Ottawa-area Catholic and independent schools, students and police work to create a safe learning environment in a digital age by being proactive – and innovative
The survivors said they never saw it coming.
On a cold October morning in 1975, 18-year-old Robert Poulin finished a peanut butter sandwich, grabbed the sawed-off shotgun he had bought at Giant Tiger, and went to school.
In his basement bedroom, the body of a female friend whose life he had taken earlier that morning was still handcuffed to his bed.
When he reached St. Pius X, he readied his gun, took a breath and kicked open the door to a Grade 13 religion class and fired shot after shot, wounding six people, one of whom would die a month later. Poulin then put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.
It was one of the first such shootings in Canada and the only one to occur in Ottawa. There have been at least nine school shootings in Canada since 1974.
And recently, parents were shocked to learn of a shooting at a Gatineau daycare that left two men dead.
Fortunately, none of the 53 children at the daycare were hurt, but it is one more troubling incident that leads parents to question whether schools are safe.
As Ottawa Parenting Times Magazine has learned, Ottawa-area schools, public and independent, take school safety and security seriously.
“Many different emergencies can happen,” says Lucie Lalonde, the founding director of Académie de la Capitale, an Ottawa independent school that offers an International Baccalaureate program.
They have cameras set up by the entrances and the doors are locked so visitors must be buzzed into the building.
They also have an intensive series of emergency procedures that were designed by an independent security expert.
The plan covers anything, from a student bringing in a weapon, to a car crashing into the school.
Lalonde and another staff member are also trained in Violence, Threat, and Risk Assessment protocol, essentially a form of data-profiling.
Information is shared between community agencies, such as CHEO and Ottawa Police regarding students exhibiting troubling behaviour. Not only does it help prevent the behaviours from escalating, it gets the troubled student timely help.
“If you have a student that threatens the group, you need to follow up on that student,” says Lalonde. It’s a proactive approach, and with school safety, proactive is the golden rule, as the world continuously evolves.
Ottawa Police Const. Carrie Archibald is a School Resource Officer for Ottawa West. These officers are a consistent and visible presence in schools, which helps build rapport with students.
“They get to know us, we get to know them,” she says, adding the relationship extends past the school yard. “If you have a kid having problems at home, you can work with that family,” she says.
Each officer is responsible for between 15-17 schools. These schools can be French, English, independent or part of any Ottawa school board.
Archibald has noted some disturbing trends in today’s students.
“We’ve noticed a lot of sexting and cyber-bullying,” she says.
Archibald put together a presentation for schools because these issues are becoming more prevalent.
“They don’t understand the impact sexting can have, or the impact cyber-bullying can have,” Archibald says.
The Ottawa community was rocked when Kanata teen Jamie Hubley recently took his own life. Bullying, at school and online, was said to be one factor.
Peter Atkinson, superintendent with the Ottawa Catholic School Board, agrees the Internet is a growing cause of concern.
“There’s a whole area of school safety that really focuses on keeping kids safe in the fast-growing world of social media,” he says.
The OCSB identifies three areas of safety and security concerns, one of which is social media.
Another is monitoring and restricting who has access to their schools. Schools are monitored by cameras and doors are locked, meaning visitors must enter via controlled access points.
And should an unwelcome guest enter a school?
“We have a number of protocols for dealing with any kind of emergency situation in the building,” says Atkinson.
If someone who shouldn’t be in the building gains access, a secure schools procedure is implemented.
This means all external doors are locked while the person is searched for, but classes continue as normal.
Then there is a school lockdown, where all doors are locked and teachers take the necessary precautions to ensure their students are safe, such as turning off lights and shepherding them into the safest area of the classroom.
“A lockdown is used when there is an active threat, a very real and imminent threat to the school,” he says. Both procedures are routinely practiced during the year.
The second tier of concern is student behaviour, such as bullying.
There are many measures the ministry has legislated with regards to school behaviour, including progressive discipline.
If a student commits an offense, the first step is to talk it out with that student and provide coaching. If that student continues to transgress, the school may bring parents in, give detentions, or further discipline.
“We try very much to make the consequences fit the indiscretion,” says Atkinson. For example, if a student bullies, that student will have to complete activities geared towards building constructive relationships.
“We really feel as a Catholic board, we have a mission to also restore broken relationships.”
To that end, the board uses restorative circles, where students get together with students they have wronged, often with teachers and family present, and make restitution by asking forgiveness or doing community service, among other things.
And it’s not just faculty and police who are being proactive.
The students at St. Pius X, the scene of such a tragedy a generation ago, recently proposed the idea of introducing an application for mobile devices that would allow students to anonymously report instances of concern, such as bullying or threats of violence.
Atkinson says it’s a brilliant idea, and adds it’s important everyone becomes involved in making schools safer.
“I strongly believe that safety and security are a shared responsibility,” he says. “They are shared by the entire school community; the staff, the administrators, the students and the parents as well.”
by Chris Hunt
Photo: Billie MacDonald