Nova Scotia town seeking novel approach to dealing with unruly university students

A small Nova Scotia town that has struggled to tame its sometimes rowdy population of university students is considering advice from an unlikely source. File/ Global News

A small Nova Scotia town that has struggled to tame its sometimes rowdy population of university students is considering advice from an unlikely source.

Last week, the town of Wolfville — home to Acadia University — received a draft study that draws some lessons from the inquiry that investigated the 2020 Nova Scotia mass shooting that claimed 22 lives.

The inquiry, formally known as the Mass Casualty Commission (MCC), found widespread failures in how the RCMP responded to the killings. In March 2023, it issued 130 recommendations to improve public safety, a majority of which apply in some form to the Mounties.

In the introduction to the Acadia study, criminology professor Stephen Schneider says the town specifically asked him to explore alternatives to the RCMP in addressing community safety issues.

Schneider, who teaches at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, says the final report from the inquiry concluded that while police remain key to protecting the public, they should not be the primary responders to certain calls for help.

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“In its recommendations regarding the dual public health emergencies of mental health illnesses and violence against women, the MCC recommends ‘decentring justice,'” Schneider says in the 160-page report.

“This means replacing police as primary responders for many types of calls for service with health-care or social-welfare professionals. The MCC also emphasized the need for more community-based solutions.”

That’s exactly what Schneider is proposing for Wolfville’s challenges with disorderly students.

“There have long been calls for policymakers to consider alternative approaches, particularly those that address the social determinants of crime and violence,” his study says.

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“However, the traditional reactive law enforcement approach predominates, while problem-solving measures are lacking to tackle root causes and minimize risk factors. The absence of a systematic … approach results in fragmented responses that mostly address the symptoms of deeper social problems.”

In Wolfville, where Acadia’s 3,000 students make up half the town’s population during the academic year, local residents have long complained about their young neighbours routinely making life miserable.

“These nuisance issues range from loud and raucous parties and public drunkenness to vandalism and trespassing,” the study says. “Late-night disturbances, often resulting from students transitioning from bars to residential areas, are a common occurrence. More concerning is intimidating and harassing behaviour fuelled by excessive drinking.”

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In 2011, a first-year Acadia student died after a night of heavy drinking. And a report that year on alcohol harms in selected Nova Scotia towns cited an RCMP estimate that one-third of their calls in Wolfville were alcohol-related.

“This is attributed to a culture of binge drinking among students,” the report says. “Kings District RCMP officials and victims’ advocates … attest that liquor is a significant risk factor for gendered-based violence, including domestic and sexualized violence.”

Again, Schneider’s report cites the Mass Casualty Commission, which concluded that violence against women has become a national epidemic.

“Wolfville is at an elevated risk of sexualized violence,” the study says. “Post-secondary students have higher rates of sexualized violence relative to the general population, which is compounded by the availability of alcohol.”

In October 2021, the RCMP confirmed that arrests were made and fines were handed to students who gathered by the hundreds to party on the town’s streets. At the time, a university spokesman said the institution was “deeply disappointed” in the conduct of students who “gathered noisily” and damaged property.

“The issues faced by Wolfville are common in many college towns and cities that host large student populations,” Schneider’s study says. It attributes the poor behaviour among post-secondary students, in part, to the intense pressures they face.

“Because of the COVID-19 epidemic and additional stressors such as toxic social media, the number of people suffering from anxiety and depression has mushroomed in recent years,” the report says, adding that millennials and generation Z are also facing stagnant wages, a lower standard of living, affordability issues, cellphone addictions, cyberbullying, a synthetic drug epidemic and the climate change crisis.

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“These issues have taken a toll, creating a dystopian vision of their future and contributing to a mental health epidemic among young people.”

The town has responded by establishing committees to control high-risk off-campus events. And Acadia is doing more to support students’ mental health and address sexualized violence, the report says.

As a result, the town’s relationship with the university has improved, the town said in an information report. “While road safety continues to be a major concern for our community, nuisance party issues have declined thanks to a community safety approach and harm reduction strategies,” the report says.

Schneider’s study says the town should consider establishing a five-year pilot project that would apply a “community safety and wellness model,” which he described as a community-based alternative to the RCMP.

The project would be led by an independent non-profit society, which would include a crime prevention working group, a social development working group and a community navigator. The crime prevention group would include representatives from the town, Acadia University, the Acadia Students’ Union, the RCMP, the provincial Justice Department, licensed establishments and property owners.

Town council is expecting a final report from Schneider this spring before it takes any action.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 8, 2024.


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