The Sunday Magazine

What can be done about violence against elementary school teachers?

Our recent documentary, "Hard Lessons," told the shocking story of elementary school teachers who are regularly physically attacked by their young students. Why is this happening? What can be done to prevent it? And why do principals and school boards want to keep this issue from the public?
Educators say incidents of verbal and physical violence by students targeting staff and fellow classmates are leaving them exhausted. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

No one should go to work expecting to be kicked, punched, bitten, sworn at or threatened by a small child. But as we've recently learned, that is a daily reality for many teachers across the country.

There is an alarming increase in classroom violence, especially in the elementary grades, as illustrated by producer Alisa Siegel's documentary, "Hard Lessons."

She shared the stories of teachers who have been assaulted, harassed and threatened by small children. Teachers say they are not in a position to defend themselves and that little to nothing is being done about the rise of violent incidents in schools.

The Sunday Edition convened three people with decades of experience in education to discuss the reasons for the increase, the veil of secrecy around school violence and the absence of consequences.

Dalhousie law professor Wayne MacKay says there's nothing wrong with somebody trying to influence public policy, as long as it's done in the right way. (Submitted by Wayne MacKay)

"The school is a microcosm of the larger society," said Wayne MacKay of Dalhousie University. "I think about changing parental roles, where parents are wanting more to be a friend in support of their children, rather than the mentor and director, although that sometimes requires drawing hard lines."

MacKay, professor emeritus at the Schulich School of Law, has conducted many studies in the educational system. His report on cyber-bullying revealed "the lack of respect generally in society for all kinds of things, and by young people for their elders, whether they're parents, teachers, principals or whomever they may be."

This has resulted in a generation of children who do not expect to face consequences for their behaviour, he says.

"It's not just the 'me too' generation, it's the 'me only' generation," said MacKay. "'It's all about me, and so why would I put up with anything I don't like?'"

There has been a sharp rise in violent incidents in elementary school classrooms across the country. A 2017-2018 independent study of Ontario educators (supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) revealed that one in five teachers experienced some kind of physical force from a student. Seventy per cent said they experienced insults, put downs or obscene gestures.

"We didn't just ask about harassment and violence from students," said study co-author Darcy Santor. "We also asked about the experience of harassment and violence from parents, colleagues and administrators." Santor is a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa.

"One of the things we heard from teachers was that even a simple apology for this inappropriate behaviour is not something that's expected or something that comes from either the young person or from the families of these young people," said Santor. "This is creating an atmosphere in which there's lots of bad behavior – which is workplace harassment and violence – which is not being consequented."

MacKay says this relates to a shift from a time when parents and teachers were "on the same side."

Patty Coates worked as an educational assistant in the primary school system for 16 years, and has been a lifelong advocate for teachers. She is Secretary-Treasurer for the Ontario Federation of Labour. (Jennifer Rowsom)

"If you came home and said you got in trouble at school, the likely result is you're also going to get in trouble at home. That dynamic seems to have shifted," MacKay said. Now parents act as the child's ally, "who's going to go to battle and fight with the teacher and the school."

Patty Coates worked for many years as an educational assistant and now advocates for teachers as secretary-treasurer of the Ontario Federation of Labour. She says that changed dynamic between parents and teachers has instilled fear.

"I know that teachers and educational assistants are often quite concerned and they have to watch what they say and how that speak to the child, even touching the child, they have to be very, very cautious nowadays because there are easily accusations." 

Principals also fear parents, says Santor, which may be one reason they hide reports of violent incidents.

"They're afraid of pushback. They're afraid in some instances that parents are prepared to litigate and they are prepared to make a lot of noise. They are prepared to go to superintendents. They're prepared to go to trustees," said Santor, "and that puts administrators in a very difficult position."

The lack of resources in schools is another contributing factor to the rise of violence, according to all three panelists, especially in addressing the needs of students with special needs.

"We heard from one teacher: 24 students in the classroom, six are non-readers, two are learning English as a new language, one has Down syndrome, one has autism, and six have ADHD," said Santor, "and there's no educational assistant in the classroom."

There is consensus among educators that inclusive education, integrating students with special needs in regular classrooms, is a good idea, "but it's not a cheap idea," said MacKay.

"It requires a lot of money and human resources to make it work well," he added. "If you do not follow through with those resources, then it certainly is negative and counter-productive for everyone: for the student with the disability, for the rest of the class, and for the teacher."

Coates says that in a "perfect world," when a violent incident occurs, a support team would enter the school to allow the assaulted teacher and staff to discuss what happened and develop a plan. In fact, schools have to address greater problems with fewer support staff.

Darcy Santor is a professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa who has studied school violence. (Submitted by Darcy Santor)

"There might be a student who requires a full-time educational assistant," but even that isn't enough, "because you need someone to come in and relieve that assistant for breaks, for lunches or if there's another situation in another classroom." said Coates. "You may need more than one educational assistant to go and help, leaving a classroom teacher alone with a vulnerable, complex student."

Santor points out that one half of adults with a mental illness experienced their first symptoms before the age of 14.

"That means that teachers are mental health workers," he said. "They didn't sign up for that job. They've not been trained for it."

The panelists offered some potential remedies.

Coates called for increased staff support, including more educational assistants and psychologists.

Santor said our national standards for psychological health and safety in the workplace need to be respected and implemented in all schools. There is a need for more social and emotional learning skills, teaching students how to verbalize their anxieties.

MacKay pointed to the need for better and more effective connections between parents and teachers in dealing with children in schools.

"If we could get back to a situation where parents and teachers were seen as allies in trying to advance the education and future prospects of their children, I think that would be quite helpful," he said.

Click "listen" above to hear the panel discussion.

Please note: the phrase "educational system" in a quotation from Darcy Santor which appeared in the earlier version of this article, has been changed to "educational assistant".  We apologise for the error.

The Sunday Edition will continue to follow this story on future programs. Up next, we will hear from parents whose children are affected by classroom violence. We invited you to send us your thoughts by clicking here or send an email to