Managing violence in schools

In wake of WorkSafeBC order, Greater Victoria School District beefs up teacher safety training

An anxious student pokes her teacher in the arm with a pencil to get her attention and accidentally breaks skin. A little boy with a history of outbursts throws a wooden building block out of frustration, hitting a teaching assistant in the leg, leaving a large, painful welt.

While teaching likely isn’t the first occupation on the list of high-risk professions, teachers are susceptible to a certain level of violence while working with students.

“In most cases these are not nasty, willful acts – they’re children who have needs that aren’t being met and are acting out in some way,” said Tara Ehrcke, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.

According to documents obtained by the News from WorkSafeBC, there have been at least a dozen incidents of violence against teachers in Greater Victoria schools over the past four years.

But the definition of violence in the classroom is broad. Kim Munro, the district’s director of human resources, said incidents can include when a young child is “screaming aggressively” or threatens to throw an object.

“In terms of workplace incidents, they tend to be relatively minor – usually involving students at the elementary school level,” Munro said.

And while many of the documented incidents didn’t result in physical injury, some have led teachers to feel their workplace isn’t safe.

In November 2011, an assault by a student on a teacher at Reynolds secondary resulted in injury and time off work, according to a WorkSafe report.

In October 2012, a teacher at Macaulay elementary was injured as a result of being “assaulted by a student. Subsequent to that the worker refused to have the student in the classroom,” reads a WorkSafe document.

Reports don’t identify teachers by name, and the severity and details of the incidents remain unknown.

WorkSafe reports over the last four years indicated to the district it needed to improve practices for recognizing the potential for violence, and provide clearer instructions to teachers on reporting violent behaviour.

“The only difference between a near miss and a fatality is the outcome. It is essential that near misses are investigated with (an) eye to determining root cause,” wrote WorkSafeBC inspection officer Dawn Ianson in a report to the Greater Victoria School District in December 2012.

A November 2011 incident at Rockheights middle school in Esquimalt where a teacher believed she was at risk of being injured by a student led Ianson to order the district to better instruct teachers how to spot signs and triggers that could lead to violence.

Michael Colussi, manager of occupational health and safety with SD61, said the Rockheights order prompted the district to expand its violence prevention program.

“As an organization we took that very seriously,” Colussi said. “Violence prevention is something that the school district has been working on in one form or another ever since I was here. Violence is unacceptable.”

The new program has been rolled out at all 52 of the district’s worksites. It is more robust and fills the gaps identified by WorkSafeBC, Colussi said.

“I think because of the amount of training we’ve done, the awareness around the definition of violence in a school environment is quite heightened,” he said.

Ehrcke, the GVTA president, acknowledges that violence typically stems from patterns of behavioural issues. And behavioural issues typically continue when identified students don’t have supports – like teacher assistants – in place in the classroom. The teachers’ union says it all comes to down to the province underfunding school districts.

“I’m not surprised at all this has come to a point where we’re having teachers in unsafe working environments,” Ehrcke said.

“Unless we see a reinvestment in schools, I think these problems will grow and get worse.”

A spokesperson with the Ministry of Education said special needs and special education funding to school districts have increased 60 per cent in the last 13 years.

Ehrcke said teachers are frustrated that the district hasn’t allocated enough resources for training, saying instruction is happening in 10-minute increments during staff meetings, as opposed to devoting a half or full day to training teachers.

“Workplace violence is on the increase in school districts – biting, scratching kicking, that kind of thing,” she said. “There are serious and relevant issues here and we need processes in place to ensure everyone’s safety – workers in the building, but also the children.”

kslavin@saanichnews.com