January 25, 2023

School Violence Has Become a Legitimate Workplace Hazard

Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education

In December, Saltwire published an op-ed by Susan Joudrey, calling attention to the fact that the Nova Scotia Government is contravening legislation in both the Education Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act that create requirements for safe, healthy, orderly, supportive, positive and effective schools. 

Dr. Joudrey’s view was that the government had abandoned the legislation, and was disregarding their obligation to keep students and staff safe. She was raising her concerns around COVID exposures, increased absenteeism and the grave impacts of Long-COVID that are becoming more apparent both as time passes, and as more of the population is infected. We feel that she raised some very good points with regard to the existing laws, and the failure to follow those laws when making decisions for public schools. Dr. Joudrey’s piece raised issues far beyond COVID concerns.

In 2022 another Saltwire article disclosed partial statistics around violence in schools. We find it alarming that the more than 11,000 incidents in the 2020-21 school year was not an issue for the government. In fact, the number of incidents was downplayed by Education Minister, Becky Druhan, who dismissed the number as being in line with previous years, as if that made more than 1,100 incidents per month acceptable. As per the article, 

“Education Minister Becky Druhan said the 2020-21 school violence numbers are pretty much on par with the past five years, though they did fall when students had to work from home during the spring of 2020.”

So this is the norm. The status quo. The baseline. Minister Druhan also seemed to forget that compared to past years, children were in school for far fewer days between 2019-2021. In the 2019-2020 school year for instance, students missed about three and a half months of in-school time from COVID in addition to regular absences and snow days. Likewise, the year 2020-2021 had extended breaks and individual schools were closed for consecutive days to prevent outbreaks and to do “deep cleans” of the facilities. This means the average number of violent incidents per school day was actually much higher than usual. Omitting the total student-days missed for each Regional Centre each year blurs the true picture of student violence rates.

The Saltwire article also cited an unnamed FOIPOP release stating about three-quarters (75%) of the violent incidents “are recorded at the P-6 grade levels while students are learning about appropriate interactions, self-regulation and other important social emotional skills.” However, teachers and other educational staff we’ve spoken with cast serious doubts on such a claim. In fact, if you look at other incident types you’ll see that this violence claim is questionable and that incidents of violence could be higher among older students. For instance, using the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development’s own data released in FOIPOP 2018-07970-EDU highlighting the incidents of bullying reported by grade and gender in 2017, the peak of incidents is grade eight. As well, over two-thirds of the incidents reported in that year are between grades 5 through 9.

Fig. 1 – FOIPOP 2018-07970-EDU Incidents of Bullying

% by Grade2.833.995.655.809.1313.1912.5414.4216.8110.222.612.030.80

As well, note that in recent FOIPOP 2022-01614-EDU which shows the incidents of bullying combined for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years, the peak once again is grade 8. These are the years referred to in the Saltwire article above. 

Fig. 2 – FOIPOP 2022-01614-EDU – Incidents of Bullying

% by Grade3.152.753.726.867.4411.5612.2415.1617.6810.584.352.921.60

We have questions. In fact, we demand answers from our elected representatives; not just talking points and platitudes.

If “three quarters of violent incidents are recorded at the P-6 grade levels” how are more than two-thirds of bullying incidents between grades 5-9? Why is there a difference? Are kids more prone to bullying through approximate ages of 10-15 but more inclined to violence in grades P-6? One reason for the difference is that incidents of bullying are broken down by grade; such grade statistics have not been released for violent incidents. Or sexual assault. Or sexual harassment. Or verbal abuse. Or most other types of behaviours by grade. Bullying is often a pattern of harassment and violence, but do these numbers capture one-off incidents as well? And young children who may still be learning appropriate coping skills aren’t necessarily bullies, but can still inflict a lot of harm through violent actions. It is imperative that the Department offer updated definitions of these two types of behaviours. Is everyone adhering the definition of bullying and inappropriate behaviors as outlined in the Provincial Student Code of Conduct? The province must also release more fulsome data. 

