Almost 90% of N.S. teachers believe school violence on the rise: survey

Click to play video: 'Teachers Union Calling for Safety and Support'
Teachers Union Calling for Safety and Support
Global’s Eilish Bonang sits down with NSTU President, Ryan Lutes, to talk about safety concerns in Nova Scotia classrooms and the union’s call on the government to step up funding and supports – Apr 3, 2023

A new survey from the Nova Scotia Teachers Union indicates most of the province’s teachers believe school violence is on the rise, and more than half have been the victim of a violent act or threat while at work.

In a release, the union said 87 per cent of teachers and educational specialists who responded to the survey believe school violence increased since 2018, and 92 per cent said they’ve witnessed violence first-hand at school.

As well, 55 per cent of respondents said they were the victim of a violent act or threat while at work.

“All too often I receive phone calls and emails from teachers who are upset and concerned about a violent event they witnessed or experienced at school,” said NSTU president Ryan Lutes in a statement.

“Incidents between students are becoming more frequent, more severe and alarmingly more dangerous. Teachers and school staff members are often kicked, bit, hit, punched, threatened and verbally abused.

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“Unfortunately, these incidents frequently go unaddressed or are characterized as just part of going to school. This is unacceptable.”

Click to play video: 'Halifax student calls for more mental health supports in wake of high school stabbing'
Halifax student calls for more mental health supports in wake of high school stabbing

The online survey was conducted between March 27 and April 13, and a total of 2,534 NSTU members completed it. There are more than 9,000 total NSTU members in the province.

A further 52 per cent of respondents said they were “very concerned” about the current level of violence in their school, and 38 per cent said they were “somewhat concerned.”

In an interview, Lutes said the results of the survey are “absolutely really concerning.”

“It’s really troubling, and at the same time, it’s not a surprise from the conversations that I’ve had with teachers,” he said. “The conversations anecdotally and the evidence we’re getting from the survey are matching up.”

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Of the respondents who witnessed violence in schools, 84 per cent said the incident involved student-toward-student violence, and 79 per cent witnessed violence from students toward teachers or school staff.

Twenty-one per cent said they witnessed violence from other adults — such as a parent or caregiver — toward school staff. Respondents were allowed to choose more than one option.

Only 17 of the teachers surveyed — less than one per cent — believed that violence levels in schools were on the decline.

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.

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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:

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  • 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.

The issue of violence in schools was pushed further into the spotlight last month, after two staff members were stabbed at Charles P. Allen High School in the community of Bedford.

The 15-year-old student accused in the stabbings was charged with two counts of attempted murder and was recently found to be fit to stand trial.

Lutes said violence in schools has long been an “evolving conversation” among teachers, but the recent incident at Charles P. Allen High “highlighted the issue.”

That “made us want to get more data from our members about what they’re seeing on the ground in schools every day,” he said.

Last month, Global News spoke with a former educational program assistant, who recently quit due to burnout and said staff are ill-equipped to deal with violent incidents involving students.

Click to play video: 'Former Halifax education worker speaks out on school violence'
Former Halifax education worker speaks out on school 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.

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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 were excluded from that data as they are covered by another insurer.

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.

Click to play video: 'Halifax police detail ‘traumatic’ school stabbing after student charged with attempted murder'
Halifax police detail ‘traumatic’ school stabbing after student charged with attempted murder

Lutes, the NSTU president, said violence in schools is a “complex issue,” and he believes part of it stems from a lack of support for students.

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“Our classrooms in schools have become more complex, and staffing in our schools has not kept up with that complexity,” he said.

“I’ve got to believe, as a teacher and as a dad, that most students, if they are being violent in our schools, they don’t want to be. They are reaching out for help, they’re reaching out for support that they’re not getting.”

Lutes is calling on the provincial government to do more to address school violence. He said the union has shared the information gathered through the survey with the province and is prepared to work with the government.

“We need a wholesale, provincial-wide, all-hands-on deck approach to this, because we can’t have kids learning in schools that aren’t safe, and we can’t have teachers and school staff working in schools that aren’t safe,” he said.

‘Any violent incident in a school is concerning’

In a statement, Education Minister Becky Druhan said the province is committed to ensuring school safety by “providing foundations to strong relationships, maintaining the code of conduct, and through a commitment to continuous improvement.”

She said she met with the NSTU regarding the survey results, and will continue to work with the union, the Nova Scotia Public School Administrators Association, and other organizations.

“Any violent incident in a school is concerning for students, staff, and families. Schools reflect their communities, and the challenges of the communities make their way into schools,” she said. “We can’t separate schools from their communities. What we can do is continue to provide programs, resources, and professional supports to help teachers and other staff to help children.”

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Druhan said the province has added wraparound supports, with more than 1,000 inclusive education programs and positions to the public school system over the last five years, including behaviour and autism specialists, school psychologists, social workers, and mental health clinicians.

“We will continue to support the professional learning of teachers and provide training to respond to complex needs and individual circumstances,” Druhan said.

Last month, Druhan told Global News 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.

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.

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