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In school boards across Canada, more educators say they’re being hurt on the job, according to data reviewed by The Globe and Mail. But there are gaps in data collection, and debates over the reasons for the rise in reports of violence. How do school boards keep teachers safe while ensuring an education for students with complex needs?

The words in the injury reports speak volumes: “I was repeatedly hit on the head, shoulders, chest and back,” wrote an educator in Edmonton, describing an encounter with a violent student at school. A child “scratched both my arms and drew blood,” wrote another.

A third indicates that a student was asked to follow a routine of going to the bathroom and then having a snack with classmates, but “verbally protested no and punched me in the jaw.”

Biting. Kicking. Spitting. Scratching. Punching. Blows to the head. Aggressive, often violent, reported incidents against educators are on the rise, a Globe and Mail survey of data from school boards across the country has found.

Educators at the Toronto District School Board, the country’s largest school district, logged 3,831 reports of workplace violence over the past academic year, up from 1,894 reports in 2014-15. In Edmonton, the number of violent incidents against staff members involving students documented by Edmonton Public Schools more than doubled between the 2015-16 academic year and 2017-18. At the Surrey School District, the largest in B.C., the number of reported violent incidents by a student against a staff member climbed from 190 in 2008-09 to 1,642 in the 2017-18 school year.

New research by University of Ottawa professors Darcy Santor and Chris Bruckert confirms the troubling rise. In a paper released this month, the researchers say that while 7 per cent of educators in Ontario’s schools reported being the target of physical violence by students in 2005, by 2017-18, the rate had increased to 54 per cent experiencing violence by physical force, which included being hit, kicked and bitten by students. It characterizes the rate of violence as “alarmingly high."

While the number of reported incidents is increasing, gaps in the data make it difficult to determine which types of incidents are most frequent, why they’re occurring and the characteristics of the students involved. Statistics on violence instigated by students against educators is inconsistent across the country, and some boards and provinces don’t even collect them.

But in interviews with The Globe, board administrators and educators cited a handful of factors, including mental-health issues, child poverty and the integration of special-needs students with complex behavioural issues into mainstream classrooms.

The result? Classrooms being repeatedly evacuated because of a disruptive child; staff on medical leave for prolonged periods after being physically hurt; families increasingly asked to pick up their children early or keep them home for an indefinite period because of behavioural issues; and other parents fearing for the safety of their own children.

The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario describes violence in schools as one of the biggest issues facing its members. In Nova Scotia, one classroom was evacuated 12 times in a month, says Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, because of a disruptive child. The rest of the students were forced into another room to give the student a chance to calm down. Many teachers and school staff live in a heightened state of anxiety, he said, and it is not uncommon for them to be injured on the job and be fitted with bite-resistant sleeves and other protective equipment.

“At a time when we’re starting to reduce the stigma around PTSD for first responders, for people that serve in the Canadian military … I think we have a lot of road to travel in that regard as it pertains to teachers that suffer violence in the classroom,” he says.

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Paul Wozney, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers' Union, speaks with a colleague in his office in Halifax. Like educators across the country, he's concerned about the violence that teachers face in the classroom and the systemic problems of helping pupils with complex needs. A Globe and Mail review of data from various school boards found increasing numbers of reported incidents, but also inconsistencies in the statistics different boards and provinces keep.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail requested data on violent incidents in schools committed by students against educators from 21 boards across Canada, including the largest school board in each province, as well as the 10 provincial ministries of education. Fourteen school boards responded with data. Of those, seven boards provided specific numbers around reports of student-to-educator incidents, which showed a general increase. Five boards provided more general employee workplace-violence reports, which also showed an overall increase in incidents, the majority of which involved students. Two boards provided all incidents of violence, but did not separate student-to-staff events.

Some boards provided a decade worth of data, and others, such as the Anglophone South School District in New Brunswick and Winnipeg School Division, provided only one or two years of data.

Of the 10 provincial ministries of education, only Nova Scotia provided data on the issue – in the 2015-16 school year, there were 631 recorded incidents against an educator by a student, and the following year, there were 683, the vast majority occurring at the elementary-school level, the government says, characterizing it as a “mild” increase but also adding that “one is too many." The Ontario government, meanwhile, declined a Freedom of Information request, saying it doesn’t collect information on violent incidents against educators. The ministries of education in Saskatchewan and Manitoba also say they don’t collect the information or referred The Globe to their school boards. Both B.C. and Alberta referred The Globe to their workers’ compensation boards, both of which provided data around the increase in claims among staff in schools.

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A sample of the form Toronto District School Board teachers fill out when they report violence on the job. This section asks whether the assailant was a student and whether a weapon was used.TDSB

Even within a province, the data-gathering was inconsistent. The Globe requested violent incidents by students against educators from the 10 largest boards in Ontario, which represent roughly half the student population of the province.

The Halton District School Board in southwestern Ontario provided violent incidents reported by staff on forms titled “Employee Incident Report – Aggression.” It shows that staff in elementary schools submitted 2,714 reports in the last academic year, up from 1,757 reports in 2014-15. The majority of incidents, the board says, would be student-related, but some may be caused by parents or co-workers, for example.