In 2019 the Globe and Mail reached out to provincial Ministers of Education seeking data on school violence. Nova Scotia provided such data, which indicated that:

“in the 2015-16 school year, there were 631 recorded incidents against an educator by a student, and the following year, there were 683, the vast majority occurring at the elementary-school level, the government says, characterising it as a “mild” increase but also adding that “one is too many.”

It goes without saying that “one is too many” – this is a mere platitude. But this data release also reveals that there is more to be shared. The comment that the “vast majority” of these cases are at the elementary school level suggests the existence of more detailed numbers that consider incidents by grade. These must be made available so that we can understand the scope and root of these incidents.

What about other data sources?

There are other relevant numbers to consider outside those released by the NS Department of Education and Childhood Development.

From a 2019 survey across the country by CBC there emerged some alarming statistics:

  • 35% of students say they were physically assaulted (slapped/kicked/bitten) at least once in elementary/middle school, 
  • 40% of high school boys have been assaulted at least once,
  • 45% say they did not report the incidents they experienced, and
  • 25% experienced sexual harassment or assault before going into grade 7. 

Other forms of violence with which children contend are also important, but do not appear in NS statistics. What about misogynistic and sexual violence or violence connected to racism? Are incidences such as the bullying that took the form of graphic and obscene peer harassment — the bullying that contributed to the suffering and death of Rehtaeh Parsons — identified and tallied by the province? We need the full picture of violence, in all its forms, in Nova Scotia schools. Without it, how can we advocate for improvements?

We reached out to the Workers Compensation Board of Nova Scotia (WCBNS) to ask them about workplace claims related to violence. These claims, freely shared and clarified on by the WCBNS, tell quite a story. 

In the last ten years, workers in the Educational Services sector have had the highest rate of claims due to violence, at a decade rate of 11.28%. Next in line is Health/Social Services at 8.60%. The peak in the last ten years was in 2019, where Educational Services led the pack at a whopping 16.32% of claims related to violence! This nearly doubled the claims in Health/Social Services which were at 8.58%. While the overall number of claims due to violence in the Health/Social Services sector is far higher than any other, the rate claims (percentage of employee impacted) due to violence in Educational Services has taken the lead every year except for 2020. That year Business Services averaged a claim rate of 14.23% compared to claims in Educational Services, 10.92%, which took second place). Typically, the Business Services sector rounds out third place, behind Educational Services (first) and Health/Social Services (second). 

Who are these educational workers who submit claims around violence each year to the WCBNS? They are Regional Centres of Education employees as well as contract workers. Employees such as Educational Assistants (EAs), Educational Program Assistants (EPAs), administrative assistants, caretakers, custodians and potentially bus drivers (depending on the contracting company). Teachers and school administrative employees use a different provider other than WCBNS.

What’s actually happening in our schools?

Conversations with school staff offer insight into what staff-directed school violence. School staff report being discouraged from documenting incidents of violence and, when recording cannot be avoided, the process is difficult and the mechanism for reporting, featuring drop down menus, limits a full and accurate reporting of incidents. Privacy protocols prevent student victims from being named in perpetrators’ reports, precluding long-term tracing of patterns of incidents. As well, there is no set standard to ensure all teachers are documenting incidents in PowerSchool – teachers report divergent experiences as some are encouraged by Principals to report violent incidents, others say they are discouraged; some principals prefer to enter information on behalf of teachers. Each Regional Centre may or may not have its own directives around how schools operate in terms of data collection; we don’t know of that for sure because there’s no public insight into Regional Centres since English-language elected school boards were dissolved in 2018. One thing is certain: no one but teachers and school administrators have the ability to enter incidents, a protocol that impedes reporting from employees such as EAs and EPAs.

Before and since the 2022 Saltwire article highlighting school violence, there have been several very concerning in-school incidents that make it very difficult to move on from the revelations it provided. Videos and photos taken by students of some really troubling attacks have made the rounds on social media and the news. Reports from parents about their children being bullied and assaulted while at school, sometimes requiring hospitalization, are impossible to dismiss. When eliminating the at-home learning options around COVID, the government made assertions about schools being the safest place for kids. While acknowledging the important role that schools can play in students’ access to food and other basic needs, many parents and child experts objected strongly to this portrayal of schools, noting that such statements ignored highly problematic realities of school culture related to violence, such as bullying and negative mental health experiences. 

