Is student-on-teacher violence on the rise in Ontario?

Research from the University of Ottawa suggests that educators are increasingly confronting violent incidents in classrooms across the province
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Jan 13, 2020
A recent report found that, in the 2017-18 school year, 54 per cent of Ontario educators reported experiencing violence in the classroom during their career. (iStock.com/recep-bg)

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“I’ve been kicked, pinched, punched, scratched, hit, slapped, had things thrown at me, bitten, spit on, threatened — you name it, it’s happened,” says Wendy Goodes. She’s not talking about working in law enforcement or security: she’s describing her final years with Peterborough’s Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board.

Goodes, who retired in June 2018 after 37 years of teaching, says that student-on-teacher violence, once rare, has shot up over the past decade: “When I first started teaching, you didn’t see any of those kinds of behaviours. At the end of my career, it was quite common for an announcement to come on asking teachers to keep their kids in the classroom, which meant that a student was in the hall and was escalating.”

Her observations are backed up by a September 2019 report, produced by two University of Ottawa professors, that found that while in 2005, 7 per cent of Ontario educators said that they had experienced violence in the classroom at some point in their career, that number had grown to 54 per cent in the 2017-18 school year.

“I grew up in a school system in which you were expected to be respectful. You were expected to rein in that kind of behaviour,” says Darcy Santor, a clinical psychologist and a co-author of the U of O study. “These days, it’s very different. There is an expectancy to express your dissatisfaction in any way that you like, and, as a result, students have discovered that they can become aggressive and, at times, extremely violent.”

Santor suggests that increased expectations from teachers and parents, as well as the influence of social media, have contributed to heightened “frustration levels” in students. “[With social media], we expect to get immediate responses to what we say and do,” he says, adding that students aren’t equipped with the emotional tools to manage frustration: “Simply say how you feel. Seek help for difficulty. Find middle ground. These are not skills that are being taught. It’s debatable that we ever taught those skills, but they’re increasingly important now.”

Educators are starting to take more steps to address the issue. Last month, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario held a workplace-violence symposium in Toronto — 49 organizations from across the country were represented, including school boards, teachers’ unions, and mental-health groups. 

“One of the focuses in the symposium was that [classroom violence is] becoming normalized, we’re becoming desensitized to it, and that’s a huge problem,” says Sam Hammond, president of ETFO. “We’re looking not just at our members, but at the health and safety well-being of everyone in that community.”

The ETFO, which represents 83,000 public-school educators, is currently negotiating a new labour agreement with the provincial government, and Hammond says that it has raised the subject of student violence. “Our members’ focus through the pre-bargaining survey was additional supports and resources for students with unique learning needs,” he says. “That is a focus at the table.”

Hammond notes that, under the previous agreement with the Liberal government, approximately $90 million was set aside for the hiring of additional special-education teachers to assist students with special needs or those who may be at risk. He’d like to see a similar commitment made in the new one. “Our members on the ground who deal with this every day, that’s their number-one focus,” he says. “Supports and resources for students — and for them as members.”

The Ministry of Education told TVO.org via email that Ontario schools must be safe not just for students, but also for their families and the wider school community.  “That is why our government has invested more in mental health, special education funding for students, along with de-escalation training for staff,” a spokesperson wrote. “We know there is more to do to improve the safety of students and staff. In the voluntary agreement that we reached with CUPE in 2019, the government restored the Local Priorities Fund and hired over 1000 front-line workers, who are keeping classrooms safe for all students.”

Study co-author Chris Bruckert, a criminologist, is not surprised that the issue of violence in Ontario schools has come up during negotiations. “Even increasing class sizes — if you increase class sizes, then you have more children,” he says. “If you have more children, you’ve increased the tension and increased the possibility for things to go sideways.”

In the last years of her career, Goodes taught in the board’s Learning and Life Skills program, which is designed to integrate kids with developmental disabilities and special needs into traditional classrooms. Many of her students, she says, had ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, and autism.

“Violence was prevalent when I was in the regular classroom as well,” says Goodes. “But hugely prevalent in my special-needs classroom.” (In 2018, the president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation said that integrating children with special needs without proper supports has led to an increase in violence against teachers.)

In an emailed statement to TVO.org, Diane Lloyd, chairperson of the Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board, said that student and staff safety is the “highest priority.”

“As a public school board, we welcome all students, and sometimes they arrive with a number of special needs,” Lloyd said. “When we are aware of students who have behavioural issues that may cause them to become upset or lash out, we ensure staff members are aware of them beforehand. We also work with multidisciplinary teams of staff and community representatives to create safety plans for some students, to help the students and keep our staff safe.”

Goodes says that, in addition to the supports the ETFO has asked for, there need to be more resources available for students with special needs. In Goodes’s second year in special education, she and an educational assistant documented 175 violent incidents between October and March of the school year — all of them involving a single Grade 4 student. She was trying to make a case, she says, for hiring a care worker for the student.

“Most of the time, these kids that escalate are totally unaware of what they’re doing when they do it,” says Goodes. “It’s the disability; it’s the mental-health issues. And, when they’re reaching out in such an agitated way, in such an aggressive way, they are trying to communicate. I understand that it’s not necessarily a personal attack.”

If the students who need it most don’t receive support, Goodes says, the violence will continue to escalate, putting students and teachers at risk and hindering young people’s ability to realize their potential. “These kids are so magical,” says Goodes. “Despite the aggression, despite the anger — I mean, I have pictures of completely trashed classrooms — when they make progress, or they meet a goal, it is truly one of the most amazing experiences ever.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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