Meanwhile, the nearby Peel District School Board denied a Freedom of Information request asking for the total number of violent incidents by students against staff, responding that “no board record exists in the manner requested.” A spokeswoman says a new reporting form being used this school year will allow the board to extract the data going forward.

New online reporting processes – as opposed to a pencil and paper form in the main office at school – may account for the increased number of reports on violence. In Edmonton, where the city’s largest public board has seen a rise in the number of aggressive incidents reported (from 3,207 incidents in 2015-16 to 8,959 in the 2017-18 school year), staff may be documenting more incidents as they become familiar with the new system, the district says.

There are “huge information gaps” around the occurrence of workplace violence in general, says Peter Smith, a senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto. “But in particular,” he says “in a high-risk sector such as education, there’s a lot of information we don’t know.”

Female educators bear the brunt of the violence, says Dr. Smith, who co-authored a study released last year that looked at gender differences in injuries attributed to workplace violence in Ontario over 13 years. In it, he and his colleagues found that violent incidents are increasing exponentially for women in the education sector and that female educators were four to six times more likely than their male counterparts to experience assaults that required time off work.

The data is based on workers’ compensation claims, but Dr. Smith acknowledges it does not tell the full story. Who are the perpetrators? Why is it occurring? What is the context in which it occurs, whether it is in the classroom or on the playground?

“Really, if we want to get serious about preventing violence, we need to know much more … so we can have targeted intervention strategies to reduce it. If we don’t have good surveillance, we don’t know if we’re reducing it or not,” he says.

Several school-board administrators interviewed by The Globe suggested that the number of violent incidents in education are on the rise because unions are encouraging their members to report or because the new online reporting system makes the task easier. Even minor incidents, such as a student using foul language, are included, some say. On the other side, union officials say the numbers don’t paint an accurate picture because educators are sometimes discouraged by administrators to report incidents.

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Mr. Wozney says the problems caused by child poverty can spill out into the nation's classrooms, with violent results.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Wozney in Nova Scotia describes a system in crisis as it relates to supports for children with all sorts of needs. He says schools are dealing with “exploding” mental-health issues as early as the primary grades. The stresses that come with child poverty and a troubled home life also play out in the country’s classrooms, he says.

“What’s really interesting about it is that people historically have viewed violence against teachers as sort of juvenile delinquents exhibiting criminal behaviour toward adults. And I think violence is no longer so simple or convenient,” he says.

David Mastin, the former head of the Durham local of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, east of Toronto, and who now works at the provincial office, says school staff in Durham are exposed to violence at “unprecedented levels.” Mr. Mastin and several others contacted by The Globe cited the integration of children with complex needs into mainstream classrooms as one of the most significant reasons for the rise. Over the past few decades – and as a result of shifts in thinking combined with lobbying from parents and advocacy groups – schools began integrating more of these children in regular classrooms, rather than segregating them in separate schools or rooms. Teaching assistants are “nothing more than safety monitors now,” Mr. Mastin says, as they attend to one crisis after another.

“We want and we believe in an inclusive model of education, because every single kid matters … This can only work when there are proper supports for those kids,” Mr. Mastin says.

Mr. Wozney says the struggle to balance the safety needs of educators with the wide-ranging needs of individual students is a growing challenge for schools.

“Yes, we want to see less teachers suffer harm. At the same time, we want to see kids get the supports that they need to thrive in school. Rather than struggle and melt down, we want those kids to be able to find their home within the public-education system and find a way to get what they need to go on to be productive and healthy students and citizens.”

'I remember thinking that I was dead, that this was it': Listen to Jen Hare talk about how she was attacked on the job and the challenges of teaching students with complex needs.

When Jen Hare worked in a special-education classroom in Barrie, Ont., she wore a Kevlar coat, gloves and a baseball hat lined with hard plastic. One morning, one of her students, a 15-year-old boy diagnosed with autism, had been aggressive, but nothing she characterized as out of the ordinary. She had planned to take him to the gym in the afternoon to work off some of his energy.

The boy, who weighed 280 pounds, had a tendency to attack those much smaller than him, and within seconds of entering the gymnasium, he raised his arms over his head and charged toward a little boy in the corner of the room.

Ms. Hare reacted swiftly. She ran between the two of them and grabbed her student by his sweatshirt, using all her strength to pull him back toward her. He shoved her against a wall and started hitting her on the top of her head and on her face.

An education assistant counted 45 hits before she ran for help, realizing Ms. Hare could not free herself. The incident caused multiple health issues for Ms. Hare, including the diagnosis of a traumatic brain injury (she believes the helmet reduced the severity). The repeated hits also ruptured her left eardrum and she suffered a stroke, which numbed her left side. She was off work for 18 months. Five years later, she still feels the effects: If she accidentally cuts her left hand with a knife when she’s cooking, she won’t feel the pain.

“Where do my rights end and a student’s begin?” Ms. Hare asks. “He has a right to an education, but I have a right to safety and security.”

