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Opinion What we can learn from St. Mike’s to keep our kids safe

Peter MacKay, former federal justice minister and attorney general, is the board chair of the Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Center. Karyn Kennedy is the organization’s CEO.

Many Canadians have paid close attention to the criminal proceedings involving students at St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, which have included assault and gang sexual assault. At Boost Child & Youth Advocacy Centre, we have been supporting victims and families involved in this case, as we have been doing for thousands of victims and their families in Toronto for more than 30 years. The storied history of the school has made the St. Michael’s case seem exceptional; but sadly, it is not. Even in the weeks after the St. Michael’s story emerged, we’ve had calls from parents across the city seeking help because their child was abused at other schools.

This is a problem that exists in every part of the country: Each year, there are more than 200,000 cases of reported child abuse and neglect in Canada. This number alone is shocking enough. Consider also that the impact of unresolved childhood abuse can be lifelong and cut across generations. This present reality makes us angry. It makes us sad. It must also drive action on improvement, because improved prevention is possible. That number can go down.

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We must appreciate that this isn’t just about one school with a problem. In fact, this isn’t just a school problem. The St. Michael’s case has opened a window into the dangers of abuse that face children and youth across Canada in a variety of settings.

With younger children, the safety imperatives can seem more obvious. We regulate things such as car seats and playground equipment. We teach children in our lives to look both ways when crossing the street. We child-proof our homes.

When children become adolescents, they have new experiences that can sometimes present new risks. They spend more unsupervised time with other young people. Various adults can play significant roles in their lives and in reaching goals related to sports or other activities. Adolescents are not always as well prepared for the risks in these new environments because awareness and prevention aren’t discussed as openly as those childhood risks. This must change. Protection of adolescent children is also on our watch – the responsibility belongs to all of us.

Let’s start by losing our complacency and pledging to never permit, mask or make excuses for any type of abuse. Let’s call hazing and initiation what it truly is: a deliberate, often illegal use of power to abuse and degrade another human being. We also need to consider whether the term bullying really captures what is happening when boys and girls are physically or sexually assaulted by older children or youth. When such acts are committed against an adult, we call it sexual assault and call the police. Young people should be made more aware that committing such acts can lead to criminal charges and are, in fact, very damaging to those victimized.

Active, honest communication is vital. Children and youth must know that they will be heard if they tell an adult that they have experienced or seen abuse. There are children who have told our staff about wanting to tell an adult in their life about abuse but feeling there was never the right moment when they would have their full attention and understanding. Everybody has a responsibility to create those moments. Young people must know there is no higher priority than their safety. No other goal – not championships or scholarships – is more important than their well-being.

We need to build a stronger culture of prevention in places where youth spend their time. There should be active and transparent plans, understood by all – school administrators, principals, teachers, coaches, youth and parents – for mitigating the risk of assault and sexual assault.

Children who come forward to report abuse are heroes who open our eyes. We can’t look away. We owe it to them to protect them and other children from harm. All Canadians must join us in taking action, right now, to prevent abuse and build a future in which children and youth grow up in a safe, healthy and nurturing environment.

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