By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
With violence in the classroom purported to be on the rise, parents and teachers are pointing directly at a lack of funding and resources to children with special needs as the reason.
That was the overwhelming consensus at a community town hall meeting held by the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) Durham chapter in Oshawa recently.
Similar meetings were held in Ajax and Pickering in an effort to promote ETFO’s Durham ‘Safe for Schools for All’ campaign.
Earlier this fall, the teacher’s union revealed its members reported more than 300 incidents of violence in Durham Region elementary schools during the 2016/2017 school year.
As reported earlier in The Oshawa Express, ETFO Durham has now launched the “Safe Schools for All” campaign to educate parents, guardians and the public at large about violence in schools and is calling for the Ministry of Education to update its current funding formula for special needs education, which has not received a full review in more than a decade.
“The formula needs to be based on need, not averages and benchmarks,” ETFO Durham president David Mastin says.
Teachers also claim more support staff such as educational assistants, child and youth workers and psychologists are desperately needed in schools to help children who may be lashing out due to mental health issues.
A number of parents at the town hall said they’ve had to access these services privately, but for those families who cannot afford to take that step, their children often suffer as a result.
Eva Kyriakides, a member of the Durham District School Board’s (DDSB) Special Education Advisory Committee, says her youngest daughter was struggling with reading and other tasks, and because of the lack of resources in local schools she took her child in for a private educational assessment.
This yielded great results for her daughter, who jumped up three reading levels in three weeks, but also made it clear to Kyriakides there is a problem with the system.
“If we weren’t able to pay for it, in all likelihood, they [her children] never would have been successful and would have continued to underachieve and their self-esteem would have paid a huge price,” she says.
Kyriakides says her daughter’s success is clear evidence “when we recognize a child’s needs and accommodate for it, they can soar.”
“We know in the Durham District School Board one in four children have special education needs and the funding does not match the needs.”
Alison Massam, an education advisory member for the Ontario Autism Coalition, has had a similar experience.
Two of her children, a son, diagnosed with autism and a daughter diagnosed with post-traumatic syndrome disorder, faced barriers to receiving services within the school system.
Her daughter was required to visit a private social worker because, according to Massam, overwhelming wait times and case loads within the school board.
With a student population of approximately 69,000, the DDSB currently employees 21 social workers.
“To me that is shocking and to me, that explains why my daughter could not access social works services in the school setting, which is where she needs it the most because that is where her anxiety is the most,” Massam says.
Speaking with The Express, Mastin says it was apparent there was a significant “emotional connection” to the topic of discussion for many in attendance.
“People that are coming out are the ones impacted by this. It’s not just a neutral conversation. The comments we’ve heard are there is a great deal of frustration in the experience that their children are having while at school. They are wishing there was more information on things like evacuations.”
Incidents such as these evacuations of classrooms after an attack by a student on a classmate or a staff member have become commonplace, says Pamela Downward, a former teacher, and former health and safety officer for ETFO Durham.
Because of the apparent lack of resources for students with unique needs, the classroom and school in general, often becomes a place of anxiety for the children, who then lash out without thinking about their actions, Downward says.
“While I was teaching, on a daily basis I’d witness classrooms, sometimes my own, destroyed. I took calls from members who have been bitten, punched, kicked, threatened, slapped and scratched.”
To Downward, these incidents are something students have come to expect.
“Students in my Grade 2 class became accustomed to the signs of their peers who were escalating and would alert me, knowing that we would have to evacuate as soon as possible,” she said.
Bev Fiddler, a teacher who attended the Oshawa meeting, says she finds herself questioning what the teacher’s role in the classroom has become.
“We are not social workers or child and youth workers,” she commented. “Schools are becoming treatment facilities.”
According to Mastin, the slippery slope towards the current situation began when Ontario PC Party took power in 1995 under the leadership of Mike Harris, who ran on a platform of significant spending cuts.
An ETFO report, released in August 2017, estimates the Harris government sliced education spending by $1.5 billion between 1995 and 1998, which included cuts to special education funding.
While Mastin conceded the current government has enacted some positive measures in education, such as all-day kindergarten, he says they have failed to address the shortcomings as a result of spending cuts.
Numerous school board trustees attended the meetings, so Mastin said he was pleased with the response on a local level, however, according to him, only Oshawa MPP Jennifer French attended the meetings after invitations were forwarded to all local provincial politicians.
While disappointed, he says he could “understand why Liberal MPPs won’t be there.”
Moving forward, ETFO Durham will hold future public discussions, and with their concerns well established, there will be a focus on what they feel needs to be done to address the situation.
“The  provincial election is very much on our radar. We want to inform all political parties,” Mastin says.