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Kevlar sleeves and spit guards: Teachers ‘worn down’ by violence

'People who go into education did not expect to have to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) to protect them from physical violence, and yet, that is the reality in our classrooms,' says union rep
2019-05-28 Education town hall RB 8
Jen Hare, teachers bargaining unit president for Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation District 17 Simcoe County in a file photo. Raymond Bowe/BarrieToday

Teachers are retiring early and are leaving the profession, partially due to rising incidents of violence in schools, according to four teachers unions in Simcoe County.

The unions say some teachers who are staying are donning helmets, Kevlar arm guards and spit shields to protect themselves. The unions are accusing schools boards of being less supportive now than they once were of teachers who are attacked by students.

The issue is one close to Simcoe County teacher Jen Hare, who was violently assaulted by a student while working, giving her a fractured skull and ruptured eardrum.

In March 2014, Hare was working as a county classroom teacher as an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) specialist. She would work with high-school-aged students with ASD, all of whom were non-verbal.

One student attacked another student in her classroom, and Hare got between them to separate them. The student then turned his attention to her, and she was assaulted so badly she suffered from a fractured skull and ruptured eardrum.

“I was off work for just under two years,” says Hare. “There are a lot of EAs that suffer injuries, but that was just an average day. We were hit all the time.”

Hare notes violence is no longer mostly just occurring by students with special needs, but it now extends into most classrooms.

“What we’re seeing more now is mainstream violence. It’s not necessarily just those with an IEP (individual education plan),” she says, adding a lack of response to early behaviour is a key factor.

Hare recalls in her early days of teaching 20 years ago, administration would take discipline more seriously.

“Now what we’re seeing is, administration will ask, ‘What have you done to cause this?’ or ‘What steps have you taken to mitigate it before it ended up here?’ says Hare.

“If a student had a violent incident in school, it used to be common to expel a student,” she says. “Boards can be fearful of how parents will react. Are the parents going to sue us? Are we going to be accused of being unfair or biased? A lot of the behaviour is overlooked. A hundred per cent, (teachers) feel unsupported. They are so worn down.”

In the 10 years since, Hare, who serves as the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) bargaining unit president for Simcoe County, says she wishes local school boards had made more progress on protecting teachers from escalating student behaviour in their workplaces. And with more teachers opting to take early retirement and fewer teachers moving up to fill their positions, Hare says the issue will only get worse.

“It’s far more common than the average parent knows,” says Hare.

Hare says her union isn’t seeing many teachers outright quit, but they are seeing a lot of teachers leave through early retirement.

“They’re not waiting for their maximum pension contributions, and they’re leaving the profession altogether. A lot of that does speak to student behaviour,” says Hare.

While Hare points to the rise of violent incidents in schools across Ontario, including in Simcoe County, she says less discussed are the consequences of violence favouring a lenient approach.

According to a SCDSB board report presented to trustees in December, there were 159 violent incidents in Simcoe County public schools in the 2022/23 school year, a 30.3 per cent increase over the previous year.

“I think that report is incredibly under-reported from our staff. It could be how they’re defining violence,” says Hare. “We most commonly see aggressive incidents, which aren’t included.”

Violent incidents are defined by the Ministry of Education as possessing a weapon (including possessing a firearm), physical assault causing bodily harm requiring medical attention, sexual assault, robbery, using a weapon to cause or to threaten bodily harm to another person, extortion and hate/bias-motivated occurrences.

According to the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB), violent incidents can also include incidents where no one was harmed or required medical attention. Those incidents may still be dealt with by school administration through suspension, detention or expulsion, but are not required to be reported to the province and were not included in the school board's violent incident reporting.

Donnie Mills, president of the Simcoe County Elementary Teachers’ Federation, says the exclusion of those violent incidents not requiring medical attention skews the reporting. 

“I was flabbergasted by that number and how low it was,” says Mills, noting it does make more sense when considering the narrow definition of the term ‘violent incident’ used by the board and the province.

“Statistics can be used to say anything. I’m not suggesting that number is false. I’m suggesting that number is misleading because it doesn’t paint a complete picture,” says Mills. “They downplay the significance of the violence in schools.”

When a violent incident occurs in a school involving a teacher, the union receives a report on the incident.

Hare estimates there were thousands of incidents last year. She says since September 2023, she’s had about 35 reports alone.

Kent MacDonald, president of the Simcoe Muskoka branch of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) representing elementary teachers, says the numbers of violent incident reports this year that have come across his desk number in the hundreds, and Mills confirmed his report numbers are roughly the same, taking into account the difference in number of teachers between the public and Catholic boards.

Violence is on the rise in both elementary and secondary schools across Ontario, according to the province, though a request to the Ministry of Education in the summer produced no specific statistics. The ministry said at that time work was being done to make sure accurate and complete data would be reported and so no stats from 2021/22 or 2022/23 were available. 

When asked what teachers are doing to protect themselves at work, Hare says public secondary teachers are told to never be alone with a child, and to evacuate classroom or hallway spaces to protect other students from a student who may be escalating.

