News / Halifax

Data reveals level of violence, threats in Nova Scotia classrooms

The RCMP outside Millwood High School last April after a lockdown was put in place.

Metro file photo

The RCMP outside Millwood High School last April after a lockdown was put in place.

HALIFAX — Students commit, incite or threaten some form of physical violence an average of about 1,100 times a month at Nova Scotia's schools, prompting teachers to call for more support staff and a clearer discipline process.

The data, obtained through freedom of information legislation, includes reported incidents at 400 schools, using the province's definition of violence as "using force, gesturing, or inciting others to use force to injure a member of the school community."

In the 2015-16 school year, there were a total of 11,740 cases, and in the first seven months of the current year there were 7,515 cases, according to the data provided.

The Education Department declined to provide an official to do an interview, but sent emailed comments indicating many of the incidents don't result in harm and a large percentage are young children who are kicking, throwing rocks or pushing in elementary schools.

However, some teachers say the figures are concerning because they include cases of teachers facing attacks by troubled young people who can't easily be removed from classrooms they're disrupting.

Peter Day, a math resource teacher in Cape Breton, says incidents ranging from minor outbursts to punching, spitting on and biting educators have become disturbingly routine.

"A few weeks ago I was at a school and there was a staff member bitten and that was a normal thing … to the point where I was saying, 'You need to go to the hospital for that, that's an occupational health and safety issue,'" he said in a telephone interview.

"My biggest concern is the lack of resources that are available to help with these issues," he added, saying more teachers' aides, guidance counsellors and behavioural therapists are needed.

The province said in an email the incidents decrease as students grow older and learn to better control their behaviour.

"A large percentage of reported behaviours are ones often seen in young children ... who are learning self-control and appropriate responses to new routines and expectations," wrote spokeswoman Heather Fairbairn. 

"Examples include kicking, throwing rocks or pushing. We see that incidents decline significantly as students advance through elementary school to the higher grades as they develop those essential self-regulation skills."

The department says it has given funding to school boards to directly support the development of social and emotional learning programs in schools.

Fairbairn says more than 140 schools are using approaches "that focus on conflict resolution, relationship-building and decision-making to help students take responsibility for their actions as members of a school community."

The Acadian school board, the only board to provide details of the results of the violence, seemed to confirm that most incidents are less serious in nature, with over half of the 576 cases of physical violence last year resulting in no formal measures being taken — though there were also 30 suspensions among the total.

However, some commentators on education say the data on physical violence is weak because it lumps together very different kinds of incidents — making it difficult to understand precisely what's going on and how to respond.

Paul Bennett, a consultant on education in Halifax, said the province's wide definition of physical violence is out of step with other provinces.

"Obviously we could learn from Ontario, which required all school boards to publicly disclose the acts of school violence. It's quite clear their definition was what most people would consider to be violence," he said.

Since 2011, Ontario's definition of physical violence has mainly consisted of assaults causing harm that required medical attention, as well as sexual assault, weapons possession and extortion.

The Toronto school board publishes a detailed annual report providing suspension rates and comparing rates from year to year. It also looks at the levels of violence tied to children with learning disabilities, behavioural issues, autism and intellectual disabilities.

"If it's going to be research-based, you need to collect the data necessary to make those policy decisions," Bennett said in an interview.

Bill Byrd, director of the Toronto-based Safe Schools Network, said clear definitions with details on what happened are needed in Nova Scotia.  

"The more you refine it the better. If they (the Nova Scotia government) does that it will help to ... see what is the real problem and what are you going to do about it," he said.

Liette Doucet, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said the province's schools are increasingly violent.

"We get calls from teachers all the time who have been intimidated by students ... they've been kicked, they've been spit on, they've been punched and even had chairs thrown at them. It goes on and on and on," she said.

"The calls we get are increasing, not decreasing."

Doucet says teachers believe a clearer discipline process is needed, which allows for swifter action with ongoing problems.

The province recently appointed a Council to Improve Classroom Conditions that is co-chaired by the union and the government. It was one of the steps taken after the Liberal government legislated the 9,300 teachers back to work.

The council's mandate includes discussions on school discipline policies and "complex classrooms," but a spokesperson was unavailable to indicate if there are any findings yet in these areas.

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