Bitten and bruised: Former educational assistant says health risks caused her to quit
Working with students with complex needs can come with intense mental and physical strain
A former educational assistant in the provincial school system says her job supporting students with complex needs became so stressful and injury-prone, she felt forced to quit when she developed a life-threatening blood pressure condition.
"It was through the roof," said Marion Fowler, of Tracy, who left her job with the Anglophone West School District in the spring of 2015.
"My doctor said, 'You're done.'"
Fowler started as a teacher's assistant in 1999 and described her duties as mainly working with students on the autism spectrum.
She says she loved the job until a few years ago, when she started to dread it.
She said she was bitten and bruised repeatedly by students who exhibited increasingly unmanageable behavioural problems.
"There can be anything from unbelievable language to violence. Violence towards others or themselves. Not only throwing things but also biting or pinching or head-butting. You name it, they can do it."
Union encourages reporting
The union that represents New Brunswick's approximately 3,500 educational assistants says it encourages members to submit violent incident reports.
Theresa McAllister, the president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees local 2745, says they get at least 500 in a school year.
"Those could be verbal or physical incidents," she said.
She says there's been some improvement in the past year since educational assistants were included more in team meetings and developing behaviour plans.
"But I'd like to see it closer to zero," she said.
On edge all the time
Fowler says the job also comes with mental strain.
She felt on edge all the time.
"At any moment, something could happen," she said.
"And they're quick. You just don't know when they'll decide to grab somebody or flip their desk."
Fowler says she's surprised to hear that students who have difficulty regulating their own emotions and actions are now being suspended by schools or put on restricted schedules.
She said it didn't seem to be an option when she was in the system.
"It doesn't really help the kids, does it?"
Fowler says within months of her early retirement, she started to feel like her old self.
Her blood pressure is now back to normal and she says, she no longer requires medication to treat it.
She says she doesn't come home feeling beat or the need to go straight to bed.
In addition to spending more time with her own grandchildren, Fowler says she also works with a youth group and teaches Sunday school.
Still, she says she regrets leaving a job that she really did enjoy when it began.
"I love working with kids," she said.
"And that was the thing that I hated the most. I was walking away from what I really like to do."
Teacher's Association: 8-10 incidents per week
New Brunswick's policy of inclusive education, which was last updated in September 2013, requires all students be with their peers in a "common learning environment" and that instruction be primarily provided by the classroom teacher.
George Daly, the president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, says the association has always supported the policy but the province never delivered the necessary resources to make it succeed.
Daley says there are signs of psychological strain.
"We've noticed somewhere in the area of a 30 per cent increase in contact with our professional counselling services."
He's also concerned about violence in the workplace, both for teachers and support staff.
"We're still seeing eight to 10 submissions a week of violent incidents reported to us, within the province," Daley told CBC News in a recent interview.
"When you describe violence, that could be a language situation as well, where people are screamed at, or yelled at or things of that nature."
"It depends on the threshold of the individual who wants to submit it."
School district data
New Brunswick's school districts have taken different approaches to collecting data on violence and threatening behaviour.
The Anglophone West School District says it compiles its numbers using CUPE 2745 violent incident reports, WorkSafeNB forms, the Student Violent Threat Risk Assessment database and PowerSchool; a web-based student information system.
Jason Humphrey, the district's communications director, said in an email there were 598 instances of both violence and threats against teachers and other school staff between January 2015 and December 2016.
"The instances included verbal threats, throwing objects, kicking, biting, scratching, spitting, bullying, striking and pushing," he wrote.
Disclosure: Marion Fowler is the mother of CBC reporter Shane Fowler.