When 18-year-old Toronto high-school student Jason Wheatle approached his fellow students in the washroom of Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute, it was not to say hello. In fact, the stocky fivefoot, 10-inch Grade 10 student wanted to scare them into paying $1 each to use the facilities. If they failed to comply, he threatened his victims with violence. Wheatle was eventually arrested, and in January,
Mr. Justice John Hamilton of the Ontario Court sentenced him to 18 months in jail. Although school-yard toughs have been around as long as there have been schools, police across Canada say that intimidation and extortion in high schools has now reached epidemic proportions. “It is even creeping into the elementary schools,” said Insp. Gordon Legge of the Halifax police department. “There are students who see violence and extortion as a way of life. They get what they want.”
Across the country, police and educators are beginning to fight back. In Ottawa, school officials have adopted a “zero-tolerance” approach—vowing to press charges against any student who is caught trying to extort money from others. In Calgary and Edmonton, police officers are attempting to stop violence before it happens by spending time in schools and gaining the confidence of students. In Toronto, where high-school extortion appears to be most common, police are urging school officials to phone police as soon as they suspect a problem.
Said Danforth Technical principal Douglas Lougheed: “The police officers assigned to our school respond very fast.”
Even so, police say that fewer than one in 50 cases involving extortion and violence is reported, because many of the victims are too frightened to talk. They add that the problem seems to be getting worse as students gain increasing access to weapons, particularly knives. Last year in Calgary, police say, a 17-year-old boy who had sex with a female student attempted to blackmail her into becoming a prostitute by threatening to tell her parents, both deeply religious, that she was no longer a virgin. The girl ultimately reported the incident to her guidance counsellor, who notified police. In Ottawa, bullies sometimes extort lunch money from students as soon as they arrive at school. In another Ottawa case, a group of older students ordered a boy to pay them $5 in
protection money. Forced to steal money from his parents, he finally broke down and refused to go to school.
Among students, the slang name for that kind of activity is “taxing.” In some cases, says Gordon Rasbach, a detective with the Metro Toronto police street crime unit, students have
been known to levy a $5 penalty on students who date people of another race. More often, students are forced to pay for the right to pass through a door or to sit in a certain spot during a sporting event. The penalty for noncompliance is violence. “Taxing goes on every day in every school. If they don’t pay, they get the crap beat out of them,” said Rasbach. “And a lot of the time, when they do pay, they still get beat up. Right now, the individual cannot survive alone in a school from a safety point of view.”
Nor is the problem of extortion confined to high schools in large cities. Frederick Mat-
thews, a Toronto community worker who travels widely to speak about the problem of youth crime, says that bullying is escalating in rural schools as well. “The level of violence has become more intense,” said Matthews, “because now you are adding guns and knives.” Matthews added that many students feel compelled to join gangs “because they don’t see anyone doing anything about the bullies.” Some school boards, in fact, have adopted tough statements on school safety and have introduced new security measures. Donald Wickett, superintendent of schools in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, said that his board has installed closed-circuit television cameras in isolated sections of schools and has instructed principals to call police whenever a crime is committed.
But police say that before the bullies and gangs are vanquished, more principals will have to follow Lougheed’s lead. According to Rasbach, too many principals decline to take action publicly because they are worried about the image of their schools. In some cases, police have even had to visit school officials in their homes to discuss reported cases of extortion because the officials do not want police at their schools. Said Linda La Rocque, superintendent of special education for Etobicoke, who is spearheading the board’s Anti-Bullying Project: “The first thing a school has to do to is to admit that there is a problem. We all have to share in this—students, teachers and the administration.”
Indeed, the fact that Danforth Technical students know that principal Lougheed § is determined to confront the í bullying problem already f seems to have had a positive I effect. Lekan Thomas, an 18S year-old Grade 13 student I who is president of the “ school’s student council, says that while many of his peers
resent having police visit the
school, they recognize that Lougheed’s tough stance has improved the school atmosphere. “A lot of praise should be given to Lougheed,” said Thomas. “Students agreed with the sentence, because it served as an example to others.” Still, Thomas adds that many Danforth students still carry knives, either for protection or because it is fashionable. Until parents and teachers find a way of instilling greater discipline among young people, school bullies will likely continue to operate with impunity.
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