'I wasn't kept safe': Injured Ottawa teacher recounts violent attack

An Ottawa teacher is speaking out after a violent encounter with a student ended his 32-year career. The incident is raising questions about whether the school system is equipped to handle students with behavioural issues while keeping teachers safe at school.

17-year-old student facing assault charges after teacher's hip shattered and rotator cuff torn

Tony Lamonica says he was violently attacked by a student at school on April 10, 2017, breaking his hip in two places and injuring his shoulder. He says he wasn't kept safe at school and wants changes across the province to prevent other teachers from student assault. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Tony Lamonica imagined celebrating his retirement with balloons, cake and colleagues. But after 32 years as a proud high school teacher, he ended his career on a hospital stretcher after an alleged, violent attack by a student.

Lamonica, 59, says this past April, he was protecting a female student from a 17-year-old male student at a high school in Ottawa, when suddenly the male threw him across his office desk. Lamonica says he landed on the floor shattering his hip and tearing his rotator cuff.

"I tried to get up, but I was in so much pain," said Lamonica. "When I looked up the student had actually picked up an upholstered chair — a very heavy one. He had lifted it over his head."

"I felt defenceless. He was about to throw it at me … I was prepared to say 'OK, this is it.'"

Lamonica was hospitalized, bedridden for weeks after the incident, and he never returned to the classroom. Police charged the teenage student with four counts of assault including aggravated assault and assault with a weapon.

The retired teacher is now raising questions about whether the school system is equipped to handle students with behavioural issues while keeping teachers safe. 

"I wasn't kept safe," said Lamonica.

Lamonica's union, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, says students acting violently towards teachers is a growing problem across Canada and is pushing for change.

The Workplace Safety and Insurance Board continues to cover the cost of Lamonica's physiotherapy twice a week after he broke his hip and strained his shoulder. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

'You could tell she was frightened'

Lamonica spent his entire career at St. Matthew High School in Orleans. The award-winning teacher took pride in being one of the first in the Ottawa Catholic School Board to implement a co-operative education program.

Over the course of three decades, he helped place hundreds of students in work placements and saw students who struggled suddenly flourish.

He put off his retirement by two years because he loved his job.

June 2017 was supposed to be his last month at work, but that all changed on the morning of April 10, 2017.
Tony Lamonica spent several decades at St. Matthew High School calling around to different businesses in Ottawa to find co-op placements for students. (Submitted)

'I couldn't get up. I couldn't move'

It was just after 10 a.m. and Lamonica was working in his office when he heard a disturbance in the hallway.

"I heard a female voice saying 'leave me alone,'" said Lamonica.

Lamonica says he found a male student trapping a female against a locker.

"He was agitated," said Lamonica. "He wanted something from her ... and was slamming the locker, you could tell she was frightened."

Lamonica tried to calm the male student down, but says it wasn't working. He called two other teachers for help and told them to call the main office for backup.

The student had picked up an upholstered chair … over his head. He was about to throw it at me.- Tony Lamonica, retired teacher

While the male student was distracted, Lamonica says he hurried the female student into his office. He was about to shut the door behind him, when suddenly the male student barged in, he said.

"He threw me across the table," said Lamonica. "I slammed my hip … I slid across the table and landed on the other side on the floor on my left side again."

He said "excruciating pain" kept him on the ground. Lamonica said he watched as the student hoisted a chair over his head.

"That's when I felt for my safety, my life," he said.

Lamonica said the student ended up throwing the chair in the opposite direction as staff entered the room. 

The teen left the school before Ottawa police arrived at the scene. They later charged him with two counts of assault, one count of aggravated assault, and one count of assault with a weapon. The student is scheduled to appear in court this week. His family did not respond to CBC's request for an interview.

The Ministry of Labour confirms that the school board waited a month to notify provincial officials about Lamonica's workplace injury at St. Matthew Catholic High School. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

'It's heartbreaking. He was basically bedridden'

Paramedics transported Lamonica to hospital in an ambulance. 
A large bruise surfaced on Lamonica's hip after his workplace injury. (Submitted)

"I was terrified," said his wife Jenny Cyr. "When the surgeon came in and said that he had a broken hip … I was just floored."

According to documents from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, Lamonica fractured his left hip and strained his left shoulder. 

"It was heartbreaking," said Cyr. "He was basically bedridden. He couldn't go up and down the stairs. He couldn't use the washroom by himself."

Lamonica spent more than two weeks bedridden, then another six weeks on crutches. Seven months later, he's still going to physiotherapy twice a week.

Although his physical recovery has been slow, it's the image of the student hovering over him that keeps Lamonica up at night. 

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about what happened," he said.

Right to be safe

Lamonica is now speaking out about his attack over concerns his colleagues may not be safe from violence in the classroom. 

Under Ontario's Safe Schools Act, teachers have the right to be safe at school. Lamonica said his case is a prime example of the gaps in the system.

He said he later learned the 17-year-old accused of attacking him had been suspended a week earlier for violence at school. Lamonica said he was never warned. 

If he had known about the student's history, he said, he would have handled the situation differently.

"It's almost as if [student] privacy trumps safety," said Lamonica. "If students have been disciplined for aggressive behaviour, teachers should be aware."

In 32 years, Lamonica said he also was never given training on how to deal with an attack by a student. He is also worried that students with behavioural needs aren't getting the proper help at school.
Lamonica holds up one of his X-rays that show his hip bone healing where all the major muscle groups connect. (Ashley Burke/CBC News )

'Taken seriously,' school board says

OCSB said it is "unable to provide any information" on the case because it's before the courts. 

"Any incidents of violence in a school is taken seriously and may result in suspension and/or expulsion," said the board in a statement to CBC News.

The board forwarded its workplace violence policies and procedures. A safe schools incident reporting form signed by the acting principal at the time, reads that a case conference was held, the student was transferred to another school, and police laid criminal charges.

According to the Ministry of Labour, the Ottawa Catholic School Board did not notify provincial officials about the workplace injury until a month after the incident.

60% experienced violence, poll suggests

Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) commissioned a member survey last June which reported 60 per cent of teachers surveyed have personally experienced violence in the school.

More than 3,400 people responded to the survey.

"We've had members' hair pulled to the ground," said OECTA president Liz Stuart. "We've had concussions. We've had chair throwing to scissors being flung across classrooms …. We've seen a steady increase in violent incidents … and now it's becoming even more pronounced across all systems."

Stuart said she's concerned teachers often fail to report acts of violence. Nearly 25 per cent of the teachers surveyed said they were either encouraged or actively pressured by administration not to fill out a reporting form or call police. 

"[I didn't fill out the proper forms] because there's no followup," wrote one teacher responding to the survey. "My principal says the form does nothing. It goes nowhere."

Stuart identified three major gaps in the current system: no standardized reporting of violence, little access to information about student behaviour, and a lack of training for teachers about how to de-escalate violence. Stuart also said there's also a lack of resources for students with behavioural issues.

Some Ontario teachers' unions have launched campaigns to encourage teachers to report violence at school. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Government launched working group

Facing pressure from several teacher's unions, the Ontario Ministry of Education along with the Ministry of Labour (MOL) launched a provincial working group to look into violence in schools.

"We take these concerns very seriously," said Education Minister Mitzie Hunter. "Any incidences of violence or aggression [are] completely not acceptable."

Enforcement teams with the MOL are visiting schools across the province this year to ensure schools know their responsibilities under Ontario's Health and Safety Act.

The working group is also trying to balance students' privacy and staff safety by reviewing how much information can be shared with staff about violent behaviour. 

As well, the group is working on a "simpler and more standardized" process for teachers to report violent incidents at schools.

"I want all of our education workers who enter into our schools to go home the way they came," said Hunter.

Hunter recently announced $6 million in additional funding to address incidences of school violence.

Hopes others encouraged to speak up

Lamonica said he's encouraged this working group could lead to change. But he still has many unanswered questions about his case.

"I haven't been asked or contacted to say how are you doing? How are you feeling?," he said. "I put in 32 fantastic years. I don't feel very good about it."

He doesn't know if his school board has made any changes to protect other teachers after his injury. Lamonica hopes his story encourages other teachers to come forward and speak out about their own violent experiences in the classroom.

Lamonica hopes he can move forward after sharing his story and that it pushes school boards across the province to take cases of violence at school more seriously. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)