Auditor says Nova Scotia needs better prevention to address rising school violence

By Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

HALIFAX — Training and prevention measures have failed to keep pace with a sharp rise in school violence in Nova Scotia, leaving teachers and administrators unprepared to deal with the concerning trend, the province’s auditor general says in a new report.

The report released Tuesday by Kim Adair says there has been a 60-per-cent increase in reported school violence since 2017, with schools in the Halifax area — which has about 44 per cent of the province’s students — accounting for half of all incidents.

Violent incidents jumped to 27,000 from 17,000 over the past seven years, although Adair said the numbers lack accuracy because of data collection weaknesses, including a lack of reporting from teachers who feel frustrated and unsupported by the system.

“That’s why I think the 60 per cent (statistic) is probably an understatement,” she told reporters. “I think given the level of incidence that is now occurring, parents should be concerned, but to be fair this is not a unique to Nova Scotia problem.”

The report says the Education Department lacks a cohesive approach to preventing and addressing violence in schools, and Adair recommends it develop a provincewide strategy. She added that the province’s code of conduct for schools also needs to be updated to better define violence and to offer more guidance to teachers.

“These two missing elements leave teachers without a game plan or rules of engagement to handle incidents of violence,” the auditor said.

Adair said her audit included a survey that was sent to 18,000 school staff across the province and received 5,200 responses.

The report said 70 per cent of survey respondents felt they didn’t receive enough training to manage school violence, while many teachers said they often don’t report incidents because they don’t think the violence will be addressed. Adair said there was no record of action being taken regarding 26,000 of the 142,000 reported incidents over the last seven years.

According to the survey, 65 per cent of teacher respondents indicated they had witnessed or experienced violence in schools at least weekly, with 31 per cent indicating they saw or experienced violence daily. The survey covers physical, sexual and psychological violence, ranging from bullying and cyberbullying to racist behaviour and sexual assault.

Meanwhile, statistics included in the report from the 2022-23 school year indicate that physical violence is the most prevalent form in all grade levels, but especially in elementary grades where 10,000 violent incidents were recorded that year.

Adair said it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason for the numbers in elementary schools but added it could be better explained in the future by improved data collection.

The Education Department said Tuesday that it agrees with the auditor general’s recommendations and it promised to implement them by the start of the 2025 school year.

Education Minister Becky Druhan said she has committed to a review of the code of conduct governing discipline in schools and asked teachers to recommit to recording every incident of violence in a Nov. 7 letter to all teachers and school staff. The letter was later provided to reporters.

“We want to get (the review) right, and we are working very quickly and urgently,” said Druhan. “My message to parents and to families is that every student and every (school) staff deserves to be safe and to feel safe in their schools and this is a significant priority of our government.”

In a news release, Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said the report validates the concerns long expressed by the union’s membership.

“It’s time we put in place a plan that ensures that every student and their teachers can go to school each day feeling safe and supported,” Lutes said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 11, 2024.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

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