Edmonton·Video

Teacher assaulted in school calls on province to review classroom safety

If used properly, rooms in schools to isolate children with behavioural problems can be helpful to special needs students and staff, says a former teacher whose career ended after she was violently attacked in her classroom.

Pamela Orr says a classroom assault by a special needs student in 2010 brought an end to her teaching career

Pamela Orr, who says she was assaulted in her classroom by a special needs student, is urging the provincial government to take staff safety into account when reviewing the use of so-called isolation rooms. (CBC)

If used properly, rooms in schools to isolate children with behavioural problems can be helpful to special needs students and staff, says a former teacher whose career ended after she was violently attacked in her classroom.

The controversial practice of placing students in isolation rooms was raised last week when CBC News reported that two Sherwood Park parents have launched a lawsuit alleging their 12-year-old autistic son was stripped naked and locked in an isolation room, where he was later found covered in his own feces.

Pamela Orr said she was violently assaulted in her own classroom in February 2010 by a 17-year-old special needs student.

Pamela Orr describes the day when a student violently assaulted her in 2010, ending her teaching career. 2:10

As a result of her injuries, Orr said, she now struggles to stand and walk, to remember, and to handle the simple tasks of daily living.

She called on the province to conduct a review of special needs education that would take into account the issue of staff safety.

"We need to rethink all of special education," said Orr. "This is not about crisis intervention, this is not about hiring more EAs, because that's just a Band-Aid.

"We're not talking about the children who need some minimal interventions. We are talking about students who have, for whatever reason, whatever special needs, they have the potential to kill someone."

Orr said governments must set standards for student-teacher ratios, and for staff training.

'I couldn't scream'

On the day she was attacked, Orr was teaching a group of high-needs students in the St. Albert Catholic school district.

It happened toward the end of the day, when students were getting ready to leave. It was noisy in the room, she said, and for an instant she turned her back on one student who appeared especially out-of-sorts that day.

"This student came up behind me and put me in a choke hold, and was pulling my neck," she said. "The student kept pulling and pulling and pulling my neck. I tried screaming. I couldn't scream."

Orr said she struggled to break free and finally pushed backward into the student, trying to loosen the grip on her neck. The action angered the student, who "slammed down on my spine" causing a compression injury, she said. 

"It was ka-boom, and I literally felt like my spine was going to explode," she said, shifting uncomfortably in her wheelchair. "It was awful."

The student then threw her to the floor, with her head, jaw and shoulder slamming into it.

No longer able to teach, Orr said her life is now consumed by hours of medical appointments.

Advocates call for regulations, or ban

The use of isolation rooms came to public attention last week after the media reported on a lawsuit launched against Alberta's education minister, the Elk Island Public School board and staff members at Clover Bar Junior High School in Sherwood Park.

A statement of defence filed on behalf of the school board and staff denies the allegations.

The lawsuit was cited at a news conference held last week by an advocacy group called Inclusion Alberta, which called for isolation rooms to be regulated or banned.

Education Minister David Eggen responded by launching a review of isolation rooms, saying his department in the next few weeks will come up with guidelines for their use.

"We do have to balance the education assistant and teacher safety with care and attention for students as well," said Eggen.

David Keohane, superintendent for Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools, confirmed that an "accident" involving a student happened in February 2010. He said he won't comment on human resource issues, or about any incident that may have involved Orr.

"In terms of care for the employee, in this case as it sits, on the accountability piece, every step was taken by the district to assure that," said Keohane.

Pamela Orr now needs a walker, a cane, or a wheelchair to get around. (CBC)

Orr said "99 per cent" of students are non-violent.

She misses her life as a teacher, and daily contact with students.

"I don't want to see this happen to anyone else," she said. 

Isolation rooms can work, she said, if used properly.

"It's just time for [students] to calm down, or read a book, so they can get integrated back into the class," she said. "You absolutely have to have a supervisor in there with them, who is trained to calm that child down."