Almost three-quarters of Toronto principals are having difficulty managing student behaviour and about half say their calls for supports go unanswered, according to a new report that highlights some of the challenges schools face after three years of pandemic-related shutdowns.

The Toronto School Administrators’ Association (TSAA), which represents 1,000 principals and vice-principals, recently surveyed its members on their working conditions. About 56 per cent of members responded to the survey. A copy of the report was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The survey found that student behaviour was more challenging than before the pandemic, and that the lack of staffing as well as an uptick in absences made the task of managing that behaviour more difficult. About 74 per cent of principals said they had challenges with student behaviour and about 80 per cent said they do not feel equipped to maintain school safety because they are not properly staffed.

The survey found that about 40 per cent of administrators said violent and inappropriate behaviour was on the rise, including fights, verbal abuse and, in some cases, the possession of weapons. The TSAA said the lack of response from the school board to principals’ requests for more supports when students are in crisis was likely tied budget restraints.

“The current situation in schools approaches a veritable perfect storm, a conflation of factors impacting the daily work school administrators engage in to promote a safe and healthy environment for all,” the report stated.

“Some administrators have indicated that almost 90 per cent of their days are spent dealing with issues related to student behaviours, crisis intervention, or student well being.”

Safety and student behaviour, particularly at the Toronto District School Board, has made headlines lately after several serious incidents of youth violence in and around school buildings. The school board says it’s working with police, community groups and faith leaders to address root causes.

Ralph Nigro, chair of the TSAA, said in an interview on Friday that what principals are seeing in schools reflects what’s happening in the wider community with the rise of violent behaviour on public transit, for example.

“It’s not a coincidence that we’re seeing all of this postpandemic and I’m not sure that we will fully understand the impact for some time now,” Mr. Nigro said.

The association said principals report that more children as young as those in kindergarten are having issues listening and following routines, such as lining up to go outside for recess. Incidents of scratching, biting and hitting adults and other children are happening more often.

“There aren’t enough supports,” Mr. Nigro said. “We’re looking at scenarios in schools every day, not just in Toronto but across the province, where principals struggle to have enough adults in a building to offer appropriate supervision and keep everyone safe.”

Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the TDSB, said the board invested more money than what it receives from the province into mental health and well-being services.

“The supports are there although admittedly staffing is not always available given the finite resources of the board,” Mr. Bird said, adding that community groups are experiencing similar backlogs for services.

Tracy Vaillancourt, a Canada research chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention, said risk factors for behavioural issues climbed over the past three years, with children spending more time on screens and less time doing physical activity. Research has shown that family adversity and violence increased, she said, adding that she’d expect youth violence and misbehaviour to also climb as a result.

“When there’s that erosion of civility, then you see that sliding of behavioural norms,” Dr. Vaillancourt said.

To start changing direction, she said that “we need to recalibrate our norms. We don’t accept incivility. We don’t accept rudeness. I think we need to go back to these basics.”

The Globe and Mail, March 20, 2023