Figures obtained through a freedom of information request show Nova Scotia schools reported 11,240 physical violence incidents between Sept. 2, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
Julian Baird-Calvi admits his first fight during a Friday lunch hour in early September was consensual. But videos of him being attacked by three young men outside the school the following Monday show the 17-year-old being punched repeatedly from all sides and forced to the ground.
“On Monday I tried to go back to school, and I just went out on break after the first class and I just got jumped,” Baird-Calvi said.
Videos of a teen getting jumped outside Dartmouth High this past fall prompted the question: how many violent incidents did Nova Scotia schools see last year? pic.twitter.com/78ll3c7CpC
— chris lambie (@tophlambie) January 5, 2022
He knew his attackers, who also attended Dartmouth High.
‘It was honestly pretty petty’
“They’re friends with this other guy who I had a conflict with,” Baird-Calvi said.
“It was honestly pretty petty. Me and him used to be friends for a long time, and then he stole my girlfriend, so I stole his girlfriend. And then he wanted to fight me, and I wanted to fight him.”
Baird-Calvi said he showed up for the consensual fight stoned on cough syrup. He lost that fight and figured that would end the conflict.
“I thought it was over,” he said.
‘They just kind of jumped on me’
But when he walked out of school the next Monday, another teen approached him and started throwing punches.
“I had to drop my skateboard and I put up some blocks, I guess. I tried to throw a couple of punches back … but then one guy came from behind and pulled me by my backpack to the ground. And then after that, they just kind of jumped on me.”
Two other teens eventually stepped in to stop the violence.
While he had lived in Dartmouth for years, Baird-Calvi had moved to Halifax by that point. “I lived too far,” he said, noting school administrators told him he should be attending class closer to home.
He’s now going to a different school in Bedford.
“I’m actually doing a lot better in school,” Baird-Calvi said.
‘Range in severity’
A document obtained from the province’s Education Department said incidents of physical violence in schools can “range in severity and in the context in which they are reported.”
About three-quarters 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,” it said.
The province’s code of conduct for schools defines physical violence as “using force, gesturing, or inciting others to use force to injure a member of the school community.”
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.
More than 95 per cent of students aren’t getting involved in violent incidents, Druhan said, noting students are reporting in surveys that they feel safe in school.
“No amount of violence is acceptable,” said the Lunenburg West MLA.
“Our goal is to support students and children and young adults to be able to resolve their issues in ways that are pro-social and positive.”
She pointed out that the province has funded an additional 277 inclusive education positions for this school year.
“One example of that is the addition of a role that is the child and youth care practitioner,” Druhan said. “That’s a specialist position and those practitioners are focused on supporting and educating and developing students’ relationship skills.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’
The 11,240 physical violence incidents reported over the 2020-21 school year is “just the tip of the iceberg,” said Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union.
“There’s lots of other violence at schools that goes unreported.”
He’s “deeply concerned, but not surprised” about the level of violence in Nova Scotia schools.
“We have piled work on top of work on top of work for the adults in the system. And they have no time in their day anymore to be out and about in the school in a relational way to provide supervision to kind of recognize where incidents might occur and try to intervene proactively,” Wozney said.
He lists a handful of times in recent years that live weapons have been found in or near metro schools. “It is an absolute miracle that we haven’t had a gun death,” Wozney said.
Druhan — who wouldn’t comment on the possibility of a school shooting — said the province has “realigned staffing to ensure that our teachers are able to focus on teaching and providing the supervision and guidance that they always have. And I think we’re seeing that that’s not leading to any increase in violence.”
Wozney’s daughter, in Grade 9 at Sackville High, told him about a recent brawl in one of the school’s hallways that involved dozens of students. “The teacher locked the door, so the brawl didn’t get into the classroom. So, you’re listening to people scream while they’re getting kicked and punched in the hallway right outside your door with bodies slamming up against a locked door,” he said.
Teachers at Sackville High have told Wozney “you’ll have a mob of 30 kids roaming the hallway, and all of the principal and the vice-principals standing together as a group is not enough to persuade these students to go back to class.”
Attacks on teachers are less common than student-on-student, he said.
‘They can and they do lash out’
But some teachers whose students are cognitively delayed wear bite-resistant sleeves, Wozney said. “They can and they do lash out. Some of those students are biters or hitters or pushers or kickers,” he said. “In extreme cases people wear helmets around certain students.”
Schools are trying to use a trauma-informed approach when dealing with violence, he said.
“A lot of people used to think people being violent was because they were sociopathic or evil — they had a proclivity towards violence and they just wanted to be violent,” Wozney said.
“We understand now — and I think the pandemic has exacerbated this — that violence is a response to trauma or challenging circumstances. We know that the pandemic has driven up rates of domestic violence. It’s more than triple in a lot of cases, depending on the community that you happen to identify as, and kids don’t have safe places to process this stuff.”
He blames staffing shortages for a lot of violence.
“If we had a system where a kid could come to school and say, ‘I just watched my dad beat the living pulp out of my mom last night,’ or, ‘I just watched my brother sexually assault my younger sister’ or whatever, we would have an avenue to process those kinds of feelings.”
But often Nova Scotia schools don’t have places for those conversations to take place or enough people to staff them, Wozney said.
“A lot of kids are triggered. They see something at school, or they experience something at school, and, all of a sudden, someone is a target for my fight-or-flight response to that trigger,” he said.
“The violent person needs compassion because there’s something going on there that needs attention and support and resources to remediate. But because they have been violent, you also have somebody else who’s been traumatized.”
‘Attacked violently in front of their students’
In what Wozney described “as the olden days, a student would be suspended. They would be removed immediately from the classroom and there would be this cooling off period” before the kid who was violent returned to class.
“The break would also have the façade of consequence and deterrent — that the student wouldn’t do it again because they didn’t want to be suspended and miss class and be deprived of privileges and access to friends,” he said.
That’s happening “less and less” now, he said.
Schools used to have places where students could be at school, but not in class, Wozney said. “Those spaces, by and large, are disappearing by the droves because of staffing cuts, particularly in high school. And so, we have teachers who have been attacked violently in front of their students having the student who attacked them show up later the same day, in the same room, with the same group of students. And teachers are being traumatized by that now because they don’t feel safe in their own classrooms.”