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Toward a decent, dignified masculinity

The St. Michael’s College School scandal shows that we need to shape a healthier culture for boys

Toward a decent, dignified masculinity

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.

Moving forward

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.

Bringing men into the #MeToo conversation

Reflecting on sexual violence at St. Michael’s College School

Bringing men into the #MeToo conversation

Content warning: discussions of sexual violence.

In recent weeks, the incidents that occurred at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) have garnered national attention. Opinions range from two extremes, from alumni arguing that the incidents reflect their experiences to angry moms yelling at newscasters that “there’s a bad apple in every crowd.”

This incident is about something bigger than a few bad apples. It is not just an isolated incident of bullying or hazing. Many journalists and commentators are quick to blame the mix of “regressive” Catholicism, the toxic masculinity that stereotypically defines all boys’ schools, and the elitism that comes from the privilege of a private education.

But this incident is bigger than that. It’s part of a bigger pattern where men, like Jian Ghomeshi or Patrick Walsh, thought their entitlement to someone else’s body superseded that individual’s right to life, liberty, and security.

This is part of #MeToo, and it’s about time Toronto sees it that way.

This behaviour extends far beyond high school. According to a 2014 Statistics Canada survey, 41 per cent of all self-reported sexual assault incidents were reported by students, and 58 per cent of male offenders are between the ages of 18–34. It is, and always has been, a pervasive issue on college campuses. U of T has as much of a responsibility to spread awareness about these issues as SMCS.

While the legal system is rightly treating these incidents as sexual assaults, many articles solely refer to the abuse as hazing. This fails to acknowledge the unique context in which sexual assault occurs.

For example, one SMCS mother was quoted in The Toronto Sun as praising the school’s response, highlighting the fact that hazing rituals exist at other private all-boys schools. But no one has bothered to ask why those boys used that particular method to ‘haze.’ Throwing water on someone or making them march in circles is not the same as using a sexual act to degrade an individual’s bodily integrity.

Sexual violence is about using sex as a tool for power and control. What happened at SMCS was sexual violence.

Sexual assault is thought to be about sexual gratification, so when an assault, like the one at SMCS, is not overtly sexually motivated, focus shifts away from the sexual nature of the crime. For many people, the incident does not align with the biased societal conception of the ‘ideal’ victim. The young boy subjected to ‘hazing’ doesn’t match society’s idea of a #MeToo victim: a young, innocent, white woman.

When society fails to appropriately respond to these non-‘ideal’ victims, there are grave repercussions. It took months for the police to recognize that the series of murders in Toronto’s Gay Village were connected. It took even longer for police to tie killer Robert Pickton to the women who went missing in Vancouver’s Lower East Side.

Many believe that sexual assault against men is rare. It’s not. From 2009–2014, 13 per cent of sexual assault victims in Canada were male. However, since not all sexual assaults are reported,  this number only represents about 10 per cent of all sexual assaults, resulting in little research or resources dedicated to supporting male victims. Researchers estimate that progress for male victims of sexual assault is about 20 years behind that of women.

When society fails to educate boys on sexual assault, we can end up with cases like this — where groups of boys believe that sexually assaulting someone and posting it online is just regular hazing. It’s considered ‘boys being boys’ instead of a crime.

The boys at SMCS believe such a thing because children learn from their environment. There’s a pervasive cultural belief that violence and aggression is a natural extension of male sexuality. If society doesn’t see this event as part of #MeToo, the boys won’t either. Worse, if the perpetrators don’t see their actions as sexual assault, it won’t stop them from committing similar crimes in the future.

So let’s see this for what it really is: a single sexual assault which reflects our broader lack of understanding about sexual violence. This is not just boys being boys. Let’s make space in #MeToo for men to come forward — a space where boys don’t have to fear that their accusations will be dismissed.

Ella Benedetti, Olivia Berkovits, Rachel Gordon, Christian Logue are master’s students at the Centre for Criminology & Sociolegal Studies.

From grade inflation to grade deflation

All university students pay the price for boosted high school grades, but those from private schools pay more than others

From grade inflation to grade deflation

A list compiled by the University of Waterloo of Ontario high schools that tend to inflate their students averages was recently released to Global News last week through a freedom of information request. Waterloo compared students’ entrance marks with how they measured up in the first-year engineering programs to calculate the average grade deflation of graduates from different Ontario high schools. The university says it now uses the list to apply an “adjustment factor” to entrance grades.

The publication of the list puts into the spotlight the various issues that come along with grade inflation at high schools. On the one hand, grade inflation clearly disadvantages students who are forced to compete against applicants with artificially boosted averages. On the other hand, those who gain from inflated grades are, in reality, ill-equipped for their programs in university in the long-run. In my experience, this is certainly true at U of T, where first-year grades can often bring about feelings of inadequacy as they drop far below the standards students once achieved in high school.

A facet of the Waterloo list that appears to be overlooked is the clear distinction in the schools featured in terms of private and public funding. On average, first-year students from Ontario high schools see their marks drop 16 per cent in Waterloo’s engineering program. Yet private schools are overrepresented in the ranks of schools whose graduates face higher-than-average grade deflation. Almost two-thirds of Waterloo’s list are actually schools whose graduates do better than the average 16 per cent drop, but 80 per cent of private schools on the list fall into the third of schools whose graduates’ marks face above-average drops.

This disproportion should bring about critical discussions regarding why private schools are on the list at all. Quite simply, for high schools to justify charging substantial tuition fees, their graduates must be doing better than average in postsecondary education, and not experiencing such substantial drops. While it is hard to extrapolate beyond the given context of Waterloo’s engineering program, the representation of private schools on the list calls into question whether there are high schools in Ontario where grades are bought, rather than earned.

