Halifax student charged with attempted murder as debate grows over school violence
HALIFAX — A 15-year-old student was charged with two counts of attempted murder Tuesday after two staff members at a Halifax-area high school were stabbed the day before.
Halifax Regional Police issued a statement Tuesday saying the two victims — both employees of Charles P. Allen High School in the Bedford area — were listed in serious but stable condition in hospital.
Police said the accused was also treated in hospital for stab wounds, but there was no indication of how he received those injuries.
They confirmed the boy was also charged with two counts of aggravated assault, possession of a dangerous weapon, carrying a concealed weapon, possession of a prohibited weapon and knowingly possessing an unauthorized weapon.
No details were released about the type of weapon used, but at least one witness reported seeing the suspect fleeing the school with a knife before he was cornered by police.
The teenager appeared in Halifax youth court on Tuesday morning with a bandage on the front of his neck, as the reading of charges was waived and a bail hearing was set for Thursday.
He didn't speak but appeared calm, and as he left the room his mother touched her heart and gestured her hand towards him. The Youth Criminal Justice Act prohibits publication of his identity or details that could identify him.
Terry Nickerson, a youth Crown prosecutor, told the court that he expected the boy would be subjected to a psychiatric assessment.
Outside the courtroom, the prosecutor said the Crown had given notice it will seek an adult penalty, while noting it was early in the proceedings.
Education expert Paul Bennett said reports of violent incidents in schools appear to be on the rise across Canada, and Nova Scotia is no exception.
Bennett, an education professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, cited recently released statistics from the province's Education Department, which revealed 13,776 reports of physical violence in schools for primary to Grade 12 during 2021-22. That’s up from 11,240 incidents in 2020-21, an increase of 22.6 per cent.
Bennett, director of the independent Schoolhouse Institute, said school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic affected both academic years, but the trend is consistent when compared with data from previous years.
"Fists and knives have reappeared in Canada's high schools in the wake of the pandemic shutdowns, and violence is now commonplace in today's classrooms, hallways, fields and parking lots," he said in an interview Tuesday. "It's a longer-term pattern."
Bennett said he believes the problem is "soft-on-discipline policies" that have left teachers feeling powerless to manage misbehaving students.
Becky Druhan, Nova Scotia's education minister, said she was not aware of any significant increase in reports of violence in schools, but “whether there’s a rise in violence or not, safety is always a priority." The minister said the data she's seen shows that over the last five years, reports of violent incidents have remained relatively stable.
"There is so much embedded in that data," she said. "Not only do we see unusual and very serious incidents like the one yesterday ... but also in the data are arguments on the playground between children ... and that turns into pushing. So extrapolating from that to the current circumstance is really dangerous."
Halifax regional police Chief Dan Kinsella said he considers this type of violent incident "very uncommon." Still, he said police "are seeing indicators (of violence in schools) across the country that would cause us to be concerned."
Lindsey Bunin, spokeswoman for the Halifax school authority, echoed the chief’s view that the stabbing was an isolated incident.
"We have heard about the research and data on violence in schools," she told a news conference at the Halifax Regional Centre for Education. "Certainly, our school community is a microcosm of the wider community."
Meanwhile, a staff member at the school said teachers were furious because of what they described as a lack of support from the administration.
"Teachers had the morning to deal with their feelings," said the teacher, who was granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak for the school, one of the largest in the province with 1,700 students in grades 10 to 12.
"A lot of anger being expressed at lack of help and regard for teachers .... Everyone is getting more and more upset. Teachers are shocked that they are expected to be back in the classroom."
The teacher said staff had gathered at the school with the understanding that classes would resume in the afternoon, but classes were cancelled once it became clear the teachers were still upset.
Bunin said a 20-member team of psychologists, counsellors and social workers was at the school to help staff members, but she said the team determined they needed more time to cope, which is why classes were cancelled.
“They (staff) are understandably stressed," she said, adding that 15 students came to school to receive counselling.
Plans were in place to reopen the school on Wednesday, but that plan was "fluid," Bunin said.
As for the victims, the teacher said one of them — a vice-principal — had been texting reassuring messages to staff on Monday morning after a successful surgery, and the other victim — a school secretary — was doing well.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 21, 2023.
— With files from Lyndsay Armstrong.
Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press