Education minister Becky Druhan had an opportunity to address larger issues of violence in our schools and lack of mental health supports. Instead, she retreated into bland obfuscation and deflection
I have no doubt Becky Druhan is a smart person, more than capable of standing her ground, holding her own in the cut and thrust of public debate.
After she was elected to the Nova Scotia legislature as the MLA for Lunenburg West in the summer of 2021, Premier Tim Houston immediately appointed her minister of education and early childhood education. Before that, Druhan had worked as a lawyer and served as program coordinator for the Victorian Order of Nurses. According to her official legislature biography, she has had “experience in many provincial systems and services, including health care, transportation, justice and community services [and] developed innovative programs and led organizational change…”
And so on and so forth.
So why then did Druhan sound like a poorly programmed artificial intelligence chatbot on annoying repeat during an interview with CBC Information Morning’s Portia Clarke last Tuesday?
The 10-minute-43-second interview followed a widely-reported stabbing the day before at Bedford’s Charles P. Allen High School. Three people, two staff members and a 15-year-old student, were taken to hospital, and the school was shut down for the day.
After summarizing what had been publicly reported to date, Clarke asked the minister: “Beyond what I just said there, what can you tell us about what happened yesterday at C. P. Allen?”
Druhan replied with what sounded like a rehearsed talking points memo:
Well, we know that a serious violent incident occurred. It was contained by staff. They acted promptly, and we thank our staff and our students for responding in accordance with their training, and contacting authorities… Everyone in the community is impacted, and I want them to know that we are supporting them in their recovery.
Those talking points became a mantra for the rest of the interview, even when Clarke asked specific questions, such as even about the conditions of those who’d been injured:
The focus today, absolutely, at C. P. Allen is supporting that community to recover and to heal. And so, we have support plans in place. This morning, we have professionals and a crisis team at the school supporting the staff, both in their recovery and in preparation for the return of students this afternoon… School psychologists, social workers, and counsellors will be there and available for individual and small group sessions, for anyone who wants those. And staff are prepared to support and debrief, but we also have additional supports available for them as well.
Yes, but… Clarke tried again. “What about the people who were injured? Do you have anything that you can share about how they’re doing?”
No, she couldn’t speak to “their individual circumstances,” she said, adding blandly and unhelpfully: “But I can say that the department has been keeping me updated, and my heart is with them.”
There were other moments in the interview when Clarke posed different questions, but Druhan inevitably pivoted back to her pre-programmed comfort zone.
I want to keep the focus today — because this is such an exceptional and traumatic incident — on how we’re supporting our C. P. Allen family to recover. And I want to assure them that that’s the focus right now today at the school.
Near the end of the interview, Clarke tried again, asking Druhan an open-ended “What are your questions top of mind at this point?”
Once again, Druhan passed on the opportunity to make even a glancing mention of issues like violence in schools and a lack of mental health supports for students — both of which Clarke had attempted to raise earlier — and returned to her talking points:
So, my focus right now at this point is making sure that what our C. P. Allen students, families, staff, and broader community need to heal and recover from this, is in place and happening. That’s my focus.
So, let’s circle back for a moment to one of those other issues Clarke tried to raise and the ways in which Druhan didn’t answer:
Clarke: Is it the first ever attack on school staff in the province that’s involved a weapon, that you know of, Minister?
Druhan: The reality is that our schools are elements of our community. We don’t live in bubbles, and neither are our schools bubbles. But I can say that school safety is our utmost priority. Incidents like this are incredibly rare, but our schools do prepare for them. And so, I can say that this is very much a focus to make sure that we’re ready in the event that these incidents do happen.
Clarke: And when you say rare, do you know whether it’s the first time that this has happened or it’s one of a few incidents?
Druhan: I’m not aware of any other incidents in which something like this has happened.
I’m sure one could parse “something like this” into an accurate answer — something like no other violent incident in which two staff members were stabbed by one student at C. P. Allen on a Monday morning in March — but then Clarke followed up with recent specific examples:
In February, police charged a student at Bedford and Forsyth Education Centre in Dartmouth who’s suspected of having a replica gun at school and two knives. A young person was stabbed at a fight outside of Halifax West, I think it was in October. What are your thoughts about these reports of weapons in or at schools?
Druhan: Yeah, so our communities, we don’t live in bubbles, and neither are our schools bubbles. So, schools are part of and a reflection of our community…
And so on, and so forth.
In fact, as the CBC reported the next day — and the minister almost certainly already knew — “Halifax Regional Police have been called to schools, or near schools, because of violent incidents involving students 424 times since 2018, according to data provided by police. Charges were laid in 77 of those incidents.”
That same day, the Halifax RCMP arrested two young people after a staff member at Leslie Thomas Junior High in Lower Sackville confiscated a knife from a youth.
Druhan’s interview with Clarke could have been an opportunity for the minister to address what the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union would refer to as “a teacher’s worst fear and certainly a parent’s worst fear.”
Instead, it became yet another excuse for obfuscation and deflection.
A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner.
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