference and sexual exploitation being the most common
- Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook were the most common platforms used to facilitate victimization.
This is not the first time the C3P has raised this issue. A previous version of the report was released in 2018 which made similar findings. Schools have largely failed to take serious action since then.
“Our findings, experience, and work alongside survivors suggest that many of the fundamental gaps that put children at risk in schools persist and must be addressed,” the report states.
Noni Classen, the director of education with the C3P, says parents across Canada are currently under the false assumption that if they were to report abuse against their child, it would be handled openly, and effectively by the school.
“They would think if they brought that forward then that’s going to be taken care of in a way that there’s going to be people who are trained to be taking that information; that there are standards for what happens with the information they’re sharing; around how it’s dealt with and that it’s investigated by individuals who are trained in how to look into these types of matters and understand child sexual abuse, understand grooming, understand misconduct and they have trauma informed practices…In fact, that doesn’t exist.”
Noni Classen is the director of education for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection; she says the results of the recent report on educator abuse in Canada and the lack of proper protocols to handle complaints are “highly concerning.”
This type of abuse creates life-long scars for the children impacted. These sexual violations by an adult in a position of authority create complex trauma. In the same way human traffickers manipulate their victims through fake love and affection, creating a sense of Stockholm Syndrome (the development of positive responses toward an abuser as a coping mechanism), teachers in many cases manipulate young students into believing they are equally to blame for the abuse they are experiencing. Numerous studies have documented how this leads to elevated levels of mental health issues, substance abuse and suicide.
The complexity of this abuse keeps many children from coming forward to report it. For example, in April of 2021, Peel Regional Police investigators arrested 39-year-old Jeffrey Gallo of Mississauga for allegedly sexually exploiting a 16-year-old girl while he was a teacher’s assistant 12 years earlier, in June 2009. When he was finally arrested, following information that came forward more than a decade after the alleged sexual exploitation, Gallo was working as an elementary school teacher with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board.
The Ontario College of Teachers, whose database lists teachers in the province registered to be hired by boards, currently shows Gallo is in “Good Standing”. His profile in the database does highlight his 2021 arrest on a sexual exploitation charge. The Good Standing designation, according to the explanation on the database, “Signifies the member has registered with the College, paid the annual membership fee and has been issued a certificate valid for that calendar year. Member is authorized to teach in publicly-funded schools in Ontario while maintaining good standing.”
Gallo’s profile on the College’s website highlights his completion of a Sexual Abuse Prevention Program.
In another example, a second set of allegations have come out against former York teacher Ryan Imgrund dating back to alleged inappropriate behaviour with an 18-year-old female family friend in 2005. Imgrund was also facing a set of allegations made public in August of last year, detailing alleged inappropriate behaviour with five female students during his time as a teacher and coach including sending shirtless photos to one of them, scolding at least one of them for not responding to his texts and other forms of electronic communication, as well as holding one-on-one practices with three of the girls, which involved performing a technique “requiring the students to push their buttocks up against him,” a disciplinary notice on the Ontario College of Teachers website details.
The C3P report highlights concerns that student advocacy groups have been increasingly drawing attention to as allegations and findings of teacher abuse become more common.
“This abuse has impacted us in terrible and life-altering ways,” reads a statement from the group Stop Educator-Child Exploitation (SECE), a survivor-led organization which worked with the C3P on its recent study, and released a report of its own making numerous recommendations for improving Canada’s education system to help reduce the ongoing abuse. “While most teachers are honest, caring people, there will always be sexual predators in our schools. When no abuse cases are ever reported, that does not mean that there have been no cases of abuse. It can often mean that those predators have successfully evaded detection mostly due to weak institutional structures and processes.”
The significant impact on children from this abuse places a heightened responsibility on schools to identify potential cases as early as possible. The C3P report found current mechanisms are not designed to identify the early signs of grooming—a period of time where the abuser will make small efforts to get closer to the child, either through one-on-one conversations, or other behaviours like texting and contacting them through social media after school hours, as a means to alter their relationship into something more personal and sexual.
Abusers will often choose victims with pre-existing vulnerabilities, which can make it easier for them to exploit the child.
In many jurisdictions, reporting mechanisms may be able to adequately deal with allegations that cross the threshold into criminal behaviour, but “early indicators of problematic sexual behaviour are not being addressed appropriately, if at all,” the report states. If these types of concerning actions are brought forward, it is unclear what type of monitoring is done of the teacher after such a complaint, and they do not appear to be consistently reported, “meaning that valuable indicators of problematic behaviours are often lost or insufficiently documented to allow for the long-term monitoring of personnel,” the report notes.
In many jurisdictions, findings of misconduct by a teacher do not meet public disclosure thresholds and are therefore never made public. This can result in a teacher’s past being hidden from the community, and even other schools, allowing them to pursue jobs in other places and continue their abuse.
In 2023, while reckonings around the handling of sexual abuse have continued to unfold in Hollywood with the Me Too movement and are currently ongoing within Canada’s military and RCMP, both of which are grappling with how to change harmful bureaucracies, Classen says that this lack of attention to abuse in Canada’s schools is “highly concerning.”
