By Patrick Quinn
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
With escalating bullying and attendance issues, Voyageur Memorial High School in Mistissini made the difficult decision to close Secondary 1 and 2 classes on November 29 for an indefinite period.
“We have the interest of our students at heart and we have to make sure the school is a safe place for them to learn,” school administrators stated on social media. “The cases of bullying are skyrocketing; the number of violent incidents is multiplying.”
Vice-principal Joanie Laplante said the school is also concerned about decreased attendance and attention in class. While organizing assemblies with parents to address the situation, teachers prepared work packages for students to take home.
Mistissini is a Cree town located in the south-east corner of the largest natural lake in Quebec, Lake Mistassini.
On December 1, Sec 1 and 2 students were invited for a group brainstorm and school wellness survey at the Mistissini Youth Centre to anonymously share ideas for making the school a safe and nurturing learning environment.
Then, on December 6 and 7, students attended mandatory reintegration circles with their parents or guardians in the school gymnasium. Following the first meeting, Voyageur invited 50 of 105 Sec 2 students to return to classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays until the Christmas break.
The parent assemblies included a summary of the situation, presentation of their agreement for reintegration and an introduction to the new Mozaik Parent Portal, a pilot project launched in Mistissini schools ahead of a region-wide implementation next June. The website and app enables parents to instantly be notified of their child’s absence along with other information.
“Parents can view information about their child so they can follow attendance easily and it will be easier to send out notices,” said Sarah Pash, chairperson of the Cree School Board (CSB). “We need to modernize the way we’re doing things and use all the tools we have available. This will allow information to be shared in a more timely and efficient way.”
The CSB has been developing a powerful data management system that will help better understand student success factors like attendance, literacy and graduation rates. Absenteeism is a longstanding issue throughout the region, with some students missing up to 30% of classes.
“It is a huge issue but it’s more than just an issue of academic success,” Pash told the Nation. “This also has to do with our ability to build cohesion in the school, for students to feel they belong, to develop in a strong way, and for our students to be part of the school community in a positive and supportive way.”
While every school is working on initiatives to improve attendance, Pash believes that the issue requires a broader discussion within communities to consider what role organizations like the recreation department or youth council can play in encouraging student engagement.
Pash has recently been discussing partnership opportunities with Bertie Wapachee, chairperson of the Cree Health Board, to ensure young people are given every chance for success. With even very young students increasingly dealing with anxiety issues, mental health has been a specific focus.
“We know these are things we can’t tackle alone as a school board,” said Pash. “We need to look at how do we build positive relationships in our schools, focusing on mental health and personal wellbeing, and how do we help our children become more resilient?
Part of becoming more resilient is helping them shelter themselves from things that will negatively affect their mental health.”
The Covid pandemic has unsurprisingly been a significant cause of rising anxiety and isolation around the world. Although the CSB experienced fewer school closures than other jurisdictions, precautionary measures have profoundly impacted personal interactions and limited the availability of activities and events that are a vital source of mental wellbeing.
“We have to realize that life is not the same as before the pandemic,” Pash asserted. “It’s starting to take its toll on our younger population, they have been immensely affected by all of this. It’s important for us to start focusing on healing from this pandemic. How can our school system be a healing system?”
Distancing guidelines have increased reliance on online interactions for work, education and socializing. While the internet has helped people stay connected to the outside world, it’s also resulted in unhealthy behaviours. According to L1ght, an organization that tracks online harassment, there was a 70% increase in cyberbullying in just a few months.
“We’ve seen a definite rise in cyberbullying, in the ways that social media has been weaponized in so many ways,” confirmed Pash.
“We have to be mindful of how our young people interact with each other on social media. But this is also a discussion we have to have in our communities. As parents, what limits are we setting and what are we modelling for our children?”
Addressing the problem of bullying has been a priority at the CSB, which is planning to implement an anti-bullying program developed in collaboration with a world-renowned researcher on the subject. Pash hopes it ignites a broader public discussion because bullying is an issue certainly not limited to schools.
Pash believes acting out is a cry for help that can be answered by helping young people establish a supportive network and healthy routine, developing their identity grounded in culture, language and a place in their community. She wants to build their sense of empowerment and resilience, helping them believe in themselves and to realize everything they can accomplish with their education.
“Shutting down a school is something the administration doesn’t take lightly,” said Pash. “I know everybody is concerned about it.
When it comes right down to it, a school is a community. That community does need the support of the wider community to help create the best environment it can for young people.”
Patrick Quinn is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of THE NATION. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.