Violent incidents reported against York Region’s public elementary school teachers has increased by 452 per cent since 2013, according to the local union that represents them.
The perpetrators? Students in kindergarten to Grade 8 whose behavioural challenges are not only driving teachers onto long-term disability in record-high numbers, but setting the stage for fear and anxiety among other students.
Concerned citizens packed a Newmarket meeting room for the first time to find out what they can do about it Tuesday night.
“Staff have been broken at some schools with what they are dealing with,” said David Clegg, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario - York Region. “Student behaviour is at a level we’ve never seen before, and there are a whole host of theories as to why. But schools are simply the mirror of society and this is a systemic, societal problem.”
Clegg was joined by social worker and psychotherapist Roxanne Francis at the March 19 speaker series entitled Violence in our schools: What can parents do? It was organized by the Newmarket Parent Network, a parent community group representing seven local schools, including Stonehaven Elementary School.
The talk is one in a regular series put on by the network and funded by the Education Ministry’s Parent Reaching Out grants. However, this event was hosted independently by the network and did not include the involvement of the York Region District School Board.
The network’s speaker series chairperson, Shameela Shakeel, a parent volunteer and mother of four whose children attend local schools, said that many young students and teachers are becoming increasingly afraid of children with unique needs because of the fear of violence.
Violence a harsh word
“This is the truth and we’re going to start talking about it,” she said to applause from the audience, made up mostly of concerned parents and some local education staff.
“Violence is a harsh word, but it’s something our children and educators face every day in our classrooms,” Shakeel said during her opening address. “It is becoming all too common and involves children with behavioural challenges who are biting, scratching, spitting, kicking, punching, using violence with scissors and chairs, and other actions against teachers, educational assistants, school staff and students.”
The education advocate said local school children are experiencing evacuations from their classrooms at an alarming rate. These evacuations are carried out by teachers when a child with serious behavioural issues has a violent outburst and the other children have to leave the classroom for safety reasons, she said.
This has resulted in an increasing number of elementary students who are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and fear as a direct result of this violence, Shakeel added.
What’s more, when parents raise these concerns with school administrators, they are often left with the feeling that their children’s needs for safety are not as important as those of the child with behavioural problems, she said.
Just how widespread elementary school violence perpetrated by young children is, can be seen in recent statistics kept by the York Region branch of the teachers’ union.
From the beginning of 2019 to Feb. 15, there have been 183 class evacuations, 132 classrooms trashed (see photo above), and 31 lockdowns, said Clegg.
In York Region, the reported number of violent incidents against elementary teachers was 876 in 2017-2018, up from 536 in 2016-2017, and 304 in 2015-2016.
In the past six years alone, long-term disability premiums have increased by 222.5 per cent. Kindergarten teachers accounted for about 15 per cent of all long-term disability claims, and special education teachers took 10 per cent.
Elementary teachers’ disabilities related to mental or nervous conditions have now overtaken the national industry benchmark among education workers, which sits at 42 per cent. For local teachers, those disability claims account for 47 per cent.
“If you have an environment that is stressing educators, it will have the ability to inhibit student learning,” Clegg said. “Everybody is a victim in this situation.”
What’s particularly concerning to the union, Clegg said, is that more than 80 per cent of its members are women and when students commit violent acts against predominantly female teachers, that could contribute to the normalization of violence against women.
Psychotherapist Francis echoed Clegg’s concerns, stating that in her experience, there’s an unspoken message around the power of violent behaviours that go unchecked.
“Some parents have taken their kids out of school because they are being terrorized by other kids at school,” Francis said.
When children live with a constant, heightened sense of feeling unsafe, that sets the stage for anxiety, she said.
It's also important to understand that behaviour is often the language of the child, as they do not often know how to use the appropriate words to address their feelings, said Francis, who runs Newmarket Psychotherapy serving children and adolescents, individuals and couples.
"Some children have a yet undiagnosed developmental delay or mental health issue, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder, which can result with them being very easily overstimulated/triggered by the bright lights, colours, noises in the classroom environment, resulting in verbal or physical aggression as they do not yet now how to ask for a break," she said.
"Some children have great difficulty sitting still in circle or carpet time or at their desks, and become angered when asked to do so, which can easily result in an outburst if there is no one-on-one direct support with self-regulation."
Still other children may have difficult home situations that result in them being already overwhelmed and stressed at the beginning of the school day where they act out in frustration at moments of transition, or when they are denied a preferred activity, Francis added.
Such home situations can include, but are not limited to, loss of a loved one, separation or divorce, the birth of a sibling, abuse in the home, parent mental health or substance issues and increased parent stress.
"As you can imagine, these children are as much in need of love, understanding and support as everyone else in the classroom," Francis said.
But for the children witnessing these outburts, trauma symptoms can develop. This can include the development of learning disabilities, having difficulty sleeping, becoming socially withdrawn or verbally abusive, picking up behaviours long gone such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking, and more, Francis said.
York public board spokesperson Licinio Miguelo acknowledges the concern about violence in schools that may have a significant impact on staff, students, families and community members across the province.
“The need to ensure support for students and staff in order to ensure safety in the classroom is a top priority for our board,” Miguelo said. “We have a strong working relationship with all our employee groups, including the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario – York Region, and continue to monitor this concern so that resources and support can be appropriately directed and deployed. We are committed to working together so that all students and staff members can feel safe in their learning and working environments.”
Perhaps what some parents wanted most to know was who is responsible for protecting their children at school, and what steps could they take to help solve the problem?
Several ideas were offered up by the speakers and organizer, as well as some audience members and included:
- Have regular conversations with your children about their day at school and how they are feeling about it. Many children won’t volunteer information about a fellow student’s violent outburst unless asked.
- Ask to have the issue of violence in schools put on every school council agenda as a standing item.
- Reach out to your school principal, school board superintendent and officials, and local trustee to open a dialogue about the issues that concern you. Let them know there needs to be better reporting and notice provided to parents when a child is physically or mentally harmed at school.
- Attend school board meetings and ask that school violence be put on the agenda for discussion.
- Contact your local MPP to raise your concerns around the issue, such as the need for more social workers, child and youth workers, behavioural intervention strategists, and educational assistants.
- Brainstorm solutions with like-minded parents and community leaders and communicate those ideas to school officials.
- Continue to attend and contribute to community meetings on the subject.