Nova Scotia

Sydney Academy staff had concerns about violence at dress code protest, documents say

Sydney Academy is one step closer to getting a new student dress code following a protest in December that officials say could have turned violent.

In one email, an unidentified officer said school staff praised the police response

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)

Sydney Academy is one step closer to getting a new student dress code following a protest in December that officials say could have turned violent.

During an online meeting last week, the school's advisory council and students agreed to adopt new rules and remove language some students called sexist toward girls, mainly because it targeted crop-tops that do not cover girls' midriffs.

After the meeting, the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional Centre for Education said in an email that no one from Sydney Academy or the advisory council would be available for an interview.

Some parents criticized the school and police response to the Dec. 10 protest.

One parent said it was excessive, with "up to 12 cop cars, over 15 officers to protect somebody from bare shoulders and belly buttons."

However, documents released under freedom of information requests reveal concerns that the protest could have been worse.

'It would have escalated'

In one email, an unidentified officer said school staff praised the police response.

"Several members of the teaching staff commented on how quickly police responded and how they remained professional in the face of insults, thrown objects and having cameras in our faces," the email said.

"Most truly believed that without our presence, it would have escalated and potentially become violent."

In an incident report filed the next day, police said they suggested at the time that school be closed for the remainder of the day. "That decision was declined," according to the report.

In an interview, Staff Sgt. Jodie Wilson said there was no way to know for sure if the incident would have turned violent, but that's always a possibility with any large crowd.

"Every group has different dynamics and what we see a lot, especially with the public safety unit, is good people that are followers, they'll sometimes engage in a violent disturbance when the leaders are taken into control or under arrest," said Wilson, who was the duty supervisor on Dec. 10.

She said there is no way to know for certain what could have happened if police weren't there.

"I think because that amount of officers responded, that's why there was no violence or property damage. No one was assaulted, there was no criminal acts, so I think that's why it ended peacefully."

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)

Wilson also said police were not there to enforce the dress code despite what some parents said.

"That wasn't the reason we were there. That was dealt with through the centre for education and the ... school officials and we were there to mainly keep the peace and security and the safety of the students inside and outside the school."

In an emailed statement, the regional centre for education said no Sydney Academy students were suspended for failing to follow the dress code on Dec. 10, but "fewer than 10" were suspended for "insubordination or significant disruption to school operations."

The centre also would not comment on the suggestion to close the school for the day, except to say administrators were in touch with senior police and "agreed" there was no need.

Police responded from the public safety unit, along with others from across Cape Breton Regional Municipality, including some who were volunteering for an event at the mall. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Police have not said how many officers responded to the incident, but they confirm at least 15 were on scene. Many were with the public safety unit, although some who were volunteering at a promotional event at Mayflower Mall also responded, along with officers from the North and East divisions.

In police emails, crowd estimates varied between 100 and 200 students.

They said police had been at the school earlier in the day for an unrelated incident in which someone — not a student — was believed to be in the area with a weapon, but police confirmed there was no threat to the public.

Emails among staff of the regional centre for education indicate that Sydney Academy students had already asked for dress code revisions before the protest and were already planning a presentation to the school advisory council.

'Cover the groin, buttock and nipples'

The council met in January and agreed the dress code needed revisions, but the council did not settle on the language to be used.

That decision was made last week.

The dress code students objected to 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. In addition, writing or pictures on clothing that implies or suggests violence, racism, vulgarity, etc. will not be tolerated."

According to the regional centre for education, the new code still has to be drafted and reviewed by the advisory council at the end of the month, but the centre said it will include:

  • No intimate garments will be worn as a singular piece of clothing. 
  • No writing or pictures on clothing that imply or suggest violence, racism, discrimination and vulgarity.
  • All clothing must cover the groin, buttock and nipples. 
  • Clothing will be safe and appropriate for the activities students will be doing.

The Department of Education says there is no provincial policy on dress codes.

Police were stationed near several entrances to the school in an attempt to calm the crowd. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Documents obtained under freedom of information requests also show regional centre for education officials canvassed other high schools in the area about their dress codes and found most do not have an official policy.

They show Breton Education Centre in New Waterford follows an old version that is no longer published, but targets headgear, inappropriate slogans or pictures, and "extremely short skirts and shorts (those that are shorter than the tips of the fingers when arms are held down at sides), tops that are inappropriately revealing such as strapless, backless, tube top and low-cut styles and exposed undergarments."

In a message to the centre, Glace Bay principal Donnie Holland said he would "rather not give them certain criteria because if you draw a line — someone will want to step over it to make a point. The only time it is really ever an issue is if a girl has something extremely revealing on."

He said if a female staff member agrees there is an issue, she has a "polite, discreet conversation" with the student.

Two schools revisit dress codes

Both Riverview and Breton Education Centre said they planned to revisit dress codes with their school advisory councils.

The regional centre for education declined to make anyone available for interviews.

The centre said Riverview officials reviewed their dress code policy, but took no action because there have been no recent concerns.

It said Breton Education Centre officials made some changes to the language of their dress code, even though no concerns were expressed by students.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 17 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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