'I felt helpless': Teachers call for support amid 'escalating crisis' of classroom violence

Educators say incidents of verbal and physical violence by students targeting staff and fellow classmates are leaving them exhausted — and they’re calling on governments and school boards to provide more support.

Teachers reluctant to report violence over 'fear of repercussions,' Canadian Teachers' Federation says

Educators say incidents of verbal and physical violence by students targeting staff and fellow classmates are leaving them exhausted. (Ben Shannon/CBC)
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Last fall, a Grade 2 teacher was with her class when a student planted himself in front of the doorway.

The seven-year-old boy yelled, "No one's gonna leave the classroom!"

"It was a hostage situation," the Ontario teacher recalled.

When she called the office, the student began to kick and punch an educational assistant, yelling "in a fit of rage" as 17 other students watched helplessly.

It's difficult to pinpoint why young children act out against their teachers, said Judith Weiner, a psychology professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

She filed a report and spoke to representatives from her school board and union, but she said nothing happened.

After working as an elementary teacher for over 20 years, she recently took medical leave due to stress.

"I absolutely feel like I failed," she said. "I'm still beating myself up about the fact that I couldn't cope."

The Sunday Edition has agreed not to name the teacher, who fears being identified could affect her employment.

Root of violence complex

Educators say incidents of verbal and physical violence by students targeting staff and fellow classmates are leaving them exhausted — and they're calling on governments and school boards to provide more support.

Sherri Brown, director of research and professional learning at the Canadian Teachers' Federation (CTF), describes the current state as an "escalating crisis."

Last year, the national organization compiled the results of a survey conducted for the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO). The online survey, which polled its 81,000 members, found that 70 per cent of Ontario elementary teachers reported experiencing or witnessing violence during the 2016-17 school year.

Verbal threats, physical assault and incidents involving weapons were among the most frequently reported, according to Brown.

These were the results of an online survey conducted for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario in relation to the 2016-17 school year. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

But it's difficult to pinpoint why young children act out against their teachers, said Judith Weiner, a psychology professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Elementary students, in particular, struggle with "emotion regulation" and may be "modeling" behaviour learned at home.

"They hear parents issuing verbal threats at each other," she said. "That's a very big part of what the kid has learned of how to deal with issues when someone doesn't do what you want."

As for physical violence, Weiner explained, younger children are more likely to display this kind of aggression because of how socialization works.

Children have challenges and complexities, and the system is just starved.- Sherri Brown, Canadian Teachers' Federation

"Kids just don't know how to problem-solve in any type of conflict situation," she said. "As kids get older, they know not to use their fists. They realize that is going to have bigger consequences."

While CTF's review of its survey did not identify a root cause, Brown said a child's socio-economic background, mental health and special needs all possess "escalation potential" for violence.

"Children's disabilities manifest in behaviours when they don't have access to proper supports and services," said Brown.

Larger class sizes have also "exacerbated" the potential for violence, she said.

"It's not about children somehow being in the wrong. Children have challenges and complexities, and the system is just starved," Brown said.

Last spring, Ontario's former Liberal government released the Workplace Violence in School Boards: A Guide to the Law to help schools develop workplace violence policies. At the time, the province also pledged to fund an online reporting tool to simplify the process. The Sunday Edition reached out to Ontario's ministries of education and labour regarding the status of these measures, but did not receive a response.

Reluctance to report violence

Educators are also reluctant to report incidents of violence by students for "fear of repercussions," Brown said.

Results from ETFO's members showed only 22 per cent of teachers said they would report cases of verbal or physical violence, and less than a quarter said steps were taken to prevent future incidents.

"Many feel reporting isn't going to garner new supports or services, so why would they report it?" Brown said.

The Toronto District School Board declined an interview with The Sunday Edition, but said in an email statement "when incidents happen, the principal investigates and then works with staff, students and/or their families to address the issue.

"As each case is unique, there is no one solution. However, any act of violence can and does result in discipline, which can include suspension," said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird.

"Depending on the circumstances, additional supports can also be offered to help support the students and/or classroom."