“It’s not to be alarmist, it’s not to be fear-mongering, we’re not saying schools are unsafe places for children. We do have individuals who are working in schools who are committed individuals who are there for the right reasons for the most part,” she says. “(But) children can be at risk in schools and they don’t have the proper systems in place to manage consistently and in a standardized way when this does happen and that’s problematic because then some schools will do better than others and that shouldn’t be the way this is happening.”
Ontario is slightly ahead of other provinces and territories in Canada, with the Ontario College of Teachers (OCT) involved in complaints against its members. This type of oversight is generally lacking in other jurisdictions. The OCT is bound by provincial legislation to publicly disclose criminal charges that have been laid against members, and has a database of complaints against members publicly available on its website.
However, these reports can be misleading. The C3P report refers to one OCT decision which found a teacher guilty of misconduct for a series of violations, including referring to a student by an “inappropriate, sexualized name”. However, under the OCT’s framework, this was not classified as sexual in nature.
“The College referred to this as emotional or psychological abuse, not sexual abuse nor sexual misconduct. While that observable action is consistent with the building blocks of sexual grooming,” the C3P report states.
In another instance, a 2021 OCT decision did not cite sexual abuse/misconduct in a decision where the uncontested facts of the case included statements from the teacher such as: asking the student where she lived, how old she was, talking about problems with the teacher’s girlfriend and how he wanted to be with someone else, asking for the student’s phone number, asking her to go to the movies with him and providing his cellphone to the student which resulted in her viewing images of sex dolls in the camera roll, the C3P report details.
It suggests a system that fundamentally fails to grasp the nature of sexual abuse against children.
Classen admits that these early stages of abuse during the grooming phase, what she calls “grey behaviours” can be difficult for staff members to report, as on their face, they may not appear that serious, like having a child stay late after school with the teacher, or the teacher sending the student a text message. But she says it is imperative for colleagues to be watching for these actions, and become comfortable with questioning whether such actions are appropriate.
“It’s certainly not to be something where people are looking to ‘catch’ people or to be criminalizing people—it’s all in the essence of the protection of children,” she says.
However, most provinces and territories have inconsistent awareness training about child sexual abuse for staff, students and parents, decreasing the chances that individuals may be able to spot the early indicators of grooming. In Ontario, 2022 was the first year all members of the OCT were required to take online training developed by the C3P which includes lessons on professional boundaries and identifying problematic behaviours.
This training is imperative in the age of social media and ubiquitous smart phone technology, which Classen says has drastically sped up the grooming process in many abuse cases. In order for the abuser to normalize sexual discussion or actions with the student, a precursor to physical contact, it is necessary to spend time alone with the student. Before smartphones, the only access a teacher or staff member would have to a child would be during school hours. Now, with smartphones, social media and other apps used by children and teenagers alike, the teacher can connect with their chosen victim at all hours of the day.
It is imperative that any training regarding child abuse in schools be provided to all staff within the school as C3P found that abusers have been involved in many different roles within the education system.
“In person, finding that time, and then the time alone, is difficult, and there’s more risk of it being noticed by people around,” Classen says.
The text message and app communications also serve another insidious purpose for the abuser, creating a log of their contact with the child that can be used to keep them quiet.
“This is the way grooming works and why kids don’t tell…They assume such shame around it and they feel like they’ve done something to bring this on,” Classen explains. “Technology has provided this perfect opportunity for them to now hone in and groom children and misuse this device and misuse it as a vehicle to sexualize contact with children and to almost use it as a weapon as a record to silence them.”
The C3P report lists a number of recommendations for school boards and governments at all levels to improve how these complaints are handled, and enhance each school’s capacity for assisting students who have taken the brave step of coming forward. These recommendations include:
- Establishing fully independent bodies in all provinces tasked with receiving complaints (from the public, parents, students, and school personnel), conducting investigations, the adjudication process, and determining appropriate sanctions;
- Ensuring disciplinary records are universally made public in all provinces and that the information contained in them is centralized for the purpose of policy and public interest research;
- Mandating the completion of evidence-based child protection training programs for all school personnel, including administrators in all provinces;
- Investing more in trauma-informed victim supports for students who are victimized within school environments.
For Classen, the creation of an independent body to handle investigations is paramount, as current systems in the majority of provinces and territories have reports handled by school administrators first. The Ontario College of Teachers website states that “If appropriate, see if the issue can be dealt with at the school or board/employer level.”
“Every school will manage it different, depending on the principal it goes to, and how well they know that teacher and if that happens to be a friend of theirs,” Classen says.
“There is an inherent conflict of interest because these are people they work with and know very well and often socialize with. So they have blind spots.”
While there have been small improvements since the initial iteration of the C3P report was released in 2018, Classen says not nearly enough has been done to change these broken systems.
“We now have the data to show that schools are vulnerable to this happening. So what are we doing about it?”
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