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New study shows spike in violent incidents in Ontario's elementary schools

Last Updated Sep 11, 2019 at 9:03 am EST

A classroom sits empty. UNSPLASH/Rubén Rodriguez

A study from the University of Ottawa suggests there has been a sharp increase in the level of violence teachers face while working in Ontario’s elementary schools.

A team of researchers surveyed more than 1,600 educators last year to gauge the number of times they encountered violence from students, parents or administrators during the 2017-18 school year.

They then compared those results to a survey undertaken by three major unions in 2005, which found that only seven per cent of teachers at the time reported experiencing bullying over the course of their careers.

The researchers found that number had surged nearly seven-fold in the intervening years, with 54 per cent of respondents saying they had experienced physical violence such as punching, kicking or biting — primarily at the hands of students.

The survey found 72 per cent of participants reported explicit verbal insults or obscene gestures from a student, with 41 per cent saying they’d had similar encounters with a parent.

The report says such incidents included anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim slurs delivered in class, taunts of “build the wall,” and calls for teachers to “go back to your country.”

Criminology professor and study co-author Chris Bruckert says the spike reflects many changes in both social conditions and educational programs over the past 12 years.

“When we talk about this as a crisis, that’s not hyperbole,” Bruckert said in a telephone interview. “There is a serious problem in our elementary schools, and it needs attention.”

Bruckert said the issue of violence in the classroom has received scant academic study, citing just 37 peer-reviewed papers completed internationally between 1988 and 2016 and only one focusing on Canadian data.

That article, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence in 2011, had already begun documenting a dramatic surge in teacher-reported violence.

Researchers found 80 per cent of those surveyed reported experiencing some form of physical violence or personal insults at some point in their careers.

Bruckert said the Ottawa research team’s focus on a single school year shines a light on how prevalent the issue has become. She said the root causes are multifaceted, encompassing shifts in everything from poverty levels to in-class expectations.

Changes in Ontario’s educational policies, such as a shift away from zero-tolerance disciplinary approaches and one-size-fits-all education plans, are largely positive steps that nonetheless demand more of teachers, Bruckert said.

She said educators, in turn, are increasingly dealing with students exposed to social conditions that have changed considerably since 2005. Examples she cited included income disparity forcing parents to work multiple jobs, more limited social interactions driven in part by growing reliance on technology, increasing polarization in society at large and the ravages of the national opioid crisis.

Cuts to services both inside and outside of schools exacerbate the issue, she said, adding the various factors contributing to the problem do not rest on the shoulders of any one government or policy.

Bruckert said rates of violence disproportionately impact teachers from a racialized background or those with disabilities, noting they reported higher rates of violence than other survey participants.

She also said disabled students are disproportionately implicated in the study results, noting that while students with more specialized needs are reported to “act out” more often, they and the teachers who work with them are increasingly left without necessary supports in and out of class.

“To blame them is putting the focus absolutely on the wrong place,” she said. “It’s not the kids’ fault and it’s not the teachers’ fault. They need more support.”

Annie Kidder, executive director of advocacy group People for Education, said the research suggests a pressing need to try and understand the root causes behind the spike in violence.

“This increase in violence … is being reported in so many ways that I don’t think you can argue with its reality,” she said. “How do we understand all the factors that go into it, and then figure out what we need to change?”

Kidder said principals routinely call for more educational supports in their schools as well as better training for those filling such roles, a call shared by Bruckert.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education said the government is aware of the issue raised in the study, directly attributing much of the spike to student behaviour.

“We know that aggressive student behaviour in our classrooms is a very real issue and we are working hard to ensure all members of our school communities feel safe,” it said in a statement.

The research noted, however, that the survey respondents also reported violence and harassment from parents, administrators and colleagues.

The survey was administered online between Dec. 4 and 21 2018.

The polling industry’s professional body, the Marketing Research and Intelligence Association, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error as they are not a random sample and therefore are not necessarily representative of the whole population.