Student signs at Friday’s walkout. Blue paint was used to show solidarity with Grade 8 student, Claire Kelly, who was injured at the school on Tuesday, May 28. Blue is Kelly’s favourite colour.Lauren Phillips, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Students at Astral Drive Junior High in Cole Harbour walked out of class Friday morning to protest feeling unsafe, following a recent violent altercation that happened between students in a washroom on Tuesday, May 28. The school was placed in a hold and secure that afternoon while the injured student, Claire Kelly, was removed and placed in a safe room to wait for her family and the RCMP. But, the school’s principal didn’t tell families that a fight had happened until three days later.  

Ava Merrick is a student organizer of Friday’s walkout. Merrick, Grade 9, said this is not the first time this has happened at the school. “This happened many times last year,” she said. “People feel very unsafe to go to the bathroom and walk around, and we’re sick of it.” 

At 9:35am, students wearing blue shirts, blue painted handprints on their arms and legs and blue dots on their faces, walked out en masse with a handful of parents joining them outside the school doors. Blue is Kelly’s favourite colour. 

Following the morning exit, the student march split into two groups, eventually occupying space on two heavily trafficked streets, Caldwell Road and Cole Harbour Road, as cars and trucks drove by honking in support. Students held signs saying, “We Don’t Feel Safe At Astral Drive,” “School Is For Learning,” and “Listen To What We’re Saying.”

Merrick doesn’t feel like her school principal is doing enough to keep students safe at school, hence the walkout.

“We’re thinking that if we can get enough talk about how students are feeling unsafe… they’re going to have to act on it.”

On Tuesday, May 28, Astral Drive Junior High administration put the school into a hold and secure following the altercation that injured one student around 2pm. Merrick was in math class at the time and didn’t know what was happening. The announcement came over the school’s public address–or PA–system. Her teacher locked the door. That meant students were no longer allowed to leave the class until the hold and secure was lifted. The RCMP were at the school shortly thereafter. Word quickly spread among students after they were allowed back into the hallways that a fight had happened at the school. 

Kelly is a Grade 8 student. Shortly before the end of the school day on May 28, she went to the washroom where she was confronted by another student who barred the door to prevent Kelly from leaving. As Kelly tried to get away, things became violent and Kelly ended up on the ground, injured and screaming for help. This first drew a friend from outside the washroom, and then teachers and staff who were able to separate the other student from Kelly and take her to a safe room. During this time, the rest of the school got the announcement they were in a hold and secure. 

Merrick said that the student who injured Kelly has been in nearly 10 altercations at Astral Drive Junior High resulting in other students being injured. According to Merrick, as well as parents and students at Friday’s protest, this student is not supposed to be left unsupervised. 

However, Kelly’s mom, Wendy, said washrooms are tricky. Wendy said she understands that students can’t be accompanied into washrooms, however wonders why staff can’t tell other students to wait to go inside the washroom until this student has left, in order to keep a safe distance?

Following Kelly’s removal to a safe room on Tuesday, Wendy and her husband, Evan, quickly came to the school to make sure their daughter was OK. An RCMP officer joined the parents to take Kelly’s statement and photograph her injuries.

It was around the time Kelly was giving her statement to the RCMP that Lisa Vaughan, the school principal, sent her first email to Astral Drive families, without mentioning that a student had been injured by another student. 

In the email, Vaughan wrote that the school was in a hold and secure “for about 15 minutes this afternoon,” which was called “to ensure privacy and safety as a member of our school community was experiencing distress.” Vaughan said that “emergency services were on site to offer support” and that students stayed in their classes “and learning continued as the situation was managed,” with routines resumed and dismissal taking place as usual.

Wendy said that, yes, RCMP officers were at the school to take her daughter’s statement but when they asked if Kelly and her family had wanted to call Emergency Health Services “to check for a concussion because she did have a bump on her head,” Kelly said she felt OK and so they didn’t. Her family did take her to the hospital later that night because “her foot swelled and she had a really bad headache,” said Wendy, but that doesn’t explain why Vaughan had emailed parents what she had.

“They were lying about what happened,” said Merrick. “There was no mention of a fight.”

This was the first of a few emails families would receive from Vaughan following the backlash from students and families who learned that they had been uninformed.

Wendy said she didn’t fully read the first email because she was focused on her daughter. She just skimmed the beginning, which mentioned the hold and secure, and didn’t realize that her daughter had been left out until later when another Astral Drive parent posted the email on Facebook. 

Wendy said another parent posted on Facebook that what the school was saying happened wasn’t the full story. Wendy hadn’t been sure whether she wanted to share her daughter’s story, but once that post happened, “I said, ‘That’s the opportunity,’ and I posted my story–that it was my daughter and this is her story.”

On Friday morning, after a majority of Grade 8 students, with supporters from other grades, walked out of school, a second email was sent to families. 

At 10:30am, Vaughan wrote that “in recent days, I have heard from many of you expressing concerns about safety in our school,” and confirmed that “an incident took place on Tuesday.”

