The Sunday Magazine

Teachers and parents respond to the issue of violence in elementary schools

Alisa Siegel's documentary told the shocking story of elementary school teachers who are regularly subjected to violence in their classrooms. The Sunday Edition received hundreds of responses from listeners, many of them teachers and educational assistants speaking about their own experiences in the classroom. We also hear from retired family court judge Marvin Zuker.
Verbal threats, physical assault and incidents involving weapons were among the most frequently reported incidents of verbal and physical violence, according to the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Alisa Siegel's documentary "Hard Lessons" told the shocking story of elementary school teachers who are regularly subjected to violence in their classrooms.

Some teachers report being kicked, punched, slapped, hit with objects, bitten, spat at and choked by their students. They also spoke about the helplessness of feeling like they can't protect themselves.

Violent incidents are increasing, and the biggest spike in numbers is in the primary grades.

The Sunday Edition received hundreds of responses from listeners, many of them teachers and educational assistants speaking about their own experiences in the classroom. Here are just a few representative notes, which have been edited for clarity and length:

"I am an elementary school teacher with 29 years of experience. Every day, I think to myself that I am not a trained psychologist or social worker, but I am expected to behave like one. In my school, there is a team of highly trained support workers who are kept busy every day with violent students who require constant supervision. They have been injured on the job; they have had the Children's Aid Society called on them, and they worry that if more than one of these students have a violent episode at the same time, there will be a disaster. Principals are well aware of what is going on in their schools, and have their hands tied as much if not more than teachers. Alisa's documentary is the first step to waking people up to this crisis, and I thank her profusely for it." 

     - M. Adams, Peterborough, ON.

"Four years ago I suffered a concussion when I was assaulted by a special needs student in my kindergarten classroom. Yes, that is correct. I received a brain injury from a five-year-old! He was upset, and pushed me when my back was turned with such force that I ended up with whiplash and a concussion so severe that I was off work for 9 months. None of the parents of my students were ever informed as to why I was suddenly off work. A letter was simply sent home stating that I was 'on leave.' Many students refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, and their parents will often blame the teacher rather than accept the fact that their child did something inappropriate. Teachers aren't the only ones who suffer. Aggressive students often assault their fellow classmates by attacking them physically or verbally. This disrupts the learning of all the other children in that room."

     - Christine Fernandez, a retired elementary school teacher in Burlington, ON.

"We are filling out violent incident reports on six-year-olds. I would like to see this change before all of our educators quit. This needs to be made more public. But I also am afraid of losing my job if I say what exactly goes on in our school. I appreciate and thank you for your article. But my name cannot be tied to this. Sad, isn't it?"

     - Anonymous, educational assistant, B.C.

"As an elementary teacher, special education teacher and literacy specialist, I was offended by the tone of the story, the outrageous use of language to inflame, and the completely one-sided presentation of the issue. To call a seven-year-old blocking a doorway a 'hostage situation' is absurd. I have never been in fear of a child, nor have my students. A better question for you to explore might be teacher preparation. Why are so many teachers graduating with subject expertise but not child expertise? We do not teach science, math, art — we teach children. Yet in my province, teachers can become certified with no in-depth education in classroom management, developmental psychology, conflict resolution, or course work in how children learn, let alone how children with differences learn. The use of children with learning differences as the foundation of your story places blame on those most vulnerable."

     - Anonymous, Pender Island, B.C.

"As an educational assistant for the past 20 years, I have seen my job go from helping students who are identified as having 'special needs', to being a kindergarten cop. I must remove students two or three times a day because of their violent behaviour in the classroom towards others students or the staff. Sure, staff from the board's 'behaviour team' comes to observe these students — but we never see them again. I believe that nothing will happen to change this situation until a student seriously injures another student or staff. WE ARE TALKING ABOUT FIVE YEAR OLDS!!!"

     - Rick Graham, Toronto, ON.

"I am an elementary teacher, and wish to remain anonymous. I have witnessed students at the primary level spit, kick, punch, throw objects, swear, and scream at teachers, educational assistants, and other students. Throughout the day, classroom doors are locked to ensure that students who are experiencing difficulty are unable to enter other classrooms. There are some administrators who do not answer calls to assist teachers dealing with a violent child, and even go so far as to avoid dealing with violent incidences. What is the answer? If children with complex needs are a part of the school system, it is the responsibility of school boards and the provincial government to increase funding. We must staff schools with trained psychologists, social workers, and child and youth workers."

     - Anonymous, Oshawa, ON.

"Currently, many public education systems across Canada want to make sure every student gets the same education in order to maintain a child's positive self esteem. Slogans like 'No child left behind' are just not realistic when a student needs alternative or extra support."

     - Rick Vaive, Cranbrook, B.C.

"I went to see my family doctor last week to talk about anxiety management and what I should do, because I am working in an unmanageable situation. I don't want to wear Kevlar, I don't want to go on a leave, I don't want to have to be on medication in order to continue to do my job. I just want proper supports for these kids."

     - Nicole Butcher, Mississauga, ON. 

"We spend hours and hours in meetings about how to meet the needs of children with violent tendencies caused by trauma, mental illness and neglect. What NO ONE is talking about are the rights of the 99 per cent of the NON-VIOLENT children, forced to be in the classroom when dangerous situations arise, with teachers whose hands are tied. Although I, and the vast majority of my colleagues, truly believe in the immense benefits of 'inclusion', the incorporation of students with extreme needs, including violent tendencies, does not — in my opinion — benefit anyone. The rights of violent children and their parents are, in fact, held above the rights of everyone else. Many students are becoming increasingly afraid of children with unique needs because of the fear of violence. This is the truth that NO ONE will talk about."

     - Anonymous, 20 years of teaching experience, Alta.

"I am the mother of a special needs child. I too have spent many afternoons as the target of my little guy's violent outbursts. He lives in an escalated state of anxiety because his DNA is unable to produce a certain protein needed in the brain. There are no greater heartbreaks than seeing a child struggle with every aspect of being alive. In your piece about violence in the classroom, I heard the dedication, frustration and heartbreak in 'Emma's' voice. It is obvious she loves teaching. The administration in her school seemed more dedicated to appearances than to supporting their staff and students. This truly is a failure of the system. What I did not hear was the engagement of the troubled students' parents. We are aware that our kids are causing trouble. We need to be involved. We have ideas on how to support the teachers with the uniqueness of our kids. Dear teachers: your support can come from the child's home. It is the parents' responsibility to raise the child. He spends six hours of the day at school. The rest of his time is with me. We need to team up."

     - Alison Slater, Calgary, Alta.

The Sunday Edition also heard from Justice Marvin Zuker, who retired from the Family Court of the Ontario Court of Justice after 30 years and is still an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. This is what he had to say in response to the documentary: 

"If we begin with the premise that children are entitled to be in a school, and if they have behavioural problems and they are identified then we should be providing programs for them that will allow them to be in a classroom. And if they are acting out, if they're violent, short of suspending them, short of expelling them, short of removing them, then perhaps we should be finding out  why are these children acting out the way they're acting out.

"Many school boards probably do not have psychologists. They don't have social workers. They don't have individuals to work with the students. So what is the point of having special education if you don't have the networking of other professionals to help these kids? The responsibility, in my opinion, is the school, if not the school board, to identify a pupil initially and provide what that child needs to reduce the risk of harm to the teacher and to others and most importantly to that child.

"Why is somebody at a JK level or older acting out to this extent? You don't have to be a psychologist to know there's something seriously going on with that child. And if you don't have the social worker or psychiatrist to talk to them, and then you have a parent that wants this kid in school no matter what they do, then you're behind the eight ball.

"All I can do as a teacher is bring it to the attention of the administration and say: 'Look, this is what happened today. If something happens to me I will hold you, being the school, responsible. if this continues I may have to stay home. I have to speak to my union rep. I have to proceed under the Occupational Health and Safety Act and I may seek to not go to school.'

"In my opinion, it's too easy. It's too easy to blame the teacher. To dump the difficulties that schools face on teachers is wrong. But we have to provide the resources to help the students. And we have to provide the resources to help the teacher. And it's hard to provide the resources if your resources are being cut."