I am not a trained psychologist. I am not a trained social worker. But I am expected to provide these roles for these students every day.- Kindergarten teacher

But a kindergarten teacher, who The Sunday Edition has also agreed not to name, decried "a shortage of support."

She said she is "kicked, punched, slapped, hit with objects, thrown chairs at, spat at, sworn at" on a daily basis.

Behavioural consultants at the school have suggested calming corners, dimmed lighting and meditation, she claimed, but did little to calm an angry child.

"The list is really endless of what I'm trying and it's very sad not to be able to have an answer or a strategy that's working."

"I am not a trained psychologist. I am not a trained social worker. But I am expected to provide these roles for these students every day."

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)

The teacher recalled an incident when a seven-year-old boy was hitting other students with a shovel in the schoolyard.

When she intervened, he "hit me with a shovel on my right leg, repeatedly, over and over again, while he swore at me," she said.

The teacher called for help from staff, but in the meantime, stood motionless in the hopes the boy wouldn't turn his attention back to the students.

She filed the required reports, but nothing happened, she said.

The kindergarten teacher recently took an extended leave, though she's now back in the classroom.

"I don't want to be forced out of my profession and my love of my job because of a lack of support."

David Mastin, ETFO's Durham local president, says his region is losing teachers within their first five years on the job.

"We have so many of our members off on long-term disability because of the anguish and mental strain that is part of their jobs," he said.

Teachers, unions leery of training

Some Ontario schools and boards are encouraging educators to take Nonviolent Crisis Intervention training, a de-escalation program, run by the Milwaukee-based Crisis Prevention Institute. The training can range from a one-day classroom seminar to four days to become certified to teach it.

Trainees learn how to calm a child in the midst of a crisis by detecting signs of anxiety and anger, and how to respond to a physical altercation, including how to safely hold a child. 

"I really don't believe half a day or a day is enough," said Terri-Lynn Platt, health and safety coordinator with the Elementary Teachers of Toronto. "It can become very violent, very quickly."

The training stresses that physical intervention should only be used if the child is in "imminent danger," Platt said. Regardless of that caveat, teachers and unions remain leery of the program.

Platt argued that whoever takes the training ends up becoming the school's defacto crisis person.

"I will tell teachers it is wise not to have that training."

Chris Broadbent, a former health and safety manager at the Toronto District School Board who is part of the province's Working Group on Health and Safety, stressed that in the case of a violent incident, teachers can always "summon immediate assistance," whether it be from principals, educational assistants or other staff.

"There's no doubt that there are issues in our province and some of our schools. But to paint the situation that this is happening every day in a majority of our schools in the province is probably not accurate."

I felt helpless not being able to reach out and wrap my arms around these kids and say, 'We're going to have a good day.'- Grade 2 teacher

Broadbent said where the safety of a child is in danger, teachers are required to intervene just as a judicious parent would.

"The Education Act is pretty clear about the expectations of a teacher," he said.

"I understand ... the hesitation ... because there have been situations in the province where a teacher is seen to have violated that expectation and is sent home pending an investigation."

"But, if they have followed [training], then there should be no further consequences."

Students are 'the victims'

For the Grade 2 teacher, the last straw came when her vice-principal gave her a package that included a protective jacket, with padding in the chest and shoulders.

"As I opened it up, I'm looking at it, going, what the hell is this?"

Personal protective equipment can include Kevlar jackets, neck, shin and wrist guards, helmets and spit guards.

"Nowhere in my teaching career did I ever expect to have to put one of these on in a classroom," she said.

She went on medical leave shortly after.

But wants to make it clear that despite the physical and emotional duress she has endured, she worries most about the students — those who act out, and others in the classroom.

"I felt helpless. I felt helpless not being able to reach out and wrap my arms around these kids and say, 'We're going to have a good day; we're going to learn; we're going to have fun; we're going to feel safe; it's going to be OK," she said.

"They are the victims."

The Sunday Edition wants to hear your thoughts and experiences about violence in the classroom. Send us a message here.

'Hard Lessons' is produced by The Sunday Edition's Alisa Siegel. Story written by Jonathan Ore and Amara McLaughlin.