Hope is not a Plan
Confronting Violence in the Canadian Classroom
“I’ve been a teacher for over 25 years in intermediate, elementary, and special needs,” Joy Lachica, president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto (ETT), tells Our Times, “and I have seen the violence escalating.”
Over 400 reports of violent incidents were filed by Toronto elementary-school teachers from 2016 to 2017, with many other serious incidents at schools going unreported, according to information submitted to ETT by its members. Those statistics mirror a pattern of steadily escalating violence over recent decades in Canadian classrooms.
“I really care deeply about health and safety,” says Lachica, stressing that these findings must provoke more than academic interest.
Forget stereotypical depictions of classroom aggression — there is no one student demographic disproportionately represented in the latest data. Instead, an unfortunately broader range of children are involved with “violence happening at younger and younger age levels,” warns Lachica.
Students from kindergarten through Grade 8 have become increasingly, and more frequently, violent, whether towards teachers, education assistants, classmates, or others in the school. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) surveyed its members in 2017 and found that “Seventy per cent of teachers have experienced or witnessed violence,” Lachica notes, adding that for people who have devoted their lives to educating children, this state of affairs is especially troubling. Teachers and education assistants may hold back on reporting incidents, some fearing the consequences of speaking out, others resigned to school boards or officials neglecting their concerns. “There’s a discrepancy between what’s reported and what happens.”
“Violence” is a comprehensive term, so what exactly is happening inside Canadian schools? “We’re seeing kindergarten students biting, kicking, and running” out of classrooms. Lachica explains that sometimes the entire school is caught in the grip of an incident: “Evacuations also happen when a student creates risk. It happens far more than we would expect.”
The ETFO “Violence in Schools” report lists a sampling of the types of incidents teachers have witnessed or experienced: “Physical assaults (punches, kicks, scratches, bites, slaps, head-butts, spitting); Attempts to injure with projectiles (blocks, staplers, chairs, toys, water bottles); Stabbing with objects (pencils, scissors, pens); Verbal assaults (yelling, swearing, threats on life).”
Student violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum — changes to the education environment have played their own role in enabling problematic behaviour, states another ETFO finding. Yet packed classrooms aren’t the whole story, either. “It’s the numbers, but it’s also the profile of students,” advises Lachica. “We want to provide inclusive, appropriate services for all students, but putting them all together creates escalation. There is a need for more supports. To take supports away and bundle students together in one setting doesn’t create an environment that’s richer.”
STUDENTS NEED SUPPORT
In the not too distant past, Canadian students with special needs were placed in separate educational programs or schools. This is no longer the case, but “the special education teacher needs to be with them even when they’re in the inclusive classroom,” says Lachica. “We want integration.” But within that model, she continues, we “still need individualized programs.” She stresses that for optimum learning and safety for all, the proper number of staff in a particular classroom may vary: “That can be a team teaching situation — there are different ways of approaching that.”
It’s tricky territory to navigate. The ETT president explains that classroom composition is a vital consideration when examining staff-to-student ratios: “These inclusive classrooms are a heterogeneous mix peppered with all kinds of strengths and needs. . . . We can’t pretend that the needs don’t exist.” Real inclusiveness takes more than good intentions; students need support: “We [typically] need two teachers per classroom. We believe they need to be adequately resourced.”
Tammie Koroluk, who lives and works in British Columbia, knows the crisis intimately. The certified education assistant (EA) and bus monitor is the mother of three children. She is also married to a high-school teacher who works in the same district, North Okanagan Shuswap. Koroluk works primarily in two classrooms, providing general classroom support to kindergarteners, plus one-to-one speech and language lessons for students with special needs. “Two students have apraxia of speech, and I help one with a new assistive language device,” she explains. (Called TouchChat, the device uses a built-in voice synthesizer or recorded messages to help students communicate.) Her second classroom consists of mixed Grade 3, 4 and 5 students, many of whom are “categorized.” (Koroluk prefers the term neurodiverse.) There, she mostly provides personal care and occupational therapy for two non-verbal children, one of whom uses a wheelchair, the other who is autistic. Besides assisting those two students, she also helps support classmates who have behavioural issues and/or learning disabilities.
While Koroluk has not personally experienced a violent incident at work, she tells Our Times many happen within her district and across her local, CUPE 523. Chairperson of one of the local’s units, School District 83, Koroluk has repeatedly heard that “Students have urinated on EAs, punched, kicked, slapped, and bitten many of my members. Verbal abuse is the most common form of violence. I have had fellow EAs tell me that they have been physically threatened or had students gesture violent acts towards them. This is also something that many bus drivers report as well.”
