In a recent Alberta Teachers’ Association survey of members, 52 per cent of teachers said they have experienced bullying or violence in their work environment at some point since the beginning of this school year. The aggression occurred in person 95 per cent of the time, and in 60 per cent of the cases, the violence was perpetrated by students in the teachers’ own classrooms. A 2018 Canadian Teachers’ Federation meta-analysis of seven member organizations found that up to 94 per cent of teachers had reported or experienced violence at some point in their career, mostly within three years of the study.
What actions are available to teachers who have been victims of student aggression?
Aggression can take various forms, including verbal, physical and emotional. Physical aggression by a student toward a teacher may or may not constitute assault. A variety of factors are considered, including the student’s age, the student’s background, and the nature and intent of the physical contact. Where assault is suspected, a teacher has the right to call the police. Whether or not physical contact by a student constitutes assault, teachers have a legal right to work in a safe and caring environment.
In addition to physical aggression, teachers can be subject to other forms of aggression, such as microaggressions, rude and disruptive behaviour, and intimidation.
Students who exhibit severe behavioural issues that make teachers vulnerable to harm require special supports and, in some cases, programming considerations. A coordinated effort is required to ensure that the teacher is not harmed. This can include a modified placement, an effective program or behavioural plan, a response plan that involves the parents, support from an educational assistant, and possible disciplinary action.
Legislation provides authority for actions that school and school division leaders need to take in order to ensure the safety of the school environment. Teachers have the legislated right to suspend a student from a class for one period. Principals can suspend a student for up to five days, after which time the student returns to school or is subject to expulsion.
Section 33 of the Education Act imposes obligations on a school division to ensure that each staff member is provided with a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment. Occupational health and safety legislation also imposes obligations on employers and on supervisors to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of employees. More specifically, it holds the expectation that no employee is subjected to harassment or violence at the work site. A teacher who believes that the action of a student constitutes harassment should consider whether a harassment complaint to the school division is appropriate.
School and school division leaders must lead courageously in responding to student aggression. Fear of parent backlash is no excuse for lack of action. Although most parents are engaged in their child’s education and support their child’s teacher, 69 per cent of teachers in the Association’s survey reported that students or parents in their school community have made negative references to sexual orientation and gender identity, and 63 per cent reported prejudicial comments related to race.
In the survey, teachers identified the importance of implementing concrete solutions, including establishing consistent and fair student discipline protocols, prioritizing teacher and school leader safety, providing inservice support to teachers in addressing aggressive behaviour, holding parents accountable, creating a school atmosphere where teachers and school leaders are comfortable reporting and managing aggression, providing appropriate specialized programs and accommodations for aggressive students, and addressing understaffing and overcrowded classrooms.
Teachers should be involved in crafting solutions to student violence in schools and should support one another in taking action. A teacher who suffers harm should immediately report the incident to the principal; document the incident within the school; seek medical intervention where necessary; consider whether the student’s placement and programming are appropriate; engage the school, the division and the parents; and consider whether authorities (such as the police or child welfare) should be involved. #WEAREATA
Updates from ATA Provincial