Ontario teachers feel unsafe amid rising violence in schools, unions say

A number of disturbing incidents at GTA schools is raising concerns about a rise in violence. Faiza Amin speaks with two teacher unions who say things are getting worse.

By Faiza Amin and Meredith Bond

After five students were charged with assault following a hallway brawl at Tommy Douglas Secondary School, two different teachers’ unions say some of their members feel unsafe going to work.

“There has been [always] violence in the classroom. I started teaching in 1991, but I think there really is an increase now, and we’ve done some research on our own, and it shows that that’s what educators, teachers, feel is happening in the classrooms now,” said Karen Littlewood with the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF).

In a poll taken by OSSTF, 35 per cent of their teacher members reported having physical aggression used against them. Almost 80 per cent of educational assistants reported physical aggression.

“Those numbers are concerning. Students are witnessing these incidents,” said Littlewood.

In Durham, more than 20 Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) members exercised their right to refuse unsafe work last month at a school in Oshawa.

“Inappropriate behaviours are going unaddressed by administrators and the school board which further normalizes violence in our schools,” read a statement from ETFO. After discussions with the Durham District School Board, they returned to work the following Monday.

“All employees are back at work, and we are confident that the presenting concerns have been satisfactorily addressed,” said the Durham District School Board in a statement.

When asked if they have noticed an increase in violent incidents, the board said a review of violent incident data focuses on more than just the number of incidents in order to understand the specific situation and the best response.

“It is important to note that many factors impact the number of violent incidents and as a growing board in student enrolment, it is difficult to compare year over year,” read their statement.

The school board, also in response to ETFO Durham, said any harmful or disruptive behaviour that impacts student learning or school climate is addressed at the school level.

“While it is crucial to maintain confidentiality in the interest of protecting students, administration will work with staff and key stakeholders to communicate expectations and protocols for moving forward in response to particular incidents.”

The female students who were the alleged victims of the assault in York Region last month said they had been warning administrators for weeks about the same group of girls involved in the brawl but said they failed to address the situation.

Littlewood tells CityNews it’s a result of not enough funds being put into Ontario schools.

“Students should be safe. The adults should be safe. But this is all a result of chronic underfunding of the public education system where we don’t have the supports in place to meet the needs of the students.”

Littlewood said teachers have a duty to report these types of incidents and should have the knowledge that they will be supported by the principals and vice-principals, but shares administrators have discouraged their members to report violence and aggression.

“Too often, administrators say, ‘The student didn’t mean it or don’t bother reporting that or it’s okay.’ It’s not okay. It doesn’t have to be like this in Ontario. But without the money behind the schools to provide all of the supports, this is the result.”

But she doesn’t blame them.

“They don’t have the resources that they need to meet the needs of the students. We’re basically putting a Band-Aid on the system and hoping that it’s going to work.”

The Ministry of Education said they have invested $24 million this school year on enhancing school safety and $114 million to better support Ontario students with mental health resources.

“Our government will work collaboratively with parents, education staff, law enforcement, and community to keep schools safe from rising violence,” read their statement.

They added they could not comment on the specific incident that happened at Tommy Douglas due to the police investigation.

“We have not been addressing the needs of the students. There’s a chronic lack of mental health support, social workers, psychologists within the schools. And we’re not able to do that early intervention and to address needs. And the results are what we’re seeing now in the headlines,” continued Littlewood.

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