Mills says there are teachers and education workers in Simcoe County now who wear not only Kevlar arm guards, but also spit shields, shin guards and helmets to go to work.

MacDonald says he’s also hearing Catholic elementary teachers are wearing Kevlar sleeves, which can protect from cuts and scratches.

“People who go into education did not expect to have to wear PPE (personal protective equipment) to protect them from physical violence, and yet, that is the reality in our classrooms,” says Mills.

Mills, who has been teaching since 1994, says he never expected to see what teachers today are experiencing at work.

“Hopefully new teachers coming in are doing so with their eyes wide open,” he says.

Mills says it is a regular occurrence – estimating it happens at least every other week – where a teacher in Simcoe County is injured at work and needs to seek medical attention. He says teachers have received serious injuries, such as concussions, through violent incidents.

All four union representatives confirmed that they have teachers in their unions who have had to take time off work to recover from a serious injury sustained during a violent incident at school.

Allyn Janicki, president of the Simcoe Muskoka branch of OECTA representing secondary teachers, points to a report completed in 2021 at the University of Ottawa called In Harm’s Way: The Epidemic of Violence Against Education Sector Workers in Ontario.

As part of that study, a survey of education workers found that one in six classroom-based workers and school support staff were either at imminent risk of burnout (7.21 per cent) or would meet formal criteria for burnout (7.86 per cent).

She says recent high school graduates are not entering faculties of education this year, and many faculties in Ontario have had to extend their application deadlines.

“We’ve certainly seen a rise in medical leaves and unpaid leaves,” says Janicki. “Violence is 100 per cent an issue. Discipline is 100 per cent an issue.”

Janicki notes that teachers are expected to self-report violent incidents to the school board, which can be an onerous process that takes more time out of their day.

“The spectrum is enormous and the duty of keeping up with that reporting, they’ve said, is an exceptional burden,” she says. “There are a lot of problems with the system.”

“Members have frequently reported that they feel unsafe and fearful in their workplace due to threats, intimidation, and an escalation of physical altercations, vandalism and in some instances, criminality within our buildings,” says Janicki.

MacDonald spoke about a study done by the Ontario Teachers Federation, surveying students coming out of teacher’s college.

Through that study, MacDonald says about 20 per cent of newly graduated teachers are paying Ontario Teacher’s College dues, but aren’t actively working in education.

“The working conditions...have always kind of been baptism by fire for new teachers,” he says.

MacDonald also pointed to parents being more vocal, which he says isn’t always a bad thing, but can bring its challenges. He notes he hears from teachers who are within their first five years of teaching out of college, concerned with what they’re facing in the classroom.

“The pendulum has swung a little bit where school boards are not as likely to support the principal and the teacher. A number of (teachers) are leaving, or questioning,” he says.

“My concern with violent incidents is, some teachers might feel that this is the new normal, and it shouldn’t be. We shouldn’t be going to work to be hit, spit on or kicked,” says MacDonald.

Sarah Kekewich, communications manager for the SCDSB, says the public board currently has a full staffing complement of teachers in both their elementary and secondary schools. She acknowledged that the board did have some staffing challenges during COVID-19, however, the board’s human resources department does active recruiting which has helped.

“We do, however, continue to seek teachers in the French language and technology areas, as would be consistent with province-wide recruitment trends in the education sector,” says Kekewich.

Of the 5,000 teachers employed at the SCDSB, Kekewich says there have been 10 teachers who have left the board not due to retirement in that time.

“All others who have left the board during this same time period have left due to retirement,” she says.

When asked by CollingwoodToday what the board has done to train teachers to deal with violence in classrooms, Kekewich pointed to violent threat risk assessment (VTRA) training which was done in collaboration with the Simcoe County Catholic board, which intends to help school administrators identify early risk factors that can point to future violent behaviour.

“Additionally, the 2023-24 budget included funding for additional staff to support student mental health and well-being,” she says.

Pauline Stevenson, communications manager with the SMCDSB, told CollingwoodToday that staff recruitment and retention continues to be a concern at the Catholic board.

“There have been a lot of retirements during and post COVID-19,” says Stevenson. “This is something that we knew was on the horizon based on the sheer number of employees that we hired in the late 1990s and early 2000s who are now of retirement age.”

Stevenson points to teacher’s college moving from a one-year to a two-year program, and notes that Simcoe County has been determined provincially as a growth area.

“Essentially, at a time when we are requiring more teachers, there are fewer graduates provincially,” she says. “It is a bit of a vicious cycle, added stressors can lead to absenteeism, and since we can’t adequately fill vacancies, this adds additional strain.”

Stevenson acknowledges that educators are facing new and changing dynamics in classrooms.

“Students, especially after COVID-19, have increasingly complex needs and there has been a change in the kind and frequency of behavioural challenges educators are facing as a result,” she says. “The expectations from parents and guardians also continue to change and become more complex. There is no doubt that today’s educators find themselves navigating a wide range of responsibilities and issues that simply were not present even a decade ago.”

“We want to ensure our educators have the resources, supports, tools and training they need to respond to the changes they may be experiencing in the classroom,” she says.

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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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