Trivializing the impact of school violence on education workers is dangerous. “When an EA is hurt on the job, it can be completely life-changing,” cautions Koroluk. “Dealing with an injury, PTSD, and possible financial decreases” can be devastating she says, noting that income is profoundly affected when someone takes disability leave: “In our district, short-term and long-term disability is 67 per cent and 70 per cent of our earnings [respectively].” The limited hours worked by EAs within an already seasonal 10-month academic year limit their maximum workers’ compensation payments if they are injured in the school workplace. “A very high rate of EAs work second jobs to make ends meet, and this poses a real hardship if they cannot work due to a violent-incident injury,” she adds.
The EA says she considers classroom violence a workplace health and safety issue, and reporting incidents is the essential first step to necessary change. “BC has the second lowest per-student funding formula in Canada, resulting in low levels of support services for the most vulnerable students. In one of my classrooms we have 10 categorized students with only one EA and one teacher. This configuration, which is not uncommon, can be challenging for positive classroom management.”
CHILDREN ARE NOT TO BLAME
Children are not to blame when their distinct and complex needs cannot be met due to funding shortfalls; Koroluk notes that both students and frontline workers in education “bear the burden of an educational system that is broken,” and the “culture of silence” around reporting incidents.
On December 20, 2018, ETT released a memo in response to the Ontario government’s announcement to cut $25 million from “Educational Programs, Other” (EPO) grants. Eleven programs lost their funding and were cancelled or discontinued, including daily physical activity for elementary and secondary school students, programs for racialized and Indigenous students, and tutors in the classroom. ETT’s Lachica observes that the timing of Conservative Premier Doug Ford’s government release — late on the Friday before the December holiday break — was no coincidence, but rather intended to minimize public detection and reaction.
Burying bad news is a tactic unfortunately familiar to Ontario workers, and the nature of this bad news seems familiar, too. “The Harris-era funding formula is still in place, not recognizing the escalation of needs,” says a disapproving Lachica, referring to the deep cuts made by former Conservative premier Mike Harris, in power from 1995 to 2002. “Ultimately, there has to be a will on the part of the province to fix the broken funding formula.” Specialized programs and support staff are essential to promote both learning and safety in schools, and there must be government will to financially back them, as teachers and school budgets are already stretched too thin. “A needs-based funding formula is needed to generate funding for people in classrooms to provide that support,” she explains. “We have good teachers with good skills and the best of training, and our government doesn’t recognize that.”
Improving school safety for all shouldn’t be a private conversation between parents and teachers.
“Public education needs to be funded and the people of Ontario expect that,” argues Lachica.
In the meantime, teachers and education assistants continue finding ways to do the jobs they love, even at substantial personal cost. Lachica says “presenteeism” has become endemic, meaning that a worker will show up for work as usual, even though they’re unable to perform their job duties due to illness or other factors. She adds that these professions must be looked at in terms of the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act, which has been in effect since 1979. Treating them as vocational “callings” rooted in quasi-maternal self-sacrifice and unpaid emotional labour is discriminatory and dangerous. “We don’t talk a lot about it,” she adds, in reference to the Health and Safety Act. “Teachers are the most caring and conscientious people, and they strategize all they can, but the experience of teachers hasn’t been framed in this way. . . . What we experience on the ground is this isn’t working the way it should be.” Still, contends Lachica, “We work miracles with what we have.”
Teachers and education assistants are encouraged to report incidents of violence, which education boards must in turn report to the provincial education ministry. “We’re meeting with the board to use the systems that we have to address these issues,” says Lachica, referring to how reporting can be better facilitated. “We care about our members and their safety and well-being. There’s a lot more we can do with the reporting and communications systems that we have.” She believes that, at base, “this is a Ministry of Education and Labour matter.”
THE RISKS OF WHISTLEBLOWING
The risks of whistleblowing are being addressed, the ETT president notes: “As administrators become more familiar with the steps and solutions, I think teachers will be more willing to come forward to report.” In the past, “a lack of consistency” among administrators’ reactions deterred teachers from seeking better solutions to classroom violence. “There is an interesting correlation between what may be termed ‘teacher absences’ and high-risk situations that put their physical and mental health at risk,” she continues, acknowledging what can occur when even presenteeism becomes impossible to sustain. “Teachers become discouraged for many reasons, [such as being] afraid of being viewed as the squeaky wheel, or getting no response to reporting repeatedly.”
In Lachica’s experience as an educator, she has found another powerful reason to address violence in the classroom workplace — setting a good example of conflict resolution. “Students benefit: The students look to us, as adults, to see our response and the broader response [to incidents].”
