They have had enough. More and more teachers are speaking up about a problem that has largely remained under the radar — violence against teachers from students.
One morning, a mother popped into the classroom of an elementary school to retrieve her mobile phone from her son, who was a student in the class of grade seven and eight kids. But the exchange became explosive when the boy threw his mother’s phone onto the floor, smashing it. The situation quickly escalated from there. “I ran to the classroom door, because my door was visible to the office, to shout for help,” recalled Maria (a pseudonym to protect her privacy and from potential reprisal). “As I turned back around, he had thrown his Mom over a desk. The Mom was banged up badly. We needed to have the police in.” Maria said the mother chose not to press charges. Students who witnessed the incident gave their testimony of what happened to police.
Maria wrote an incident report and did the associated paperwork. “That was absolutely horrific. I am still recovering from that,” she says.
After a brief suspension of a couple of days, the student was back in Maria’s class. “The kids were just extremely wary,” Maria adds. “They already were wary of that student, because he could be explosive. It made me feel extremely unsafe. This was a kid who would do a ‘head shot’ every day, pretend like he was going to hit you.”
Maria’s story is but one of thousands of violent incidents occurring in Canadian classrooms each year, many of which target teachers. One such example is Janice Wilson, a teacher from La Loche, Saskatchewan. In December 2014, CBC news reported that a student who tried to stab Wilson with scissors was jailed for 10 months. After his release, he was returned to her class. Another violent encounter took place in her very own home when one of her students forced his way in and stabbed her three times before taking off in her truck.
THE BIG PICTURE
Are the experiences of Wilson and Maria exceptions rather than the norm, or is violence in schools on the rise? That is a tough question to answer, because there have not been any truly pan-Canadian studies collecting consistent data on the subject.
According to a 2014 Statistics Canada study, Youth Crime in Canada, about one-fifth of 101,000 violent crimes involving youth that were reported to police took place in schools, and just over one in four drug crimes (27 per cent) involving an accused youth occurred at school during school hours or during a supervised activity.
Some provincial teachers’ federations have made efforts to collect more specific data on the scope of violence in classrooms. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), in collaboration with Simon Fraser University, has invited members to complete an online survey on their experiences of workplace violence and bullying during their careers as educators. Participation is voluntary and all information provided will remain confidential.
The findings of the survey, which was last conducted in 1999, will help BCTF officers, staff and committees raise awareness and create informed policies advocating for safe
and respectful teaching environments in public schools in British Columbia. A preliminary report has been scheduled for release at the BCTF’s Violence Summit that took place in January and will be made available to members in spring.
Along a similar vein, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA) released results of a comprehensive member survey on classroom violence in June 2017. The following are among the key findings of the survey, which was conducted last May by polling firm Pollara Strategic Insights in Toronto:
• 89 per cent of teachers have experienced or witnessed violence or harassment in schools;
• 60 per cent have personally experienced violence;
• 70 per cent have witnessed violence;
• 15 per cent of violent incidents in school involve weapons;
• 26 per cent of Catholic teachers had to take time off work because of mental-health effects resulting from violence; and
• 76 per cent indicate that violence makes teaching more difficult.
“We knew that we had a fair proportion of our members who had either been subjected to or witnessed some form of violence or harassment,” says Liz Stuart, president of OECTA in Toronto. “We were surprised when we found out it was about 90 per cent of the respondents who said they had either witnessed or been subject to some form of violence or harassment in the workplace. That number was higher than we were expecting,” she adds.
Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act defines violence as “the exercise or attempted exercise of physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace, that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker, or a statement or behaviour that it is reasonable for a worker to interpret as a threat to exercise physical force against the worker, in a workplace, that could cause physical injury to the worker.”
This definition of workplace violence is broad enough to include acts that would constitute offences under Canada’s Criminal Code.
Glen Hansman, president of BCTF in Vancouver, notes that there is a wide spectrum of violent acts committed by students against teachers, administrators, teaching assistants and principals.
“There is a range of things that could happen, not only in secondary school settings, but also in primary classes and special-education settings as well,” he says, citing acts that include parents or students making threats, verbal abuse or hate speech directed at a teacher or another staff member, inflicting physical violence or pulling a weapon on an educator.
But there are differing views when it comes to quantifying school violence as one might expect, because the numbers are used to guide public policy. When the OECTA released the results of its survey, the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board (WECDSB) in Windsor, Ontario raised concerns about the numbers and how they were derived.
According to a CBC report dated June 29, 2017, the WECDSB does not specifically record the number of violent incidents between students and teachers, but they do tally all violent incidents at schools. Recognizing that violence is a serious issue no matter how the numbers are sliced, the school board shared its numbers with the CBC as follows:
• 2012-2013: 16 violent incidents recorded
• 2013-2014: 11 violent incidents recorded
• 2014-2015: 10 violent incidents recorded
In Halifax, an enterprising reporter who obtained numbers through the Freedom of Information Act found that 11,000 acts of violence were committed in Nova Scotia public schools in 2016.
“We have around 9,400 teachers,” says Liette Doucet, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union in Halifax. She adds that the numbers take into consideration not just teachers, but all staff, including principals, educational-program assistants, custodians, assistants and secretaries.
The wide discrepancy between numbers and the lack of available and reliable statistics about violence in educational workplaces expose a reporting system that is fundamentally flawed — if not broken — across the entire country.
“There is a lack of clarity around how to report and deal with violence issues,” Stuart says. “For example, what constitutes a violent event in a school? There may be some doubt. If something is thrown at a teacher but it misses them, is it truly a violent event? Those are some of the questions that teachers ask in schools when they are filling out these reports. Sometimes, there is confusion about what is reportable and what is not.”
