Content warning: discussion of sexual violence.
In mid-November, videos surfaced on social media that showed an alleged assault and sexual assault at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) — an all-boys private school just a few kilometres away from U of T. Hearing this news left me feeling physically ill. Six boys connected to the incidents have been charged, while the police continue to investigate other separate incidents. Recently, both the principal and president of the school have resigned.
The scandal compelled me to question what hazing entails, which is the common thread between all the incidents. The practice refers to the initiation of students into a group through humiliation.
Hazing and toxic masculinity
Professor Michael Atkinson of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education describes hazing as “a physical, psychological and emotional gauntlet [that] new members of [a] group must endure to be respected as legitimate insiders.” He notes that the practice occurs regardless of the respective gender of the team, group, or club, which is usually sports-related.
While Atkinson recognizes that this behaviour is not exclusive to men, it is essentially boys and men who undertake a larger risk when performing these said “rituals,” taking it to the “proverbial next level.” I now recognize that there is a spectrum of hazing, which I believe is synonymous with society’s understanding of bullying: public shaming and degrading, abusive behaviour, and varying degrees of violence and assault.
With this in mind, I believe that now is as important a time as ever for all of us to reflect on our complacency in a culture that breeds toxic male behaviour. The notion of toxic masculinity is a controversial one, and in this context it is not meant to be a targeted, gender-oriented criticism on men. My intent is to shed light on its very real existence, as shown by the SMCS scandal.
The boys in question are trapped in their own culture of what it means to be male. Misogyny, chauvinism, vehement toxicity, and the deep-rooted subversion of ‘emotion’ facilitates a lifestyle that many young boys observe, learn, and thus embody. Internalization of such beliefs stems from something much larger than the boys who committed these horrific acts.
Institutions like SMCS must be held accountable for histories of abuse and perpetuation of hypermasculinity, enforced by implicit values that are in turn modelled by teachers. Sports is the locus of pride and glory at SMCS, and after the story broke, alumni have spoken out about their high school experiences, noting that it is not just students that exhibit cruel behaviour, but also teachers and coaches.
But whether your coach slaps you in the face at football practice or your principal withholds videos of a gang sexual assault for a few days, being a boy in high school today means staying silent, complicit, and petrified.
My heart is with the survivors of these senseless, torturous crimes. I’m sorrowful for those boys and for the persistent neglect to acknowledge men and boys as survivors of sexual violence — not just perpetrators. The media attention and panic that have ensued do not help either.
Survivors are indeed subject to shame and trauma, the psychological aftermath that has the power to debilitate or disguise itself in various ways. It creeps and seeps into anything; it does not discriminate. But even more, being a boy in this context has an added stigma.
While it is crucial that the perpetrators are held responsible for their actions, it is important to acknowledge the bigger picture here: they are products of society. It is important that we do not simply dismiss bullies as the isolated ‘bad guys,’ because that doesn’t solve the problem. Their behaviour is one that is taught, learned, and assembled by culture — and society must take some responsibility for this.
What is important to consider is that what happened at SMCS is not unique: it could happen at any educational institution, including U of T. It has simply come to public awareness now. Any institution that covertly or overtly allows or ignores signs of humiliation, torment, and verbal abuse is one that can house crimes such as the ones at SMCS. It starts with the consistent normalization and lack of questioning of truly toxic behaviour.
I must admit, however, that bullying cannot be eradicated entirely, for I believe it is an exploration of power dynamics expressed by and through children. But there can and must be change within our schools and homes. Temperaments and conduct must be monitored exhaustively by the gatekeepers of our youth’s success: parents, educators, and mentors.
Even more, school policy must position visible tools and resources to navigate such situations at its forefront, and this begins at the top. As U of T students, professors, and leaders, we should ask our institution what it’s doing to combat a culture of silence.
The SMCS events should act as a wake-up call to all board members and educational leaders. We need to break the stigma. We need to show that it is an act of courage to reach out for help. An anonymous voicemail service that will be implemented at SMCS is a start that other institutions should follow.
Universities and schools should also strongly enforce a zero-tolerance policy for hazing rituals and any kind of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, while also implementing clear, non-negotiable consequences for such behaviour.
Additionally, school and university boards should implement curriculum surrounding emotional literacy. Equating sensitivity with weakness is outdated and needs to be challenged. Rather, learning how to manage emotion can help youth make rational decisions.
Inhabiting a healthier culture
The fact of the matter is that I’m a student and aspiring teacher who has no formal training in the field of education yet. Although I don’t have the answers to the issues of hypermasculinity and bullying in schools, I hope that our education system invests in the work, planning, discussion, and commitment required to find solutions. When I become a teacher, I will do everything in my power to realize and inhabit a healthier culture in our schools.
The goal is show boys how to be decent, dignified men. Parents, teachers, leaders, and adults: we can do better, for the sake of our succeeding generations and our youth. Let the events at SMCS serve as a reminder to take personal responsibility for our actions, and to question the behaviour we embody or witness.
Melanie Cohen is a fourth-year Book & Media Studies, English, and Religion student at Victoria College.