Nova Scotia

Staff not equipped to deal with rising violence in N.S. schools: auditor general

Nova Scotia's auditor general Kim Adair says there has been a significant increase in the number of violent incidents being reported by schools across the province, but suggests the actual number is higher because school staff are not reporting every incident.

Kim Adair says full extent of the problem not known due to poor data collection

A woman sits in front of a microphone, with Nova Scotia flags visible in the background.
Auditor General Kim Adair released her report on violence in schools on Tuesday. (Robert Short/CBC)

The observations in the latest report by Nova Scotia's auditor general likely won't come as a surprise to those who work in the province's public school system but may be eye-opening to those with school-aged children.

Violence at schools is on the rise, but the full extent of the problem is not known "due to significant data collection weaknesses," according to the report released Tuesday by Kim Adair. 

Among those weaknesses: 

  • The need to better define what constitutes a violent act
  • Making sure teachers and other staff consistently report acts of violence
  • A requirement that regional centres of education provide adequate staff training and track incidents to identify possible trends

The report found the province didn't even have a clear definition of violence in schools, with the Department of Education's code of conduct using the term "unacceptable behaviours." 

The auditor general found the number of violent incidents reported by school staff has increased 60 per cent in the last seven years. There were 27,000 incidents reported last year, compared to 17,000 in the 2016-17 school year. 

Adair singled out the department as part of the problem for having "an inadequate focus on preventing and addressing violence in schools."  

"It's essentially tone at the top," Adair told reporters Tuesday. 

She said the department "didn't seem to be focusing on it as an important issue that needed to be addressed" and she called for "strong leadership."

Adair recommended a provincewide strategy to address violence in schools.

"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," Adair said. 

"The positive thing from our report today is that we can draw attention to it and say, all right, it's time to make this a priority."

Minister says work underway

Although Education Minister Becky Druhan didn't directly dispute the auditor general's assertion about her department's lack of focus on the issue, she painted a different picture of its response.

"I would say there's a significant focus on addressing violence in schools now," said Druhan. "We've been doing this work for some time now."

Druhan said she sent a message to everyone working in the public school system last November to impress upon them the importance of reporting violent acts, to talk about the government's plans to update the provincial school code of conduct and to improve the data collection system tor tracking violent incidents.

"The recommendations that the auditor general has made are reassuring, in that they are very much in line with the work that we've undertaken to make these improvements," Druhan said.

A woman stands near bookcases.
Becky Druhan is Nova Scotia's minister of education. (CBC)

In another key finding, Adair noted school staff are "not adequately supported to manage violence in the workplace."

"We concluded educators in schools in Nova Scotia are at high risk of experiencing violence in the workplace," said the report.

As part of its audit, the auditor general's office sent surveys to all school staff in the province — 18,000 in all. The office received 5,200 responses.

"Sixty five per cent of educators who responded to our survey indicated they witnessed or experienced violence in schools at least weekly when responding to our province-wide survey, with 31 per cent indicating they experience violence in schools daily."

Union supports provincial strategy

Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, welcomed the report and its findings.

The union will work with the province, communities, and parents and guardians to make schools safer, he said in a news release.

"The NSTU has long maintained that incidents of violence in schools are underreported and that a provincial strategy is necessary to properly address the problem," the release said. 

Teachers don't have the support they need to deal with rising school violence. That's just one finding from Auditor General Kim Adair's latest report. Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Ryan Lutes joins us to talk to us about the findings.

The Department of Education has agreed to all the recommendations and promised to put them in place by the start of the 2025 school year.

Opposition reaction

Opposition party MLAs are concerned the Houston government isn't moving quickly enough to address the issues highlighted in the report.

Liberal Braedon Clark said the province has already been working on a code of conduct for almost a year and he's concerned that it's going to take another 12 to 15 months.

"There's thousands of incidents happening in schools and I think we need to get on that quicker, resource it better," he said. 

New Democrat Suzy Hansen is also worried about "foot dragging" by the party in power.

"This is an extreme issue that we've known [about] for at least a decade," said Hansen. "These things need to be done."

Researcher says Nova Scotia not alone in having school violence problem

1 month ago
Duration 5:07
Tracy Vaillancourt is the Canada Research Chair in School-Based Mental Health and Violence Prevention at the University of Ottawa. She says violence in schools is not often reported and when it is, it is often suppressed.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter since 1987. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.

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