Canadian Occupational Safety

March/April 2020

Canadian Occupational Safety (COS) magazine is the premier workplace health and safety publication in Canada. We cover a wide range of topics ranging from office to heavy industry, and from general safety management to specific workplace hazards.

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Page 25 of 35

F E A T U R E 26 AN APPLE A DAY Educators across Canada are bitten, kicked, threatened and harassed in the classroom. Amanda Silliker examines this escalating issue to determine its prevalence, explore options for addressing it and find out why incidents go unreported. "THE student kicked me in the head. No first aid was offered, no medical support was offered, no break was offered, no support of any kind was offered. I am still suffering from long- term brain damage and cannot work." "A student threw a chair at me which hit me on the side of my head. While I was wearing a PPE jacket and arm guards, I was not provided anything to protect my head." "The most terrifying part was being chased down the hall and feeling conflicted, as my job was to ensure the safety of others, while I was simultaneously terrified. I immediately broke down when I reached the safety of a room and was able to lock the student out." These are just some of the experiences teachers are facing in classrooms across Canada. These particular quotes came from a report titled Facing the Facts: The Escalating Crisis of Violence Against Elementary School Educators in Ontario, released by the University of Ottawa in September, which was based on findings from a survey of 1,688 educators across the province. "Educators" included contract and occasional teachers, education support personnel, professional support personnel, early childhood educators and other educational professionals. The study found a nearly seven-fold increase in violence against educators over the past 12 years. While seven per cent of Ontario educators reported experiencing violence at some point in their careers in a 2005 study, the University of Ottawa study found that that rate is now 54 per cent in a single year. Overwhelmingly, the violence is perpetrated by students. The phenomenon is not just a problem in Ontario but right across the country. According to Shelley Morse, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, which represents 273,000 teachers across Canada, every province Morse herself has been kicked, punched, spat on and had chairs thrown at her when she was teaching. Teachers across Canada are experiencing these types of violent acts along with biting, hair pulling, grabbing, headbutting, tripping, being attacked with classroom items (scissors, pencils, razors, glass shards, sharp utensils), being sexually assaulted (one teacher spoke of boys grabbing her breasts as part of a game) and receiving threats to exercise physical force. "A teacher recently called in because a middle school student said to them that their father was a police officer and they were going to get a gun and shoot the teacher," says Gail Bannister-Clarke, president of the Peel Elementary Teachers' Local in Mississauga, Ont., which has more than 7,000 members. "That's a threat. The teacher took that seriously and felt threatened." According to the University of Ottawa study, 60 per cent of educators reported being on the receiving end of attempted physical force and 49 per cent experienced one or more threats. Sometimes, the violence is so bad (either toward the teacher, educational assistants or other students) that the classroom has to be evacuated due to safety concerns. When Bannister-Clarke was teaching, she had a violent student in her class and she had to evacuate the room once. and territory is reporting that violence is increasing in the school system. Research from the organization found that between 40 per cent and 90 per cent of educators (depending on jurisdiction) said they have experienced violence at some point in their careers. "This is just kind of routine. It's routine for kids, it's routine for educators… I honestly think the violence we are experiencing in schools, it's like we've got a recipe for it — it's almost inevitable," says Chris Bruckert, one of the researchers on the University of Ottawa study. "If you put it all into some sort of machine, it would spit out violence." Some of these elements include an increase in class sizes, fewer educational assistants for students with special needs, a rise in mental health issues among students — according to Children's Mental Health Ontario, one in five students faces mental health challenges — and an overall lack of funding for resources. Students' needs are often being unmet and, as a result, they become frustrated and lash out in class. Morse points to a societal increase in incivility and the difficulties of disciplining students as key contributors to violence and harassment toward teachers. "It's a very real problem in our school system and I call it the 'silent crisis' because nobody wants to talk about it," she says. Harassment pervasive Teachers are not just experiencing violence but "unacceptably high" levels of harassment as well, according to the University of Ottawa study. Nearly three-quarters (72 per cent) of survey respondents reported experiencing explicit verbal insults (including graphic swearing), putdowns and obscene gestures from a student in the 2017-18 school year, while 41 per cent experienced this sort of behaviour from a parent. Teachers are also victims of inappropriate jokes and innuendos, bullying, prank phone calls, intimidation and pressure tactics, taunts, homophobic comments and racial slurs. "A lot of what we're seeing is disrespect," says Bruckert. "[For example], swearing can sound somewhat banal, but if this is a recurring occurrence, it can be quite traumatic. I am not a prude, but I was shocked at the language, absolutely shocked… The amount of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia — that really did surprise me because we're talking elementary school." One issue that teachers have is that they are constantly recognizable in the community, so verbal harassment follows them everywhere, from the grocery store to the local swimming pool, notes Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers' Union, which has 9,100 members. "When you go to the hockey rink, you don't stop being Mrs. So-and-so. When you go to the church, the mosque, the synagogue, you're still Mrs. So-and-so," he says. "You never get to take your teacher hat off." Social media adds another layer to the harassment that teachers face — it doesn't necessarily stop when they get home. "I suppose when you know who's threatening to slit your throat, it's disturbing, but you know who said it, so you have some way to address it. It's another thing altogether when people make an account that's nameless and "This is just kind of routine. It's routine for kids, it's routine for educators… I honestly think the violence we are experiencing in schools, it's like we've got a recipe for it — it's almost inevitable." Chris Bruckert, University of Ottawa

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