Fraser Cascade school district superintendent Balan Moorthy was surprised when he read the results of a new report from Agassiz Harrison Community Services, which shared some students negative feelings towards Agassiz Elementary Secondary (AESS).
“My feeling about Agassiz Secondary is it is a school with a tremendous amount of heart,” Moorthy said.
“The initial reaction will be I’m defending a school in my district because I’m the new superintendent, but I have very quickly learned and felt that Agassiz has actually got a very, very warm culture.”
Agassiz Harrison Community Services (AHCS) recently released a Needs Assessment for the area, which outlined key needs in the community and recommendations for programming through AHCS.
Among other stakeholders, the needs assessment interviewed Agassiz youth and found they were experiencing drug use, mental health concerns and bullying. The report went on to include descriptions of AESS as a “challenging environment” with entrenched bullying.
For Moorthy, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“When I read the report, I thought, this is really an opposite to the narrative Renge Bailie and I experienced,” he said.
Moorthy and assistant superintendent Rengee Bailie, both newcomers to the district, had conducted interviews with around 40 students in Grade 8 and 12 around the same time the AHCS consultant was interviewing its AESS focus group.
Moorthy said he and Bailie asked questions that were very similar to those in the report, and they got completely different answers.
When asked about how students treat each other at school, Moorthy heard responses like “it’s chill here, you can be yourself” and “I feel safe here.” Those who did share experiences with bullying said it was sorted out in the end.
“It wasn’t 100 per cent rosy, but it was really positive,” Moorthy said.
He also noted that AESS has, on average, one or no suspensions due to physical altercations per year.
“There’s very few schools that can boast that,” he said.
In the 2019-2020 school year, 19 per cent of Grade 7 students reported they had been cyber bullied once or a few times this year, and 67 per cent said they hadn’t been cyber bullied at all. Only 14 per cent were bullied once a month or more. There were similar rates for physical bullying.
These percentages were either at or slightly below the provincial average.
This is not to dismiss the feelings and concerns of the 10 students included in the AHCS focus group, who shared concerns about bullying, drug use and mental health concerns, Moorthy said.
But, he added, “based on being a school administrator for over 26 years, you would have gotten those results from any school you went to.”
“I think there is a challenge for kids social-emotionally across the world right now, when it comes to how do you deal with the reality that kids are exposed to drugs, they are exposed to mental health concerns, they are exposed to bullying,” he said.
“The average youth is really a victim of being challenged by social media,” he said.
This year, the Fraser Cascade school district has implemented two new supports for students to help with their mental health.
SD78 has hired Bernard Klop, formerly with the Chilliwack School District, to act as a district counsellor for elementary-aged students, as well as students who are learning remotely. Klop comes to SD78 with extensive training in clinical and personal counselling, and started his position in the district two weeks ago.
Staff are being trained to use the Open Parachute program to help create open dialogue with students about their well-being; so far, 33 employees in SD78 have showed up to the training sessions.
Moorthy also noted that he is hoping to bring more centralized supports to the school district.
The changes, which will be shared in more detail in the coming months, will bring increased supports for Agassiz students, but could be seen as controversial in a place where schools have often focused on their own strengths and challenges within the district.
For now, Moorthy said the district will be focusing on the two new initiatives and the supports currently in schools.
“We know across British Columbia — or North America, let’s face it — the idea of supporting mental health for kids is of exceptional concern.” he said.
And as for the results of the AHCS Needs Assessment when it comes to Agassiz schools?
“Obviously there’s things they want to work on in the community,” Moorthy said. “Let’s not look at everything with rose-coloured glasses.
“But they have a lot of be proud of between Agassiz, Kent and Harrison Hot Springs Elementary,”