How WRDSB uses special teams and safety plans to stop student violence

As violence in elementary school classrooms rises, the Waterloo District School Board ensures there are special teams in place to work with staff and students with behavioural challenges.

1,300 incidents involving elementary student-on-teacher violence in Waterloo Region District School Board

1,300 incidents involving elementary student-on-teacher violence in the Waterloo Region District School Board. (Shutterstock/Syda Productions)

With rising violence in elementary school classrooms, Waterloo District School Board (WRDSB) is working to ensure there are special teams to work with staff and students with behavioural challenges.

Don Durant is a behavioural teacher at WRDSB. He said special education has behaviour services, which is divided into three tiers.

"Tier two, which is the level I work at, consists of a team of two child workers and a behaviour resource teacher, and we'll go into a classroom for a period of six weeks and work with the student and teach them some skills and strategies to help replace their maladaptive behaviours they've adapted over the years."

Tier one entails first responders who go to school to meet with staff and help meet the needs of a student, said Durant. Finally, tier three is a more intensive and highly individualized approach in supporting a student with behavioural challenges, or special needs.

Waterloo Region District School Board adopts a three-tiered approach to dealing with students with behavioural challenges. (WRDSB)

"Specifically we go into the school before we start working with the student, review the student's Individual Education Plan, go over the safety plan and go over everything to make sure staff feel comfortable," said Durant about his tier two team.

Like a fire drill

Safety plans are specific for each student and address the student's known behaviours and triggers. They also outline each staff member's responsibility when the student becomes unsafe. Durant said going over the safety plans is comparable to a fire drill.

"[In the end] everybody knows what to do when [an outburst] happens, so they do their jobs and everyone makes sure everyone is safe as possible."

After the safety plans are well-practiced, Durant said his team will begin their six-week in-class work with the student, teaching them skills like anger management and problem solving, while passing on the lessons to staff who can implement them when the six weeks are over.

His team will also keep parents up-to-date on their child's progress and will help parents find external resources if necessary.

1,300 incidents 

Last school year there were approximately 1,300 incidents involving elementary student-on-teacher violence in WRDSB schools, up from around 900 the previous year. 

The numbers were part of a report discussed at the school board's Committee of the Whole meeting last Monday night.

"We're [dealing with] everything to biting to kicking and punching," said Jeff Pelich, the vice president of the local chapter of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

Despite the safety plans and the tiered system, he said some teachers feel they need to wear Kevlar clothing to protect themselves.

Kevlar clothing can include vests, arm or leg sleeves. Teachers in Durham region and New Brunswick have also resorted to wearing the protective gear. 

A teacher with Durham District School Board wearing protective gear that helps prevent injuries if a violent incident occurs at the school. (CBC News/ Martin Trainor)

He said there are no exact numbers of the number of vests being worn, but said with confidence that the requests are escalating, particularly with educational assistants who work with students on a one-on-one basis.

And depending on the history of a student's behaviour, Kevlar may be required.

"Kevlar is something that could be put into the safety plan if it is deemed necessary," said Durant.

Lack of funding

The ETFO is calling for a review of the Ontario government's funding formula that allocates less money to elementary school students compared to their secondary counterparts.

Elementary students receive $612 less per student, which Pelich said could equate to nearly $25 million in the WRDSB and the Catholic board.

Both Pelich and Durant have pinned the growing trend of violence on a lack of resources and funding in the elementary school system, which Durant said has created lengthy wait lists for tier two teams.

And the rise in violence is reason for WRDSB to offer multi-tiered behaviour services.

"We've seen an increase of violent behaviour over the course of eight to 10 years and is certainly something we've had to deal with for a while," said Durant.

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