Nova Scotia

Cape Breton police defend response to dress code protest at school

Cape Breton regional police say more than a dozen officers responded to a call at Sydney Academy on Thursday for what turned out to be a peaceful student protest over enforcement of the dress code because the nature of the call wasn't immediately apparent.

Students, parents and public say police did not need more than a dozen officers at peaceful protest

At least 15 officers responded when more than 100 students gathered outside the school, but only about 30 took part in a protest over enforcement of the dress code. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Cape Breton regional police say more than a dozen officers responded to a call at Sydney Academy on Thursday for what turned out to be a peaceful student protest over enforcement of the dress code.

They say they responded in those numbers because the nature of the call wasn't immediately apparent.

Students at the protest said the response was far out of proportion to the call and many parents and others on social media agreed.

"We sent our resources based on the information that we received at the time that police were called and that was that there was a large group of upwards of 150 students outside the school and actually filtering onto the street," said Desiree Magnus, the police communications adviser.

"So that was a concern in terms of the safety of the students."

She said police were not told why the crowd had gathered and did not know what they might face upon arrival.

The first officers on the scene found some students were excited and called for backup from the public safety unit to control the crowd and de-escalate, Magnus said.

Once police found out the issue was a matter of school policy, they calmed the students and scaled back their own presence as the crowd shrank, she said.

Protesters kept out of school

About 30 students took part in the protest, while others hung around and waited for their lunch break to end.

At least nine officers had their backs to the entrance, keeping the protesters out of the school.

Magnus said police needed to create a barrier because they weren't sure initially what the students intended to do.

"We didn't know that when we were first called. We were just called to a large crowd with some agitated activity outside the school and just with that size of crowd and the emotions, it's unpredictable what can happen."

Some people have said police were enforcing a school dress code that is primarily aimed at girls, and sexualizes them.

The code requires that "shorts be at least mid-thigh and that t-shirts and blouses provide adequate and suitable coverage (Eg: tank tops, tube tops, thin strapped tops are inappropriate). Midriffs must be covered."

Doug Lionais, whose daughter attends Sydney Academy and was at the protest, said he supports the students in their battle against selective enforcement of a code that targets girls more than boys.

Documents released under freedom of information suggest staff at Sydney Academy were worried a protest over the student dress code in December could have turned violent. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

He also said the police response was excessive.

"Up to 12 cop cars, over 15 officers to protect somebody from bare shoulders and belly buttons," Lionais said.

"This, to me, seems like an extremely egregious overreaction to what was going on at the school."

Magnus said police were not there to enforce the dress code.

Desiree Magnus says to reduce the chances of theft, police recommend vehicles be parked in well-lit areas with surveillance cameras close to pedestrian or vehicle traffic. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"Our response had nothing to do with the school policy," Magnus said.

"That's being dealt with between the students and the school officials. We were simply there for crowd control and public safety."

Some people have said the show of force is a clear sign that Cape Breton regional police should be defunded.

A viability study done for Cape Breton Regional Municipality last year found the police force has more officers per capita than other jurisdictions of its size in Canada.

Earlier this year, the police commissioned a consultant to examine staffing levels and whether some duties could be handed over to civilians.

That study was supposed to be completed by Nov. 30, but Magnus said the consultant has not yet submitted a final report.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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