“Like all unacceptable behaviours, this incident is being addressed in accordance with the Provincial School Code of Conduct Policy.”

She wrote, “I know it’s frustrating that I am not able to provide details, but I assure you that safety of all students and staff is our highest priority, and that all incidents are taken seriously. Violent behaviour is never tolerated.

“I am also aware that some students are planning to leave school property today. Please know that students who have parent(s)/guardian(s) permission to participate in a walkout will be permitted to leave school,” and that “if students leave school, they will be entered as absent in PowerSchool and families will be notified. However, Vaughan wrote that “if students return following a walkout, they will be welcomed back to class,” and said “we are committed to ensuring a safe and inclusive space for every student and staff member.”

For all of Friday, nearly one hundred students stood on Caldwell Road and Cole Harbour Road, wearing blue, holding signs and hearing the honks of passing cars in support. 

Just after 3:30pm that afternoon, Vaughan sent a third email to families. It reads that, “since my earlier update, I have heard from a number of you and wanted to provide additional information to everyone.

“On Tuesday, an act of physical violence took place at our school. Following this incident, we placed the school in a brief hold and secure as staff dealt with [the students in question.]

“This was a serious incident, and I want to assure you that the individual involved has received serious and immediate consequences as per the Provincial School Code of Conduct.

“Today’s student walkout tells us that many are not feeling safe at school – and we do not take this lightly. We have been working closely with staff from the Halifax Regional Centre for Education [HRCE] staff on next steps.

“On Monday, we will have additional support from HRCE to support school staff as they hear from students. Our goal is to work together to increase students’ sense of safety at school.”

Two minutes after this email was sent to families of Astral Drive students, Lindsey Bunin, communications officer for the HRCE, emailed The Coast returning a request for confirmation on Tuesday’s altercation. 

Bunin’s email closely echoes Vaughan’s words, saying “we recognize that it is frustrating when schools are unable to provide details due to privacy, but we can assure the community that this was a serious incident, and serious and immediate consequences are in place in accordance with the Provincial School Code of Conduct Policy.” Bunin also confirmed that HRCE staff will be at Astral Drive on Monday to “hear students’ concerns and determine what is needed to increase students’ sense of safety at school.”

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Kelly was with her peers on Friday on Caldwell Street, wearing blue. She still has a bruised eye and is walking with a limp. Her and her mom said they don’t want the student who injured her to return to school once their suspension ends because they don’t trust that it won’t happen again, or that there are supports in place to make sure it doesn’t.
The RCMP say the investigation is ongoing.
Student organizer of the walkout, Merrick, said this is not about one incident or even one student. She said she thinks the school should be telling parents every time a fight happens, and not just mentioning that a hold and secure happened. “If I were a parent at the school, I would want to know.”  Merrick said she’s been placed in five hold and secures since beginning Grade 7 at Astral Drive, with most happening last year.

“I want the school to be safe because we have to go there every day,” said Merrick. “A lot of people can’t learn properly and get the education that they want, if they don’t feel secure and safe. 

“And it can be really stressful because…the hold and secures are really stressful–everybody’s talking about them and it’s a lot–and you never know what could happen in the hallway. You could look at someone the wrong way, and they could just start punching you. 

“I want to get the point across to the school that they’re not doing much to help us right now and I really want them to be able to help people and just listen, because they don’t really listen to us.”

Merrick said individual teachers at the school are trying to help, like her French teacher who has suggested that students go to the washroom in pairs to feel safer. But Merrick said the principal has not signed on to this idea yet, and doesn’t feel like there’s a reliable plan in place to make the school feel safe when the student who injured Kelly returns after their suspension.

Wendy said another element is that students are still having to participate in school as usual despite them worrying about their safety every day. “She has grad in two weeks, but she also has exams,” said Wendy. “If she doesn’t go to her exams, what happens to her grade?”

Wendy said she’s gathering stories from other parents, through Facebook or ones shared with her in person, to take to the HRCE’s Public Engagement Session happening online, on the evening of Tuesday, June 4. 

She said she will be talking about her own daughter’s experience at the school, expressing the frustrations she emailed the afternoon following Kelly’s violent altercation to the Astral Drive school supervisor, Debbie Metherall, who is an HRCE employee. 

In that email to Metherall, Wendy wrote that “other parents have reached out to me and expressed their concerns as well, and the students are all just tired. They do not feel safe at school…” She wrote that the school administration isn’t telling her what will happen with the student who injured her daughter, and calls the administration’s response, of “my hands are tied, 100% inexcusable.”

She ended the email saying that her daughter now has to decide how to engage with the RCMP and potentially go to court to keep herself safe, which “should not have happened in the first place, and that this puts no trust in HRCE or the school system.”

On Monday morning, another walkout is scheduled to happen among students, families and supporters, dubbed the “HRM School Walk Out,” to begin at 9:30am outside of the HRCE building at 33 Spectacle Lake Dr. in Dartmouth.

By Lauren Phillips, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 02, 2024 at 13:39

This item reprinted with permission from   Coast Reporter   Sechelt, British Columbia

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