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20K incidents of physical violence reported in N.S. schools this year; COVID-19 and cellphones partly to blame

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School-based violence is again in the spotlight in Nova Scotia.

The Standing Committee on Public Accounts reviewed the recent auditor general’s report on preventing and addressing violence in Nova Scotia schools.

Witnesses include the deputy minister of education and early childhood development, as well as representatives from the Halifax Regional Centre for Education, the Conseil Scolaire Acadien Provincial (CSAP), the chair of the Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU).

“The NSTU is eager to collaborate on a decisive and urgent plan to address and prevent school violence and to make our schools safe for our teachers and their students,” said president Ryan Lutes.

Lutes notes 30 per cent of educators reported seeing or experiencing violence at school. The auditor general’s report also says there has been a 60 per cent increase in reported school violence since 2017.

The Nova Scotia Standing Committee on Public Accounts is pictured. (Source: Jonathan MacInnis/CTV News Atlantic)

According to statistics provided by the province up to June 6, 20,346 incidents of physical violence have been reported across Nova Scotia.

Broken down by grade:

  • P-6 - 15,925
  • 7-9 - 3,285
  • 10-12 - 1,136

Auditor General Kim Adair has said those numbers are low due to a lack of reporting.

“Increasing school violence has become perhaps the single most pressing issue for our teachers. Children only have one chance to be kids. If they aren’t provided with safe and healthy learning environments, it can profoundly and negatively impact their development,” Lutes says.

Scott Armstrong is chair of the Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia, as well as a former Member of Parliament and school principal.

During an interview with CTV Atlantic's Todd Battis Wednesday, he said the biggest impact in the high school level is social media.

"Many of our members across the province have told us that when they investigate some issue that's taken place between two students, a lot of it is rooted in social media," he said.

"Which is where we believe the cellphone directive that was put out last month... that is going to be a help."

Where members are really seeing a difference is at the lower elementary level. He says the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be at least partly to blame for that.

"There's growing evidence now, empirical evidence, that shows something happened during the pandemic in terms of socialization of our lowest elementary students in the system where they missed out on something," explained Armstrong.

"And we're seeing behaviours at the lower elementary level, not just in Nova Scotia but across North America and even internationally, where we're seeing behaviours from very young students that we haven't seen before. And the systems are struggling to come to grips with that of, how do we respond to issues involving the very youngest and most vulnerable students in the school?"

The Nova Scotia Standing Committee on Public Accounts is pictured. (Source: Jonathan MacInnis/CTV News Atlantic)

Overcrowding is another factor being addressed. Over the last five years in Halifax alone, 9,000 new students have enrolled in schools. Five new schools have been built, three are under construction and four others are on the way.

The HRCE has a growth team that is looking at all future options, including the possibility of incorporating schools within high rise developments.

"Our planners are looking at other jurisdictions, particularly very big cities like New York or Singapore, where the schools are actually in the apartment buildings," said regional executive director Steve Gallagher.

The deputy minister of education says changes are coming, starting with a new student code of conduct.

Originally the plan was to have a new student code of conduct in place by 2025 but the timeline has been sped up. The goal is now to have a draft copy by the end of this coming September.

With files from CTV Atlantic's Todd Battis and The Canadian Press

For more Nova Scotia news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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