Failure to Communicate: Ending School Violence
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, July/August 2020 Issue
By Alex Newman
Violence in schools can exist in many forms: students attacking teachers, violence between students, and individual violent outbursts. In this article we’ll take a look at some different causes of violence, why the number of incidents is increasing, and what to do about it.
First let’s define workplace violence. According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, it is “the exercise (or attempt) of physical force by a person against a worker in a workplace that causes or could cause physical injury to the worker.”
That definition should include other forms of violence as well, says Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, such as self-harm, cyber bullying, and isolation tactics.
A 2017 study conducted by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) reported an estimated 70 percent of Ontario elementary teachers have either personally experienced or witnessed violence against fellow staff in their place of work. A Globe and Mail article revealed that teaching assistants in one British Columbia school board were subjected to 1642 incidents of student violence against staff in the 2017/2018 school year—up from 190 incidents ten years earlier. Charts from other school boards across the country tell the same sad story.
Teachers have reported being bitten, kicked, scratched, and punched, having their hair pulled and being sworn at or even threatened by students. These incidents have led to increased numbers of teachers suffering PTSD, on stress leave, or complete burnout.
Not all violence is directed at teachers, however. There has been an increasing trend in violence between students. An extreme case of which occurred last year in Hamilton, ON where a high school student was stabbed to death by another student right outside the school.
In situations of violent behaviour involving special needs students, Wozney explains that it isn’t directed at anyone. “It’s a fight or flight thing,” he says.
Jane Morrey, an elementary school teacher with several years’ experience and training in special education, agrees. “All behaviour is communication,” and violent outbursts are often a cry for help, she says. “These kids are communicating that they are over-stimulated in some way. It’s too noisy, too bright, too hot, or they have anxiety about an upcoming un-preferred task. They might not have the skills to request help … [and] might do whatever works to relieve those feelings. The fastest way out of that room is to hit somebody.”
Some Potential Causes
Natasha Regehr, a supply teacher in southwestern Ontario, feels that “a lot is rooted in trauma. I’ve had children in my class who had witnessed severe domestic violence at home.” Their behaviour at school, she says, “is a survival mechanism, surviving from beginning to end of day.”
But she also knows it’s not a case of “bad kids, but children who have problems. A lot of them are starving for love and care, and that’s the role the teachers play in their lives, any academics they manage to get in is secondary.”
Wozney has also observed “a major uptick in mental health crisis in elementary kids, such as clinical anxiety [and] bipolar [disorder]. [Students are experiencing] eating disorders, cutting, harassment and social violence, cyber bullying, social exclusion, [and] freezing people out. It’s psychologically traumatic, for students and in some cases for staff.”
He believes the real culprit is the gap in mental health supports. “Partly it’s the way we fund—education and healthcare come from two different pockets. Teachers are not grief counsellors or social workers, although being the responsible adult in the room [means] they’re forced into a position of providing these kinds of care. When teachers say they need more support, they’re saying ‘for the love of god help us with those other aspects.’”
Years ago, Wozney adds, truancy officers monitored social issues and were regularly in touch with families in crisis. School nurses, too, provided care. Those positions have long been eliminated and now schools—and teachers—are filling the gaps.
“It’s 100 percent a human resources issue,” agrees Morrey. For an inclusive class to work effectively, “you must have a highly skilled key worker, a teacher, or educational assistant to anticipate, read, and respond to [behavioural] cues, before a situation occurs or escalates. While I completely understand how school board budgets are stretched to the limits, there just aren’t enough EAs, and teachers are [simply] trying to teach,” says Morrey.
Expanding class sizes have also contributed to the increase of violent incidents. In the average class of 25 kids, Morrey says you will certainly have more than one child with special needs, in addition to other unidentified behaviours. “I’m a special education specialist, with courses in functional behavioural analysis, autism intervener, and so on. Even with my additional training, it’s still extremely challenging to meet the needs of certain students, and also teach the curriculum.”