Sherri Brown is director of research and professional learning for the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF). She says the issue of aggression in Canadian classroom workplaces demands urgent attention: Five stand-alone surveys by CTF member organizations and teachers’ unions across the country all confirm the exponential recent growth of the problem. “It’s something we hear almost daily, from coast to coast,” she confirms. In-depth research has been carried out by unions including the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS), the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT), and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association (OECTA).
Brown, fellow researcher Jennifer Bergen, and research assistant Yujuan Chi began the CTF’s Pan-Canadian Research Review on violence in schools in late 2017.
The team’s findings spotlight a disturbing trend. “For teachers and nurses, there’s increased normalization of violence as part of the job,” Brown informs Our Times. “Teachers told me that 30 years ago, at the beginning of their careers, violence was not an issue. Now, it’s becoming more frequent and more severe.” That violence also takes a wider range of forms, from verbal abuse to property damage and physical assault, with no single cause driving the unfortunate rise. “There are so many reasons. What the research is showing is that there are so many factors.”
In trying to identify the variables behind the violence, the researchers encountered “both individual and environmental causes,” says Brown. Some of the escalation is attributable to “changes in student demographics — the complexity of classrooms,” she notes, as Lachica does. The mother of a school-aged son with autism and other disabilities, Brown agrees that no specific demographic is responsible for school violence. She has studied the issue academically, but has also gained valuable experience as the parent of a sometimes-violent child.
Putting the blame for violent outbursts on individual students, parents, or teachers only obfuscates the reality: Inadequate school funding, using an outdated model, contributes to classrooms becoming unsafe workplaces. Echoing Lachica’s observations, Brown points out, “It’s the large [class] size and complexity.There are fewer one-on-one services [for students] — those services have been on the decline since the 1990s. . . . Governments will say we have more and more, but it’s the per capita ratios of kids to services or specialized teachers that matters.” No Canadian province or territory is exempt from the neoliberal politics of austerity affecting education funding, she adds. The results are taking a deep toll: “Operational funding no longer benefits anybody; school boards are increasingly asked to do more with less.”
COSTS DOWNLOADED TO PARENTS
Costs for their children’s education supports are downloaded to parents, due to reduced “program or budget-line funding,” notes Brown. “Many governments have eliminated this funding that really supports kids who have some exceptional needs that can be supported by these programs. . . . A single pot of poorly delineated funding is not working for the school boards.” As schools lose funding for other professionals like librarians and guidance counsellors, pressure intensifies on the remaining education workers, fuelling what Brown calls the flipside of the workplace-violence “coin”— burnout among staff.
Stripping teachers of their rights as workers contributes to the deterioration of public education and workplace safety in Canadian schools. BC, she says, exemplifies a trend: “They stripped away the contract language to say they couldn’t bargain anymore for positions,” the researcher tells Our Times.
In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned changes introduced by former provincial education minister Christy Clark, then a member of the Gordon Campbell Liberal BC government. Brown explains that in 2002, the Campbell government altered a provincial contract, removing sections which stipulated size limits for public school classes, the number of education specialists in schools, and restrictions on the number of special-needs students per class. The legislation also removed teachers’ rights to reintroduce these matters for future bargaining with the province.
While the BC Court of Appeal sided with the Christy Clark-led Liberal provincial government in a 2015 appeal, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the decision the following year, on the basis that it was unconstitutional “for infringing [on] teachers’ freedom of association” and because the province “failed to consult in good faith” (British Columbia Teachers' Federation v. British Columbia). The equivalent of 3,500 full-time, unionized positions were lost before the reversal by the Supreme Court of Canada.
While the BC government was subsequently ordered to hire 3,500 teachers in 2017, staff shortages remained in both urban (Vancouver, Victoria) and rural BC Interior school districts. In June 2018, the BC Teachers' Federation introduced a grievance against the province because uncertified teachers were being hired to fill many of these positions. The matter went to arbitration before the BCTF won the grievance last October.
Children in underfunded, understaffed schools have paid the most severe price for the cuts. “With limited resources, a school can only do so much when a child is violent,” warns Brown.
Student aggression is inadvertently encouraged by poor staff-to-student ratios in schools, with the accompanying expectation that parents pick up the slack and pay for private diagnostic, therapeutic, and tutoring services. As “the parent of a nine-year-old son with autism and other disabilities,” says Brown, she sees firsthand “an enormous amount of downloading of therapeutic costs [when] schools have very limited resources to draw from.” While Brown has been able to access a one-to-one EA for her son, she adds that, in Ontario, for example, “that’s extremely rare.” Many parents have difficulty navigating the systems in place to access classroom supports for their children, and waiting lists for those supports are enormous.