Complicating the situation is that various school boards across the country have their own way of filing paperwork when reporting a violent incident. “[Reporting] really varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, given the fact that there are provincial and territorial regulations at play,” Hansman says. “The mechanisms for keeping track of these things are different.”
He adds that British Columbia’s education sector comprises 60 school districts, which translates into 60 different employers. “The internal practices in each school district vary as well, including reporting mechanisms.”
The Ontario Ministry of Education recognizes the challenges posed by different reporting mechanisms and is working with a Provincial Working Group on Health and Safety to come up with a solution. The working group includes representatives from the government, school boards, teacher federations, education worker unions and the Ministry of Labour.
The committee’s three high-priority commitments include streamlining reporting requirements to make the process easier to navigate, ensure that school staff are never discouraged from reporting and facilitate the collection of more accurate data to enhance understanding and address this serious issue going forward.
To effectively mitigate workplace violence in schools, more support personnel and access to classroom facilities are required to enable teachers to do their
jobs safely. According to the OECTA survey, fewer than half of Catholic teachers believe the following professional resources are available to them when dealing with violent incidents in schools: child and youth workers (48%); social workers (42%); psychologists (26%); and psychometrists (9%).
Doucet agrees that the lack of professional resources when it comes to mental-health issues and behavioural support is one of the biggest challenges. “We don’t have enough school psychologists; we don’t have enough guidance counsellors. The caseloads of these specialists are huge,” Doucet says. “We have guidance counsellors who are in two to four schools; some schools don’t have guidance counsellors. We need more of these specialists. We need these specialists to do some training in conflict resolution and violence prevention.”
Catherine Little, an education consultant with York University in Toronto, sees the need for more supports in place for teachers in classrooms. “I was an education assistant in the early 90s and there were incidents then,” Little recounts. “But it seemed to me there were more adults around. I had students rip things off the wall. When that happens in a classroom when there are only two to three other students and plenty of adults, that is an entirely different thing than that happening with one adult and 25 students. Right now, teachers are just coping.”
Little recalls having a discussion with a retired teacher who, on one occasion, took 20 of her students out of a classroom because one of her students was having a meltdown. “That is one of the ways teachers cope: they just take the students out of harm’s way,” Little says. “That is very disruptive. In the 90s, when we might have had more classroom space, that student might have had a home base to go to if they were having a particularly trying day. Maybe an education assistant would be dedicated to being with them and could bring them back to being focused again.”
Physical and professional resources are great, but they often come with a price tag. Governments need to commit the resources to bring in these supports. Doucet points out that lack of funding is a key factor behind the lack of adequate professional resources in her province.
In Ontario, the Ministry of Education has pledged an additional $223.2 million for local priorities in the 20172018 school year, including targeted funding for additional teachers and education workers to support special education and other staffing priorities.
“These funds will support about 2,475 teachers and education workers,” the Ministry says. “Of this funding, Durham District School Board [which has received media attention lately because of teachers speaking out against violence in schools] is projected to receive more than $7 million for 2017-18, which could support an estimated 76 teachers and education workers.”
The Ministry points to an announcement in September indicating that the province will be investing $49 million over three years to improve student and staff well-being. Of this funding, $6 million will be provided for new and expanding programming to support staff well-being and classroom-violence prevention.
“Our government believes that safe, inclusive and accepting school environments are essential for students, teachers and education workers,” the Ministry states. “That is why our government has continued to make significant investments in additional staffing and other important classroom supports.”
Doucet says she would also like to see “a clear discipline policy that teachers can use to address the problems going on every day.”
Without a doubt, violence against teachers is a serious occupational hazard that needs to be addressed. Workplace violence in schools may be in the spotlight partly due to statistical trends, but also because teachers are simply fed up with a prevailing attitude that violence is just “part of the job,” Hansman says.
“No worker should get up in the morning, put on their socks and come to work and expect to be spat on or hit or have their hair pulled, or any number of things that fall under the umbrella of violence,” Hansman stresses. “Just like it wouldn’t be acceptable if you were working at a bank, or in a restaurant, or a hospital, likewise it isn’t acceptable in the school setting.”
The fact that teachers work with minors does not mean that the threat of workplace violence is any less severe, Hansman adds. “Children and adolescents can also be perpetrators [of violence]. The intent doesn’t matter; it is the effect on the workers that matters.”
Maria agrees. “It means you can’t be your best teaching self,” she says of working in an unsafe school environment.
Even in a healthy school environment, Maria observes that teachers often have a heightened sense of awareness about their students and what they are doing in the classroom. “You are always checking,” she says. “But when you have had a violent incident, your radar is through the roof — and that is exhausting. You get to the end of the week and you are wrung out. Your family suffers. You have got almost nothing left when you get home.”
For teachers who find themselves working in an environment in which the shadow of violence is always lurking around the corner, the ultimate question is not if — but when — they decide to quit the profession altogether in search of a safer workplace.
David Gambrill is a writer in Toronto.
TOOLKIT OFFERS A HELPING HAND
In an effort to better protect education employees from occupational violence and meet legal responsibilities towards ensuring healthy and safe workplaces, the Ontario Public Services Health & Safety Association (PSHSA) is developing a Violence Risk Assessment Toolkit specifically for the education sector.
The toolkit, which is designed to help identify behaviours, triggers and conditions associated with violence, serves as a resource for education assistants, instructional assistants, teachers, special-education specialists and nonteaching staff such as principals, vice principals, designates and the provincial labour ministry’s Joint Health and Safety Committee members. The tools to prevent violence include the following: