The Sunday Magazine

Head of Toronto District School Board says he doesn't believe class violence is 'rampant'

Our series Hard Lessons laid bare the widespread violence students commit against teachers. John Malloy, director of education at the Toronto District School Board, explains why he doesn't believe violence is rampant in the district's schools.
Our series Hard Lessons on classroom violence looks at the rise in student assaults on teachers. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

The director of education at Canada's largest school board says he does not believe its school classrooms "have become toxic."

"I do not believe that violence is rampant, and I do understand that some would very deeply disagree with me," said John Malloy, with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).

The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright spoke with Malloy as part of a series about classroom violence.

In February, The Sunday Edition's producer Alisa Siegel chronicled an alarming rise in student assaults on teachers in her documentary Hard Lessons. In it, teachers described how small children are assaulting them daily in the classroom — hitting, punching, kicking, spitting and swearing.

'More reporting'

"We've had issues in classrooms forever," said Malloy. "The challenge is that I think that for many different reasons, there seems to be more reporting of such experiences."

Many teachers and principals have refused to speak on the record about the assaults they are experiencing or witnessing in schools, because they say they are afraid they will lose their jobs.

Malloy said they should not be concerned about that.

John Malloy is the director of education at the Toronto District School Board. He says he does not believe classrooms in the district are 'toxic.' (Toronto District School Board)

"Our staff needs to be safe in schools, our students need to be safe in schools, and we need to be able to speak about it," he said. "I would ask anyone in my system, whoever experiences it, they can email me directly and I'll figure out how to get in front of that. And I say that with all sincerity."

Teachers have told The Sunday Edition they submit violent incident reports that are filed away and ignored. However, Malloy believes the reports are an important tool.

He also suggests the prevalence of classroom violence has been overblown.

"We're talking about a very, very small — in my board, anyway — percentage of students. We're speaking about around one per cent," he said.

He encourages educators to see violent incidents from the point of view of the child.

"Violence is communication. Our students are trying to tell us something," he said. "We know that certain students might struggle to use their words, and if we aren't conscious of that and provide other strategies for that student to help us understand how he or she is feeling at any given moment, we could have some challenges."

Lack of teacher support

Teachers say the integration of all students — even those with serious behavioural and learning challenges — into the same classroom has led to many of the challenges they face because they do not have adequate support from educational assistants and other experts.

Malloy says their inclusion has largely been positive, however some parents prefer to send their children to special education classrooms. Overall, it is "one of the most intense issues" the TDSB faces.

"What I would say to parents is we hear the needs. We understand our responsibility. We get why you believe in inclusion, and you don't believe in inclusion," said Malloy.

One size does not fit all in the field of education, says Malloy, and it can be instructive to follow the history of a student who has been disruptive at school.

"If we have struggled to serve a student since the day they walked into our school at age four, that is one perspective, but we also have students that may have been successful in some grades and not others. What we're learning to do is to examine what went on in those classrooms where it was positive," he said.

"If this worked in Grade 1, why isn't it working in Grade 2?"

Know how to de-escalate

Malloy says he is not interested in a "blame game."

He wants to be sure that when a situation with a child escalates, the proper education and safety plans are followed, "but if we go back to 'What is the student trying to communicate?' that's one point where supports are required in order for that communication not to become violent."

Teachers say they are not trained to be social workers or psychiatrists.

Malloy, who has been in the education field for 32 years — including a decade as a classroom teacher — counters that they should expect to draw on skills besides teaching.

"We can't be everything," he said. "We may not be trained social workers or counsellors, but ... even if our core work is education, we are many things. I didn't experience violence because what I did know how to do was to de-escalate."