A parent shared: “one of our children started high school in 2021. In the first month at the school, a Grade 9 student was beaten very badly by four older boys on school property — unprovoked. His assailants wore steel-toed boots to kick him and told him they would kill him. They tore his clothes; he had a broken nose and collarbone, among other injuries. At least a dozen others were present, some recording the attack. No one present tried to stop it. The next day another group of students took a vigilante approach to the incident, giving a few of them a ‘mild’ taste of their own medicine. A few months later another attack was recorded at the school which included another Grade 9 student being kicked in the head multiple times. In between, our kids (at two different schools) reported to us multiple times about drugs at the school (bongs, a weed smell in the stairwells), plus vandalism and destruction of school property.” These violent incidents only fully came to light when highlights on the local evening news started a fire-storm on social media.

Many parents report picking their children up to take them home to use the washroom, because the washrooms at schools are not safe. In fact, students have reported the washroom is a good place to engage in all kinds of inappropriate behaviours, because there are no cameras and because teachers also avoid washrooms because of the negative behaviours that occur there. A few years ago, a teacher in an HRM high school was assaulted while checking a washroom, and suffered long-term injuries that have prevented their return to work. 

The parent continued: “In our case, we communicated with the Principal and our MLA about these issues. We questioned why there is widespread knowledge of these problems, but nothing is being done to prevent violence and drug use on school property. Both told us: if they are not doing it at the school, they will just find somewhere else to do it! Fights and drug-use are accommodated on school property to prevent it happening elsewhere? One administrator even suggested the need for a police presence to protect staff anytime the parents of some students are expected at the school. When asked why there is no communication with families about these serious fears and incidents in schools, there was invariably a single response: privacy concerns.” This lack of communication fosters rumours and misunderstanding, and forces parents to rely on whatever version of events their kids and other parents can cobble together – or worse yet, having to witness school violence via the news and social media. Neither is an appropriate source of information. Parents deserve transparent information. Knowledge of what is actually happening in schools is key to addressing the problems that exist. Schools are obliged to do all they can to remedy the situation – and this includes an obligation to inform the school community. 

Teachers and other staff are not immune to the risks of violence in schools.

We have been hearing more and more since the NSTU labour dispute with the government about Kevlar bite guards, mental health concerns, COVID cases, injuries while breaking up fights, teachers being verbally assaulted and threatened. None of these would be tolerated in any other work environment. Ever. School violence has become a legitimate workplace hazard. 

What good are labour laws that are not enforced?

Taking all of these things into account, along with reports like the one above about teachers being injured while at work, made some of us go back to that report about violent incidents. And Dr. Joudrey’s commentary inspired us to read up more on the legislated obligations for safety in our schools where we became familiar with precedent setting legal decisions that force us to ask: Why is the government violating the law? Why are our kids, school staff and others being exposed to serious, avoidable harm?

What precedent do we find in Nova Scotia and across the country?

First, let’s start with education. In a 2017-2018 school year health and safety document from the South Shore Regional Centre of Education (formerly SSRSB), refers to a “special recognition of violence as a hazard.” 

In an example from another sector, SiteLogic Construction Management Inc was fined under the Nova Scotia Occupational Health and Safety Act for the wrongful death of a contractor on one of a site owned by the Halifax Port Authority. Lawyers for HPA argued that because the contractor wasn’t an employee that they should not be held liable. The judge disagreed stating: “safety measures were required to protect everyone, not just employees.” Both the Halifax Port Authority and the owner of SiteLogic Construction Management were fined for labour violations. 

Hang on now. Everyone? Right. Let’s reiterate what the Occupational Health and Safety Act actually states:

Employers’ precautions and duties

13 (1) Every employer shall take every precaution that is reasonable in the circumstances to

(a) ensure the health and safety of persons at or near the workplace

Persons. That’s an interesting word. It turns out we are one of the few provinces in Canada with that wording and the precedent has been set repeatedly in the private sector that protects everyone at or near the workplace.