A 2011 investigation by the Toronto Star sheds light on this issue, when reporter Jennifer Yang went undercover as a student at a private high school. Yang described how her teacher, unaware that Yang was a journalist undercover, arbitrarily raised her grade by almost 25 per cent, while allowing other students to retake tests they had failed — this time open book.

A section of the Ontario Ministry of Education’s website, updated in 2013, says that “in response to concerns regarding credit integrity, the ministry has introduced an enhanced inspection training program.” But a 2015 study found that Ontario has the fewest regulations for private schools among Canadian provinces.

Low-income students already face many challenges to achieving high grades and pursuing higher education, from underfunded high schools to the need to devote time and energy to part-time work outside their studies and family responsibilities. A list that suggests that some private schools inflate their students’ averages can then be a bitter pill for those who work hard to achieve modest marks at publicly funded institutions. This is not to say that grade inflation is a problem for private schools alone; in fact the majority of the schools tracked by Waterloo are public schools.

It may be the case that grade inflation is ubiquitous. However, when schools at the top of Waterloo’s list charge $1,800 per course, and others more than $20,000 per year, it adds insult to injury. Not only are students and their families paying tens of thousands of dollars per year for private high schools, only to have their grades drop 25 per cent in their first year at university, other students who do not have access to these schools may be losing out in admissions processes for universities who do not apply adjustment factors like Waterloo.

The bottom line is that the students suffer most from the practice of artificially increased averages; not only are they not getting the education they deserve, but they are entering university programs that they are potentially ill-suited for. This can take a dangerous toll on students’ mental health when they enter their first year, and compound the symptoms of imposter syndrome that university freshmen already experience.

But the implications for private schools are greater. Grade inflation at private schools calls into question both the quality of education received for the hefty price tag, and the possibility that good grades are for sale to those who can afford them. Not all private schools are created equal, and generalizing or vilifying them all will not provide answers to these questions. It is time to go beyond acknowledging the proximal dangers of grade inflation and take a deeper look at how this practice could be magnifying larger inequities. 

Amelia Eaton is a second-year Political Science and Ethics, Society, and Law student at Woodsworth College.

A perilous drop

Bridging the gap between high school and university is necessary for educational progress

A perilous drop

Scrolling through my Facebook feed at this time of the year always floods me with a rush of nostalgia. However, seeing happy high school seniors posing in their prom pictures or preparing for their final exams prompts me to ask myself: are these kids ready for university?

The answer, as university students know, depends on a number of factors. For some, transitioning to university from high school can be the same as transitioning from the minor leagues to the majors. While some students are better prepared than others, the “first year dip” — an academic hit new students often undergo due to the increased difficulty and volume of material — is common during the first year of undergraduate studies.

With respect to the notorious reputations of schools like U of T, it is worth examining why high school doesn’t sufficiently prepare students to take on academic challenges following graduation.

The roots of this problem can be found in the history of public schooling in North America and Europe. During the Industrial Age more than 150 years ago, child labour was common as kids were beginning to replace adults in the job markets. As employees, children offered efficiency and cost less to employ. However, moral outrage eventually led to the implementation of public education. Its primary purpose was not necessarily to breed intellectuals, but instead to produce a new generation of better workers.

Education developed further over the subsequent years, along with the creation of the multiple-choice test. Originating in Kansas, USA, the multiple choice test was initially used to measure the intelligence of World War I veterans before integrating them back into the system.

The impact of this invention is huge, because the mainstream school system now often aims away from teaching the subject matter and toward being able to pass standardized tests. The Secondary School Admission Test, the International General Certificate of Secondary Education, and the International Baccalaureate are all standardized tests with emphasis on rote memorization.

Schools often teach strategies to do well on these specific evaluations, regardless of whether such methods account for mastering the subject matter or honing the ability to convey information in concise terms.

The inevitable result of such a system is the redundant question asked in high schools around the world: “Will we be tested on this?” This explains why a huge academic drop occurs when students graduate high school and are finally faced with questions that require deep critical thinking and logical reasoning.

Additionally, psychological reasons also play a major role in the first-year dip. High schools, by nature, provide a very co-dependent environment, where students are constantly reminded of deadlines. The faculty knows their students and families by name; teachers have enough time and resources to tailor their teaching style to the needs of their students.

This is a marked contrast to educational settings — such as Convocation Hall — whose mammoth-sized classes are large enough to destroy any sense of security or belonging. University professors teaching bigger classes unfortunately often results in little to no interaction with instructors or among peers.

Undoubtedly, this combined with the increased difficulty of academic materials creates a lot of unforeseen psychological stress. Professional, financial, and interpersonal responsibilities in university also seem to hit all at once without warning, which causes academic performance to falter. Seeing as how these difficulties are not uncommon, it is questionable why these issues and strategies to deal with them are not adequately addressed in high school.

Problems with the education system have been discussed and approached in different ways throughout the years. Many proposed solutions, however, represent changes to techniques and methods, not to the fundamentals. The system may have served well so far, but effective changes must be made soon. The rise of technological advances means that the world is changing at an exponential rate, therefore a new learning environment is more timely than ever.

For instance, artificial intelligence will eventually replace many existing jobs, so memorizing information and filling in Scantron sheets is becoming the most inefficient way to spend one’s high school career.

Instead, the aim of education should be to develop a person’s ability to ask provoking questions and think critically. Education should mean cultivating a love of knowledge for its own sake; it should develop morals and ethics that can be applied to solving our world’s greatest challenges.

Ahmed Salem is a second-year student at Woodsworth College studying neuroscience.