Workplace safety a major concern for Ontario elementary teachers: survey

November 7, 2012

About once a month, Sandye Moore comes home from work with cuts or bruises. She's an elementary school teacher, and her job description isn't one commonly associated with workplace violence.

A new survey, however, conducted on behalf of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario has found that 78 per cent of local union leaders list workplace violence as a major concern for their teacher members. Some, like Ms. Moore, work with developmentally challenged students who sometimes show their frustration by biting, punching, or kicking. Others struggle with handling regular stream students with anger management or behavioural issues, and, in some cases, schoolyard fights.

"We've had students that have been so aggressive we've had to take the rest of the class out of the room because we feared for their safety," said Ms. Moore, who works at John Darling Public School in Kitchener, Ont.

The majority of local union leaders (87 per cent) also said they feel like teachers don't get enough training in how to deal with physical violence, and 49 per cent said that principals don't adequately investigate or deal with complaints of violence.

"Partly their hands are tied," said Donna Howey, president of the Grand Erie District School Board's local bargaining unit, and one of those who completed the survey. "There are inadequate human resources for the principal, to say, assign an [education assistant] to help manage the student."

Ms. Howey said many principals seem to underestimate the mental and emotional strain potentially violent students can take on teachers, and that the problem is growing as the incident rates of behavioural and developmental disorders such as autism continue to climb.

School are moving toward integrating special needs students into regular stream classrooms rather than segregating them. Ms. Howey supports this shift, but she says the problem is that regular stream teachers don't have the training to cope with these high-needs students, particularly when they are inclined to be violent.

"We're talking students with special needs and mental health issues that are not in control of their behaviour and they're acting out," she said. "It's pretty stressful for teachers."

Seventy out of 72 local union leaders completed the survey, which was distributed online in June and July. It asked respondents to rate issues on a six-point scale ranging from "a great concern" to "not a concern."

(Ads will not print)