Entire learning environments are turned upside down by privately outsourcing what used to be school-based supports for children with special needs. “There used to be services in much of the country for kids with severe or moderate learning disabilities, and even giftedness programs,” for children with exceptional abilities in a given subject, says Brown. She also laments the fact that “other kids with ‘complex/high needs’ are more vulnerable to school exclusion” by being sent home. Classmates without diagnosed special needs may act out violently, particularly when these “grey-area children” become frustrated by being overlooked.
Parents expecting school-based supports equivalent to those they grew up with may be surprised by the limited resources on hand today. “When I went to school, we had a school psychologist and social worker on staff,” remembers Brown. Now, most are “itinerant,” meaning “they have a caseload and move from school to school, [because] caseloads have increased exponentially.” School social workers and psychologists may not even have time to regularly meet with children, let alone provide full, on-site assessments. Special education teachers are burdened with extensive paperwork that takes away from time with students as well.
Brown observes that the issue of classroom violence as workplace violence was front and centre in a recent meeting with ETFO. Because they are bargaining with the Ford government this year, she notes, “I was there to discuss pan-Canadian bargaining; they were discussing violence.” Brown says one local president received four different reports of classroom violence within the span of Brown’s hour-and-a-half talk. When she asked teachers what they considered the drivers of the disturbing behaviour, themes around mental health and learning disabilities kept surfacing: “Kids are coming into kindergarten at four years old and are undiagnosed. . . . Lots of teachers talked about tremendous levels of anxiety in children, from kindergarten through Grade 8.”
Brown suggests two key starting points for addressing the rise in classroom violence across the country: “Core issues of underfunding across the board — I can’t think of a single province or territory who does it well — and secondly, occupational health and safety is really important here. . . . We don’t have appropriate reporting mechanisms.” Teachers and education support workers shouldn’t feel forced to choose between their jobs and their safety at work, adds the researcher. Informal efforts to stop violence are clearly inadequate, she notes: “An EA was telling me a child punched another EA in the face. There was no plan, except hoping the child had defused when they came back [to school] a few days later.”
Proper planning and adequate staff-to-student ratios help reduce violent episodes in classrooms. Brown describes the need for individualized behavioural plans for students, and safety plans so teachers and fellow students also stay safe. “We can’t just send [violent] kids home, but we also really need to make sure classrooms are a healthy workforce,” she stresses. “Hope is not a plan. We have to have proactive, not just reactive, measures.”
ACKNOWLEDGING TEACHERS' STRUGGLES
This advice also applies to teachers’ struggles to be acknowledged as workers deserving the same respect as those in any other sector. “Governments like to vilify teachers and be disrespectful to our members — wage cuts in Saskatchewan, for instance,” says Brown. (Educators in Saskatchewan were set to have wages cut by up to 3.67 per cent in 2018, prior to a labour arbitrator ordering the provincial government to instead give them a one per cent salary increase by the end of summer 2019, with no retroactive increases for 2018. Classroom composition also remains an issue there; Saskatchewan teachers have had no contract since 2017.)
When public education in Ontario was threatened with cuts under the previous Kathleen Wynne Liberal government, “the unions prevailed,” notes Brown. She predicts Premier Doug Ford will meet equal or greater resistance to introducing “cuts on the backs of kids and workers,” and soon: “All Ontario unions’ collective agreements expire in August 2019 and they will likely be giving notice to bargain in spring 2019, which means both central bargaining tables, as well as local, will be in a position where they will supply notice to bargain to the Ford government.”
The causes of classroom aggression are complex, but attempts to wrongly blame the publicness of public education are ineffective. Indeed, when we broaden the discussion to include learning outcomes in general, one common refrain is that private schools outperform public schools. But that notion is misguided, according to Brown. “The research increasingly disproves the claim that private schools produce better educational outcomes. However, they do produce large inequities.”
While wealth does correlate to better educational outcomes, and poverty does have a significant depressive factor on them, Brown notes, "poverty-reduction strategies have a very significant positive impact on educational outcomes.” She points out that though research shows aggression is likely to occur more frequently in inner-city and urban-centre schools, the research is still emergent on why it does. Factors such as more complex classrooms and often-larger class sizes in urban schools may contribute.
Speaking out, and being heard, on the topic of classroom violence helps protect children, workers, and profoundly benefits our society. As Brown perfectly phrases it, “Public education is the cornerstone of our democracy.”
Melissa Keith is a former radio broadcaster and an award-winning freelance journalist. She lives in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia.