The Sunday Magazine

A mother and fierce advocate for inclusive education weighs in on classroom violence

Anna MacQuarrie’s adopted children suffered childhood traumas which have left them prone to violent outbursts at school. She believes everyone has a right to an inclusive education, and says when it is done right, violence and disruptions in the classroom can be controlled. In addition to being a parent, Ms. MacQuarrie is a human rights consultant for the advocacy group, Inclusion International.
Educators say incidents of verbal and physical violence by students targeting staff and fellow classmates are leaving them exhausted. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Violence in the education system is having repercussions outside the classroom. It is pitting parents against administrators, and parents against parents.

Those whose children struggle at school and have violent outbursts are being confronted by those whose children are witness to what is happening and feel the effects.

"What we need to be talking about here is public education for all. It can't be my kids against your kids. It has to be, how are we building a system that works better for everyone?" Anna MacQuarrie told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

MacQuarrie is a mother of three adopted children in Halifax, ages 8, 9 and 11, who cause disruptions at school. She is also a human rights consultant for Inclusion International.

"As long as we continue to split and fracture our resources – and split and fracture our experiences – we're never going to get to a place where inclusion is working. And we have to be tackling that," she said.

She agreed to risk speaking publicly as part of the program's continuing series on school violence. It began with Alisa Siegel's documentary, "Hard Lessons," about the rise in violence against teachers by elementary school students.

Following that, a panel of three specialists with decades of experience in education weighed in. The program also shared input from parents who are frustrated and angry because their children are being affected by violent outbursts. Many of them are questioning the value of inclusive education.

Schools have adopted the principle of inclusive education, welcoming all kinds of children — including those with learning difficulties, behavioural challenges and mental or physical disabilities — into age-appropriate, regular classrooms.

In an email to The Sunday Edition, MacQuarrie wrote that she is frustrated by the continued questioning of whether inclusive education is worthwhile. She firmly believes it is a right.

"I think the important distinction here is that what we are experiencing is not inclusion. Largely, what most of us have is basically integration 2.0," MacQuarrie said. "We have to be looking more innovatively at what intentional inclusion looks like in our classrooms, and it's not working right now because most of us aren't actually experiencing it, most of us meaning parents, families, kids, everyone."

'We're mischaracterizing kids who aren't being supported as violent'

MacQuarrie describes her children as amazing, funny and clever, but they are easily overwhelmed with anxiety due to "sensory issues."

"It's really important to me to highlight my kids aren't violent," she said. "My kids are using behaviour to express themselves in ways that are not always very productive."

What can we be doing so that kiddo isn't having to communicate in that way in the first place?- Anna MacQuarrie

When a crisis arises, the school administration calls her, sometimes every day, sometimes a couple of times a day.

"Certainly with our youngest, it's really been around the physical outbursts and that sort of sense of his aggression and whether or not he is hitting or kicking or trying to express himself with his hands," MacQuarrie said.

She adds that many families like hers live with the constant fear their children will be expelled from school. One administrator told her, "we don't do kids like that here."

MacQuarrie is also concerned about schools that decide to call the police when violent incidents occur, something she views as dangerous.

"We're mischaracterizing kids who aren't being supported as violent," she said.

"So we create kids who, the narrative around them becomes that they are violent, they're hostage takers, they're using weapons, when they're in grade two. Well, by the time they're in middle school, they're getting a stint in [juvenile detention] and by the time they're in high school, they're going to prison."    

Need to be proactive and preventive

McQuarrie believes much more can be done to support children who see violent outbursts in the classroom and feel traumatized.

"I think it's important to be able to sit down and talk with the kiddos in that class after something has happened and to be able to say, 'Wow, that was really scary," she said. "'And does everyone feel safe now?'"

She said it would be worthwhile to reflect "on how kid X is having a hard time using their words and having a hard time staying calm and in control ... and what can we be doing so that kiddo isn't having to communicate in that way in the first place?"

MacQuarrie adds that it is also important to be empathetic with parents of children who feel stressed by violent incidents and to apologize, but they need to work together as a community to find a solution.

She has been involved in ongoing conversations with her children's school, but MacQuarrie says most educational systems are in crisis management mode and do not have a proactive and preventive approach, one that looks at what the triggers are for children who attack others and creates an environment that is more conducive to learning for everyone.

"Tinkering on the margins" isn't working, she said.

"Right now, there are a ton of factions and divisions, and that serves government super well," MacQuarrie said, noting that there is a lot of power at the ballot box and this is partly an issue of political will.

"As long as we are divided, they can conquer on this."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.