The following is an excellent example of how the OHSA is applied and interpreted by our own provincial government:

On August 5th, 2022, motorists were subjected to hours-long delays due to the twinning of Highway 104 between New Glasgow and Antigonish during a heat warning. The Guysborough Journal had asked the province to provide insight given the wording surrounding “persons at or near the workplace” in the OHSA. They wanted to know if motorists stuck in their cars during a heat warning were subject to the protections since they were, most definitely, persons.

The province responded: “Owners and employers’ duties under the Occupational Health and Safety Act are intended to prevent hazards associated with the workplace (e.g. present at or generated by). Environmental factors like heat or cold events have broader impacts outside of occupational settings. When environmental factors like heat events happen, the intent of OHS requirements under most circumstances do not apply to the general public near the workplace because it’s beyond their control to manage adequately.”

If you follow the logic of that stance, by a provincial government representative no less, it would be that if the workplace was within their control then they’d be held accountable to the Act and be required to protect all persons at or near the workplace.

The precedent has been repeatedly set – repeat it here. Children and education staff (teachers, EPAs/EAs, custodians, secretaries, and even school administrators) are reporting more than 11,000 instances of violence in provincial workspaces per year — not counting bullying, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual assault and others. 

11,000-plus instances of violence each year. This is scratching the surface.

What other workplace would tolerate this? Surely not the Nova Scotia Legislature. Right? 

Nine years ago, NDP MLA Percy Paris was charged with assault and uttering threats for an altercation with Liberal MLA Keith Colwell. The charges were ultimately dropped a few months later and Paris later successfully completed the adult diversion program.

We know that in 2019 Liberal Education Minister Zach Churchill allegedly put his hands on then-opposition leader and now Premier Tim Houston during a heated argument in the Nova Scotia Legislature. At the time, MLA Houston did not appreciate the physical contact and the Liberal-majority government quashed his motion for an internal affairs investigation. 

At least they discussed the matter out in the open. Never mind that an alleged physical assault was whisked away to nothingness by way of majority vote. The difference however in the case of Paris and Colwell, is that someone reported the matter to the police, it was dealt with and the matter had been managed.

Well, Premier Houston’s party now has the power.

When will educators and children be deemed “persons” in the eyes of the government when they are certainly “persons” in the eyes of the laws we have in place to protect them?

Precedent has been set. We must use the Occupational Health and Safety Act to protect our educators and students.

Update: An error that existed in this blog regarding the number of education workers who have made claims due to violence in school has been corrected. A grammatical error created a misstatement that 11% of education workers have filed claims. This was incorrect. We have made every possible effort to ensure this article is correct, and apologize for this mistake.

One thought on “January 25, 2023

  1. Honestly, if someone does not look into what is really happening with the primary’s to 5. Our futures are in serious trouble. Discipline from homes are not the same. If parents stopped putting the blame on the schools and work with teachers and principles our children would be in a much better place. Remember, teachers have been educated to do what they do. They would not be working in any school if they did not care about their students. Some how the government as given the public the idea that staff get paid a tone of money and have a summer vacation. So not true. There income is spread out for the hours they work so they cannot collect benefits. I never seen people work harder in my life. And the education debts they have incurred over the years are large. But so many parents have lost respect because they have been told from above how great staff have it. I’m not saying all parents. But we live in an age where certain parents feel they are entitled to just about everything. So what are they teaching their children? How do you think they will manage in the workforce as adults. There is no money being given out in schools for some very needed supports. And that is because the government knows all the people will support them, because who wants to pay more taxes even though these students are are our future. For those who don’t have children. Well just remember you will be relying on them one day. Most schools have not even grown with the times. Mostly because they want to keep hours to a minimum. It is so sad, because I truly worry how no one really knows what is going on. There has never been a time where a member from the Dept of Education walks into to a school and spends some real time there. They really don’t have a clue. Our taxes need to go into our health care and education. Without that, what is our future.


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