By Dave Flaherty/The Oshawa Express
Claims of escalating violence in the classroom and staff members forced to wear protective gear on the job has the union representing local elementary teachers calling for more action from school boards and the government.
Through a combination of in-school reports and a survey of ETFO (Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario) Durham’s 2,700 members, president David Mastin said they learned more than 300 incidents of violence were reported in Durham Region elementary schools during the 2016-17 academic year.
These reported incidents range from students making threats and throwing objects to physical assaults such as biting, punching and kicking.
To deal with the potential of violence, some teachers have begun to wear personal protection equipment to work.
“Probably the most severe we’ve seen was one of our members had her head grabbed by a student and slammed into a desk,” Mastin recalled, noting that the woman was “off for quite a long time” and suffered significant physical damage and mental stress.
While the injuries may heal, Mastin says there is always an “emotional trauma” for teachers after witnessing a child exhibiting these behaviours.
“Some of these students are very, very young.”
ETFO Durham has now launched “Safe Schools for All”, a public awareness campaign aiming to educate parents, guardians and the public at large about violence in schools.
“We’ve had this in the works since October of 2016. Back at that time, we got together and talked about what we were hearing, and we made a decision to focus on the issue of violence in schools.”
The first step in addressing the issue is for the Ministry of Education to hire more support staff such as educational assistants, child and youth workers, and psychologists, Mastin stated.
“We need people who are trained to work with kids dealing with mental health issues.”
Calling the current system “antiquated”, Mastin says the ministry needs to re-evaluate its current funding formula for special needs education, adding there hasn’t been a full review of the formula in more than a decade.
Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, agrees on the need for more staff support.
“We are looking for the resources that are necessary. We need to find out what are the gaps.”
The Catholic Teachers’ Association conducted a province-wide survey of its members about violence in schools earlier this year, with 3,500 members responding.
According to data from this survey, 60 per cent of respondents have experienced violence in the classroom, while 70 per cent have witnessed it.
“I mean it does appear to be on the rise. The results were quite concerning,” Stuart says.
To her, school boards and the ministry are well aware of the issue already.
“We’ve been talking to the ministry and the boards about this since 2009. Right now we are in consultations to make things better.”
Terry Simzer, communications manager for the Durham District School Board (DDSB) told The Express via e-mail that the well-being and safety of students is the board’s top priority and work is being done to address the issue.
“There are many protocols, practices, procedures, and training offered in the Durham District School Board to support student and staff safety. This a province wide-issue that exists at all school boards,” Simzer says.
According to results from the Catholic Teachers’ Association survey, one-quarter of respondents said they were “either encouraged or actively pressured by administrators to not fill out a reporting form” or “encouraged by administration to not report the incident to the police.”
Janine Bowyer, superintendent of student services and safe schools for the Durham Catholic District School Board, says teachers are “expected” to report incidents of violence to administration.
“It helps our principals find out if there are issues in their schools,” Bowyer says.
In partnership with DDSB, Durham Regional Police Service, and 13 other community organizations, the Catholic board has developed its Community Threat Assessment and Intervention Protocol, which Bowyer says has become a valuable resource in dealing with “potentially high-risk student behaviour.”
Bowyer says the board has also been offering professional development training for all its educators to teach them ‘universal strategies for deescalating behaviour.”
“We are always looking to address those situations where there are concerns. We never want someone to come to work feeling unsafe or worried about getting hurt.”
To really drive home the point of their concerns, Mastin says teachers must grab the attention of the public.
“The only way the ministry is going to respond is through an upswell of attention. It’s one thing for a group of teachers to say this is what you need to do to fix the problem [but] we are trying to galvanize a whole group of community members.”
Mastin admitted he is a bit discouraged the discussion “hasn’t spread past the walls of DDSB” thus far.
“It’s a faulty lens of the severity of the problem. People need to understand what we are experiencing.”
In hopes of reaching a larger audience, ETFO Durham is hosting three community forums this fall, including one in Oshawa on Monday, Oct. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the General Sikorksi Banquet Venue.