So what can be done when facing violence in the classroom? There is no one right answer. It often depends on the student and their individual needs.
In some cases, it helps to track behaviour to determine patterns and cues. “Observing before, during, and after an escalation can identify needs,” Morrey says. “Is the child seeking sensory stimulation, which requires the intervention of an occupational therapist? Does the student get angry before French class, gym, recess, or lunch? They may be hungry, tired, or anxious.”
Teachers must also prioritize the things that need to be addressed immediately and those that can slide. “If [a] child isn’t pushing in their chair, or standing for [the national anthem] I let it go. If they’re crawling across the top of the bookshelf, that’s a safety issue and I will step in.”
Regehr, too, has found it helpful to change her attitude. Initially, she scales back her academic expectations with troubled students, then works them back in gradually. “I develop simple goals: being safe, staying in class, and not disturbing the learning of others. Then eventually move on to things like joining the lesson, even if briefly, and being kind.”
Keeping a notebook helped stabilize her emotionally; writing down a defeat list and a victory list. “[It] help[s] me not to see the whole day as failure and to celebrate the numerous small ways to reach these kids.”
Sympathy also goes a long way. Acknowledge upsetting events—a dad who didn’t show up, a bike that got stolen— and saying to a child, ‘gosh that’s terrible, I get how you’re feeling,’ helps so much, Morrey shares.
Or try using humour. When one child explained his anger because he bumped into a chair, Morrey walked over to the chair and told it off. The child laughed and the air cleared.
When a child is violent, sometimes the only safe solution is not to engage and clear the class. “They’ll only get worse and you can get hurt,” Morrey says. “It’s the time after an evacuation that’s important. Kids are humiliated after a meltdown, and that’s when you can go in and express empathy. ”
Working with the School and Union
There are also steps teachers can take outside of the classroom to try and mitigate violence.
According to a survey conducted by the ETFO, too often teachers don’t report incidents of workplace violence, some fear repercussions, and some don’t believe anything will be done about it.
In addition to the principal, you need to notify the union representative, Wozney says. “I can’t stress enough keeping union support in the loop. Suffering in silence is a recipe for disaster, because whatever is happening will keep on happening, if you don’t speak up and advocate for yourself.”
The ETFO stresses the need for principals to do a risk assessment of workplace violence, to have emergency plans in place—including lockdown plans—and to notify teachers of any potential problems without risking disclosure limits for the student.
Wozney agrees that school boards have to do a better job of equipping new teachers with professional development. That is especially true for supply teachers. One year, he had a highly volatile student, and in addition to the usual information—fire drill routes, bathroom location, etc.—two pages covered all a supply teacher needed to know about the student, including how to handle them, and who to contact if necessary.
Should You Ever Call the Police?
Policies on this vary from board to board. The Toronto District School Board, for example, requires teachers to call police for any hate-based violence. In British Columbia, “the ministries of Education, and Public Safety and Solicitor General collaborated on the development of a new set of provincial school-police guidelines in consultation with education, community and police partners.”
Understandably, some parents are concerned about calling the police. Anna McQuarrie is a Nova Scotia mom whose special needs children can turn to outbursts when they’re frustrated. In an extensive CBC report on school violence, she was quoted as saying, “we’re mischaracterizing kids who aren’t being supported as violent.”
Morrey had one occasion where she felt the need to call police, although the principal intervened instead. “This student was bigger than me and I was in danger. In the criminal code of Canada, teachers, like everyone, have the right to protect themselves. In all cases, it’s important to remember, though, these are children. No one chooses to be aggressive. The behaviour is a message that something isn’t working.”
Even while feeling overwhelmed in the face of violence, most teachers would say they stand by the rights of all children to be educated in an inclusive classroom, regardless of mental, social, and emotional needs.
Alex Newman is a Toronto freelance writer and editor. Visit her website, alexnewmanwriter.com.