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New data shows increase in reports of sexual abuse in schools

A group of childhood sexual abuse survivors, along with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, is calling for government action, as data shows an increasing number of sexual abuse reports from inside this country’s schools. 

A new study published by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection on Wednesday found, between 2017 and 2021, 548 alleged victims came forward to report sex abuse in schools.

The report stated 252 current or former school personnel — working in Canadian elementary and high schools — committed, or were accused of committing, offences of a sexual nature against a minimum of 548 children.

The data, which comes from a review of disciplinary records, media sources, and criminal case law, show an increase in abuse reports since the last study released in 2018. 

This new study also found another 38 current or former school personnel were criminally charged for standalone child pornography-related offences.

“Most systems involved in the intake, investigation, and discipline of school personnel lack independent oversight and are not publicly transparent,” according to the centre’s report. “There are often multiple disjointed entities involved in the process with no one body being ultimately accountable.” 

new data shows increase in reports of sexual abuse in schools
Noni Classen is the director of education for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Independent office needed

Noni Classen, director of education at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, says all ministries of education should be “shocked” by the findings.

A newly formed group called Stop Educator Child Exploitation (SECE), formed by survivors of sexual abuse “at the hands of school personnel,” says Canada’s patchwork of policies, practices and reporting mechanisms for victims needs an overhaul.

The group has published its own set of recommendations for reform that also recommends establishing national or provincial entities to deal with complaints, similar to an independent body like an auditor general.

“While most teachers are honest, caring people, there will always be sexual predators in our schools,” states the SECE report.

SECE member Anne-Marie Robinson, an alleged victim of sexual assault by a Toronto high school teacher, first told her story to CBC last spring. 

A former deputy minister in the federal government, Robinson now volunteers her time to research policies and develop solutions that could apply in every province. 

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Anne-Marie Robinson, a survivor of sexual abuse, studied and developed new policy recommendations to protect students from predators. (Jean Delisle/CBC )

‘A safe place to report’

Across jurisdictions, Robinson found the mechanisms for reporting abuse complaints are ineffective, often attached to school boards or unions and in some cases make matters worse for alleged victims. 

“You need a safe place to report. You need a place that you can trust and you need a place that has a trauma-informed approach,” she said. 

SECE member Marguerite Cawthorne was in Grade 10 at a Calgary high school when one of her rugby coaches started to give her more attention. Within months, she says the coach was sexually abusing her.

She didn’t want to report the alleged abuse to police, but she did want education authorities to investigate, which has been a rocky process. Since her abuser was a student-teacher who was completing a degree at the time, a jurisdictional battle ensued. 

“No one really knew what to do with that, and so for many months it was kind of just being tossed around,” she said.

When the complaint finally ended up at Alberta’s ministry of education, Cawthorne said she felt re-victimized.

“I shouldn’t be in my interview having the investigator ask me if it felt right … did you like it at the time?” she said.

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In 2018, Peter Hamer’s high school music teacher was convicted of sexually assauting him and other students in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Rife with conflicts of interest

Classen says the survivors who make up SECE are helping inform the work done by the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

“They’ve actually been teaching us about what needs to be done in the school systems from their own experiences,” said Classen. 

Founding SECE member Peter Hamer complained about an abusive teacher in 1986. The teacher was moved to another Ottawa school where he abused other students, then was convicted of sexual assault 32 years later.

“There is no single database in Canada where the names of teachers who are a risk to their students are kept,” states the SECE report. 

Robinson found current processes continue to be rife with conflicts of interest “managed by people who are not qualified” or who know the perpetrator.

Regulators like the Ontario College of Teachers have made changes. The college now has a mandatory, online program, launched in early 2022, on sexual abuse prevention.

The centre and SECE plan to reach out to all ministries of education for requests to discuss its new report and recommendations.

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