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Lisa Cail says what happened at Charles P. Allen High School this week was “terrible and heartbreaking,” but is just one example of violence in Nova Scotia schools.
A 15-year-old student is facing multiple charges, including two counts of attempted murder, after two staff members at the school were stabbed on March 20, the first day back after spring break.
The staff members were taken to hospital with serious injuries and were released Wednesday. The teen was also taken to hospital for non-life-threatening injuries and later discharged. He remains in jail and his next court date is set for April 13.
What unfolded at Charles P. Allen High School in the Halifax suburb of Bedford that day was an extreme case, but Cail, a former education worker, says violence in schools is more common than people might think.
“We have probably one of the most dangerous jobs, in terms of physical safety, in Canada,” said Cail.
After working for 10 years as an educational program assistant (EPA) within the Halifax regional school system, Cail resigned from her position at the beginning of March to pursue a career outside of the sector.
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Burnout and low pay were big factors behind her resignation – coupled with the fact that staff are ill-equipped to handle violent incidents with students, said Cail.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult, unsafe, demanding, and (there’s) very little regard for what we’re going through,” she said.
“Little regard for ourselves, and the students we have to take care of.”
She recalled one incident when she had to chase down and catch a student who ran off school property and was threatening to jump into traffic.
“I ended up having to hold the student in the median … during morning traffic, until an ambulance and police came, while they were punching me, kicking me,” said Cail.
“I was OK, but this is just an example of some of the things that we go through.”
She said support staff, including EPAs who work with children with complicated needs, aren’t paid nearly enough. At the time she left her job, she was clearing less than $1,000 per biweekly paycheque.
Cail has a son with autism and she understands many children need extra support, but said the heavy workload and low pay was not worth the stress.
She also said this makes it hard to attract and retain qualified people to do the job, leaving schools understaffed.
“I’m just burnt out,” she said. “I consider myself a strong person physically and mentally, but I just can’t do it anymore.”
Injury claims due to violence
Data from the Workers Compensation Board of Nova Scotia indicates that those in the education sector covered by the WCB report a “relatively high” number of workplace injuries caused by violence.
From 2013 to 2022, there were a total of 6,303 injuries reported to the WCB from education administration workers, which includes educational assistants, educational program assistants, administrative assistants, caretakers and custodians.
(Teachers, principals and vice-principals are excluded from that data as they are covered by another insurer. Global News has contacted the School Insurance Program, which manages property and casualty-related insurance for staff and students at the province’s regional centres for education, CSAP, and the Nova Scotia Community College, but did not receive a response. A publicly available SIP report from 2018-19 indicates it receives around 7,500 incident reports from schools and campuses per year.)
Of those 6,303 WCB claims, 787 – or about 12 per cent – were attributed to incidents of violence. And 189 of those cases (24 per cent) were time loss claims, which means the injuries were severe enough to cause the worker to miss three or more days of work.
For comparison, injuries due to incidents of violence accounted for 15 per cent of reported injuries for security and investigation services workers, 14 per cent for covered local police forces, 14 per cent for correctional services, nine per cent for nursing home workers and six per cent for employees at general hospitals.
“The percentage of injuries attributed to violence show that workers in the education sector do experience a significant amount of violence, especially as you compare them to occupations where that workplace hazard might be more traditionally expected,” Nicole Halloran, senior communications advisor for WCB Nova Scotia, said in a statement.
‘Trying to cut corners’
Cail is not surprised that workers in the education sector have high rates of injury claims due to violence.
Part of the issue, she said, is a lack of mental health and behavioural supports for students, as well as training for staff.
She said the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) used to require that EPAs have non-violent crisis intervention training, but that requirement was abandoned.
Global News viewed an email from HRCE that Cail received in March 2022, which said the training program “will only be delivered to certain staff … if the risk determines it to be required.”
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In a statement, HRCE spokesperson Lindsey Bunin said non-violent crisis intervention training was re-evaluated last year based on the needs of students.
She said the training is designed on a series of modules, including training on verbal intervention, disengagement and non-violent intervention.
“Which modules Educational Program Assistant staff require is dependent on the complexities of the individual needs of the students they support,” said Bunin.
She also said all EPAs are offered verbal intervention training, and disengagement training is offered to specific EPAs “as needed.”
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But Cail said the verbal intervention training is “not the same” as the previous program, and she isn’t aware of any EPAs that have taken the training program since the requirement was dropped.
“It seems like it’s all about trying to cut corners and save money,” Cail said.
“It’s become more of a business, and the people on the lower rungs are suffering. And the people on the lower rungs are the EPAs, and our kids, and the teachers.”
