#TorontoIsFailingMe: My students are terrified of getting shot
David deBelle, 55
I took over as principal at Lawrence Heights Middle School in September 2009. I wanted to work in a challenging neighbourhood, where there is more opportunity to make a real difference. There are one or two major shootings in this area every year, and the impact on the students is enormous. In April 2013, our lunchroom supervisor’s 15-year-old son was shot in the back while walking home from a tutoring session—he survived, but his mother never returned to work, and she moved her family away.
I won’t pretend to know all the reasons for the neighbourhood’s problems, but the easy availability of guns is certainly an issue, and the gangs. Kids are drawn to gangs when they don’t feel like there are a lot of options for them: there aren’t many jobs here, and poverty has an impact on families and on the school. My staff watch out for students who can’t afford the basics—lunches or the mandatory school uniform. Sometimes, I’ll see a kid alone in the cafeteria without a lunch, so I’ll discreetly ask whether he or she has eaten today.
This looks like a normal school, and it’s the stuff we do behind the scenes that makes it feel that way. We create student schedules that minimize movement between classrooms, as studies have shown that kids feel less safe in the halls or outside. We practise school lockdowns every few months, and we take them seriously, keeping everyone below window level to avoid stray bullets. Students find the presence of an adult reassuring, so my staff and I stay visible by walking the halls. When fights break out, I insert myself into the middle and calm things down. The kids always back off because they don’t want to hurt a 55-year-old man. Afterward, I talk to them about handling aggression. These are great kids, from all around the world, and our job is to give them a welcoming environment where they can safely learn. I believe in the power of education to change people’s lives and change a community.
—as told to Alexandra Shimo