Schools in Moncton's west end grapple with vandalism, homeless people on grounds
École Sainte-Bernadette cancelled annual Earth Day cleanup because of discarded needles
The principals of two schools in Moncton say they're concerned about the vandalism, used needles and homeless people they're seeing on school grounds.
At Hillcrest School, principal Laura Small said she has to venture out with another staff member to conduct a sweep of the playground and outdoor space before her K-8 students can use it.
"It's constant," Small said. "There's always something going on."
Small said activity around the school was an issue in the fall and quieted down over the colder winter months. But when the city's downtown emergency shelter closed at the end of March — it immediately restarted.
People have been sleeping rough on school grounds and using it as a "throughway," leaving personal belongings and shopping carts on the property. While much activity is during the evening, it has been extending into daytime hours while school is in session.
WATCH / 'We have to maintain a safe perimeter and a safe space for our students'
Small said she keeps her distance when asking people to move along after interactions that were "worrisome." She calls community safety officers at the city or RCMP if an individual does not leave.
"We're just not sure," she said. "I assume that it's not positive intent, and I assume that they're not well and able, because I need to keep my kids safe.
"We have to maintain a safe perimeter and a safe space for our students. Any strange person on school grounds is a cause for alarm for me."
Outdoor learning impacted
Hillcrest has an outdoor classroom space in the wooded area behind the school, which has become more difficult to access because of people in the space. It's used for a forest school program for kindergarten and Grade 1 students to teach math and literacy through nature.
Two staff members have to sweep the area and set up a taped perimeter that has been cleared each morning.
Teachers have a plan in place for gathering the students and bringing them back to the building in the event someone wanders into the area.
Small said she would like to see security on school grounds or more regular patrols.
"If you were to ask me what keeps me up at night there's only a couple of things in my job right now, and it's one of them," she said.
Stephanie Patterson, a spokesperson for the Anglophone East School District, said its facilities team is in communication with custodial staff from early in the morning until evening custodians leave at around 11 p.m. Dangerous or illegal activity is reported to police.
"Our schools and our office continue to communicate with the RCMP, community organizations and the municipality about the solutions and support they can provide for this ongoing issue," Patterson wrote in an email.
At nearby Ecole Sainte-Bernadette, the annual Earth Day cleanup was a community activity with families gathering to clean up the area near the school around Jones Lake.
But the event was cancelled Friday for the first time over concerns students would come across used needles and other hazardous waste.
Principal Susanne Léger said the decision was preventive, and she didn't want to risk students coming into contact with needles.
"There's so many dangers within the last couple of years, whether it be needles or whatnot that it was just a matter of safety for our families that we weren't able to participate as a school this year," she said.
Léger said there have also been issues with vandalism, broken windows and people sleeping rough in doorways. She's reached out to the mayor to share the reality of running a school in the area.
Discarded needles and people sleeping rough have also been issues at Edith Cavell School downtown.
Both Sainte-Bernadette and Hillcrest are in Moncton's west end, walking distance from the downtown.
While needles haven't been found directly on Sainte-Bernadette's school grounds, staff did come across one on the sidewalk directly in front.
Ensemble Moncton, which offers a needle distribution program, has worked with the city to place sharps collection boxes downtown.
Executive director Debbie Warren said 90 to 95 per cent of needles make it back to the organization.
"I know that at one of the schools, people tend to be tenting there, so they leave them," Warren said. "That's very disconcerting."
City patrols school grounds
The City of Moncton is patrolling school grounds at night when possible and makes community safety bylaw officers available to ask people to leave the property.
Fire Chief Conrad Landry said the city has offered tips to the schools to discourage people from coming, such as increasing lighting and security to make the space uncomfortable to stay at. He said RCMP are also adding patrols based on reports.
When used needles are found on city property, such as sidewalks, the city uses a private contractor to remove them.
Landry said the situation is complex and the issue of homelessness and substance abuse needs to be addressed collectively by the community.
"They need help, that's a long-term solution," he said. "They need housing, they need support. But short term it doesn't help the kid that walks into a playground and finds a needle."