More than 13,000 violent incidents last year
According to data from the provincial government, there were 13,776 physical violence incidents in Nova Scotia schools in the 2021-22 school year.
With a total of 125,124 enrolments last year, that represents an incidence rate of 11 per cent – though the report said students are often responsible for more than one incident, so the number of students involved is “much less.”
Physical violence is defined as “using force, gesturing, or inciting others to use force to injure a member of the school community.”
Further provincial data obtained under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act indicates there have been tens of thousands of violent incidents in Nova Scotia schools over the last five years:
- 13,991 incidents in the 2017-18 school year (representing 11.76 per cent of total enrolment)
- 14,864 in 2018-19 (12.32 per cent)
- 10,386 in 2019-20 (8.43 per cent)
- 11,132 in 2020-21 (9.6 per cent.)
While the numbers were lower in 2019-20 and 2020-21, those years were impacted by school shutdowns during COVID-19.
Ryan Lutes, the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union, said he’s hearing from teachers that violent incidents are becoming “increasingly more common.”
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“It’s in the spotlight right now, but this is something that teachers have been talking about for a number of years,” he said.
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The union is calling for more staffing, a provincial strategy to address school violence and better mental health supports.
Lutes also said that under the previous Liberal government, a number of teaching positions were cut, impacting the safety of schools.
“We want to see that reversed, but we also want to see those supports put into place in all of our schools in the province, not just in Halifax,” he said. “We believe that would have a positive impact on all our schools.”
In a phone interview Friday, Education Minister Becky Druhan said the province has increased the education budget by $122 million from last year, and added 63 teachers and 68 inclusive education positions within HRCE alone.
“We are continuing to add resources and support to the system to grow and to meet our student’s needs,” she said.
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Druhan said safety is a “fundamental priority” for the province and there is work underway to help students develop and build better relationships. She noted that there is a provincial code of conduct for all educators and administrators to prepare for the “unfortunate and serious incidents that sometimes do occur.”
She added that there is an emergency response plan in every school.
“Having said all that, we can always do more,” said Druhan.
The minister said the province is awaiting a full investigation into what occurred at Charles P. Allen High School Monday to see what lessons can be learned going forward.
“In time, when that information becomes available, we’ll take steps based on that,” she said.
More than schoolyard bullying
According to data reported by the CBC, police have been called to Halifax-area schools more than 420 times since 2015 for violent incidents involving students. In 77 of those cases, charges were laid.
Additionally, data published by the group Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education indicates that police-reported violent incidents within a 200-metre radius of schools drop dramatically during the summer months, when students are no longer in class.
Stacey Rudderham, spokesperson for Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, said educators and students have been trying to draw attention to the problem for years.
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“The bullying that has been going on isn’t schoolyard bullying like it was when I was growing up. It’s gangs jumping people,” said Rudderham, who has two children in the school system.
“There are kids in our schools that refuse to use the washrooms at school because that’s where bad things happen.”
Rudderham referenced Rehtaeh Parsons, a 17-year-old girl who faced relentless bullying after photos of her alleged sexual assault were distributed online and around her school in Dartmouth. Parsons died by suicide in 2013.
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While Parsons’ case prompted a new cyberbullying law and sparked conversations about mental health, victim blaming and bullying, Rudderham said little has been done to address the issue of bullying in schools in the 10 years that followed.
“A lot of promises were made, and we just don’t seem to be improving on that,” she said.
Rudderham said the issue worsened after elected school boards were abolished five years ago and replaced by regional centres for education, which she said have less oversight.
“When we had elected school boards, there would have been an ability for parents to reach out to their elected representative and make inquiries … and maybe see some action and get some answers,” she said.
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“Elected school boards would have held schools … accountable for these types of statistics that we’re seeing.”
During the 2021 election, the now-governing Progressive Conservatives promised to explore the province’s school board model.
Druhan, the education minister, told Global News that the work is underway. She said her department sought feedback from school advisory councils last year, and also asked for public feedback.
“We’re still collecting, collating, and assessing that information,” she said. “The work is still underway to consider what improvements can be made.”
Meanwhile, Cail, the former EPA, is training for a new career in massage therapy. She acknowledges that not everyone who works in education has the same opportunity to pursue other work, and counts herself lucky that she was able to leave.
While she’s seeking greener pastures, Cail wishes she could have continued working in education, and that she had enough support to work with the children for whom she still cares deeply.
“I love my kids. I love the people that I work with. It’s certainly not, for the most part, the admin and the teachers that don’t support us – it’s the higher-ups, it’s the people that make the decisions,” she said.
“And who does it hurt the most? Our kids. And it’s completely unacceptable.”