Toronto high school moving in 'correct direction' after weeks of chaos, teacher says

Students and advocates are shown here holding a protest outside York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto last Friday.  (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Students and advocates are shown here holding a protest outside York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto last Friday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

A teacher at a troubled Toronto high school says conditions have begun to improve after 14 of her colleagues refused to work due to concerns about their safety, Ministry of Labour officials paid a visit and scores of students walked out of class in protest.

Usha KelleyMaharaj, a science teacher at York Memorial Collegiate Institute, located at 1700 Keele St., said on Thursday that the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has provided the school with a "ton of resources" in recent days in response to increasing calls for help from staff, students and parents.

"We are now heading in the correct direction, but this is going to take about two years to put us in a place where we are what I describe as a flourishing school," KelleyMaharaj told CBC Toronto.

She said media coverage has also drawn attention to the problems at the school, which has 1,300 students. There were allegations from some teachers they'd been physically threatened and subjected to derogatory language by students, and reports of fights between students in the halls and washrooms.

"It was a chaotic response at first that was ineffective. But then, like anything else, you start to figure out what you need to do. And this response isn't over," she added. "We are an example of how bad it could go very quickly if you're not careful."

Christopher Langenzarde/CBC
Christopher Langenzarde/CBC

Staff and students say the problems began when York Memorial Collegiate Institute and George Harvey Collegiate Institute merged at the start of the school year, following the fire that severely damaged the original York Memorial building in 2019. They say the merger threw the two student bodies together without adequate resources, preparation and upgrading of school facilities.

Twelve teachers refused to work starting on Oct. 31 and two more joined them on Nov. 1. According to a field visit report by the labour ministry, obtained by CBC Toronto, teachers alleged that the school was out of control, and in addition to feeling at risk of being assaulted, they felt the leadership at the school was lacking.

"There is a lack of stable leadership, there is no code of conduct to address student behaviour, there is no understanding of how to lock down properly, there is a lack of security around the school, there is a lack of communication between [administration] and staff," the report states.

It goes on to summarize one teacher's concerns, saying, "This worker has witnessed fights among students that occur in the hallways."

Scores of students walked out to protest against the conditions last Friday, saying the school was in chaos.

The TDSB says it's assigned a permanent principal and two vice principals to the school and they will start after the winter break. The school has more supervision and counselling supports. Efforts are underway to hire more permanent teachers. KelleyMaharaj said the school now has a full breakfast program.

Ryan Bird, spokesperson for the TDSB, said in an email on Friday that the board is responding to concerns.

"York Memorial CI has been experiencing complex issues this school year following the combination of two schools in a new environment and a number of important steps are being taken to better support and rectify the issues identified by the students, staff and families of the school," he said.

Bird said the TDSB has done the following to improve conditions at the school:

  • Appointed retired former TDSB interim director Karen Falconer to serve temporarily as the executive adviser on the school

  • Has addressed or is addressing concerns about school facilities.

  • Will assign a school equity program adviser and a staff member from the Centre of Excellence for Black Student Achievement.

  • Will assign further supports for student and staff mental health.

  • Will assign additional school-based safety monitors for "key locations" identified by students and staff.

  • Has provided additional central staff at the school daily.

  • Is addressing staffing shortages.

  • Is continuing to call Toronto police about urgent threats to safety.

The labour ministry, which visited the school on Nov. 24 after the 14 teachers refused to work, ordered the TDSB to conduct a workplace violence risk assessment, to be completed by Dec. 9.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

The ministry said the TDSB needs to assess the workplace violence risks given that one exit remains unlocked during the day, the merger of the two schools, the access to the school through an on-site daycare and that some people who enter the school cannot be identified because of full face coverings.

According to the field visit report, the TDSB repaired all of the classroom house phones, has communicated the office extensions to its workers, is holding staff meetings as needed, finalized emergency procedures, including those concerning lockdown and hold and secure situations, circulated emergency procedures to staff and assigned an additional principal. There are now four administrative staff on site.

The report also says the TDSB provided class lists to staff for emergency evacuation purposes, installed paper blinds in classrooms that do not have permanent blinds, repaired locks in certain classrooms and bathrooms, conducted school assemblies with students grade by grade to review the school code of conduct, continued to remind students about progressive discipline, and added another school based safety monitor.

The TDSB has also locked all entrances and exits every morning at 9:30 a.m. except the main entrance and one exit, ensured at least one staff member monitors the main entrance when unlocked, locked the main entrance 10 minutes after the student lunch period until the end of the day, and instructed staff to use the buddy system if going to the school parking lots after school.

As well, the TDSB shared information with staff involved in incidents that happened after staff reported they believed they were on a "jump list" drawn up by students.

Evan Mitsui/CBC
Evan Mitsui/CBC

The field visit report lists the reasons that the 14 teachers refused to work. They cited:

  • Fights among students in washrooms and hallways.

  • Not enough monitors in the hallways.

  • Students using derogatory language toward staff and not being disciplined for it.

  • No code of conduct assemblies at the beginning of the year.

  • No stable administrative staff team at the school.

One said there was a large fight among students on Oct. 28 and staff got busy signals when they called the office for help.  Another said a student threw a chalkboard eraser at the teacher's head on Oct. 27. This teacher also believes his or her name is on a "jump list."

Others said fully masked students have entered their classrooms, stared silently in the classroom when asked to leave, or flicked the lights on and off, and demanded to speak to other students. Still others said students use staff washrooms to smoke and exchange money for potential drug related activities.

After the student walkout, executive superintendent Uton Robinson said in a Dec. 2 letter to parents, guardians and caregivers: "I want to assure you that we listened carefully and will continue to act on each and every concern that we heard today and moving forward."