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The helmet Ms. Hare wore when she was injured on the job.Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The incident is an extreme case of the violence educators say they experience, but Dr. Bruckert, a criminology professor and co-author of the University of Ottawa research, says situations such as these demonstrate the need for more support within classrooms. “If we are going to have an integrated model, if we are going to have mainstreaming, we need to have the resources to support the kids in really meaningful ways. Then it can work. And only then,” she says.

Educators are challenged by the complex needs that students have, and the medical expertise of behavioural therapists that families work with outside of school could help ease the burden on the system, says Bill MacGregor, the president of the Peel District School Board’s principals’ and vice-principals’ association. Mr. MacGregor suggests that perhaps schools should also become wellness centres, where school staff welcome community-health agencies into their buildings to support children.

Special-needs students have “every right to be in school,” he says. “They deserve to be in a school. And quite frankly, when their needs are serviced effectively, they add a richness to our learning in schools.”

For her part, Ms. Hare, who returned to teaching for a short time after her 18-month leave before opting to take a job in the union office, does not want the education system to return to a time when special-needs children were excluded from schooling.

However, she agrees that the system is not designed to handle children with complex needs, and perhaps separate microschools providing therapies could be the answer.

“My injuries and the injuries that are reported in the media are not anomalies. This is happening everyday. We are seeing this on a broader scale,” Ms. Hare says. “Even with some intellectually average kids who are in difficult situations and escalate to violence. It’s not just specific to kids with special needs. It is a problem that the system has over all.”

'It's not this one class and this one year, this is a systemic issue': Listen to Nicole Kaler talk about how disabled students are marginalized by being branded as violent.

Still, children with complex behaviours are often the first to be identified as the problem, a fact that frustrates Nicole Kaler, a mom in B.C. and a member of the advocacy group BCEdAccess. She agrees that schools need more support for special-needs students, but as the mother of a child with autism who had behavioural issues, she’s angry that kids such as hers are characterized as violent by educators. The term “violent” criminalizes the behaviours of special-needs children, she says, who act out because they cannot communicate.

When her own daughter, Maya, who’s now 18, started kindergarten, she was unable to speak and frequently hit, spit and behaved in ways others would regard as out of control.

Ms. Kaler asked Maya’s private behaviour consultant to observe her daughter in the classroom one day (she says she’s lucky because her school district in Surrey allowed its staff to take input from a private consultant).

The consultant recommended that every day, three children put their hand on her daughter’s shoulder, and give Maya a high-five. Her daughter’s aggressive behaviour stopped. After all, Ms. Kaler says, non-verbal did not mean her daughter was not social.

She fears that the lack of tolerance for children with complex needs, both from educators and from other parents, is code for moving toward a model of separating children.

“It’s really ugly what people will say about children,” Ms. Kaler says. “We’re labelling them as criminals, even if they’re five or six, and the bottom line is, it’s a slow move of going back to an era of complete segregation and using a label to predetermine whether somebody will be a contributing member of society.”

The lack of supports for kids with complex needs affects everyone, Shameela Shakeel says.

When her daughter’s Grade 3 teacher went on leave after months of struggling to teach a classroom full of children that included one special-needs child with aggressive tendencies, she and other parents took matters into their own hands. Leading up to the teacher’s departure last December, Ms. Shakeel tried to manage her own daughter’s fear of being in the disruptive classroom. The student had hit the teacher and other students, Ms. Shakeel said, and on several occasions, the other children in the classroom were evacuated.

Ms. Shakeel did breathing exercises with her daughter each night and would lie with her in bed until she went to sleep. She also kept her daughter at home at times, just to ease the high level of anxiety.

Administrators at her daughter’s school in Newmarket, Ont., didn’t respond to parents’ calls for a solution, she said, so she rallied them to stage a walkout. Their plan was to show up at the school at 1:15 p.m. and sign their children out of class, protesting outside the main office and then on the sidewalk.

“It wasn’t a walkout against that child. It was a walkout to say enough is enough: Our kids deserve better,” Ms. Shakeel says.

The night before the protest, she received a call from administrators, pleading with her not to go ahead because it might jeopardize a plan for the student, who had specific needs. Ms. Shakeel reluctantly called it off. But she was convinced that if she and other parents had not made a fuss and expressed their frustrations, little would have changed. Eventually, the child was placed in a special school-board program at a different location.

'We have to have better resources and better support for these kids': Listen to Shameela Shakeel talk about her school board's shortcomings and what's needed to do better.

Several of the school boards and government representatives contacted by The Globe said they were developing more pro-active approaches to dealing with violence. Nova Scotia is in its second year of a five-year plan to roll out more inclusive education supports in schools, including autism specialists and child and youth care practitioners. It has also ordered an independent review of its efforts to improve inclusion supports. A spokeswoman for the Nova Scotia Ministry of Education said the initiatives would help “relieve some of the complexities teachers face in their classrooms with a focus on working with teachers to give our kids the best and safest learning experience possible."

At Edmonton Public Schools, the board takes safety “very, very seriously,” training staff in non-violent crisis intervention and dispatching teams of behavioural experts to schools when a student displays repeated issues, says Brenda Gummer, director of inclusive learning.

At York Region District School Board, if there is a repeat incident involving a child, an intervention team made up of behaviour specialists and therapists will go into the school to help the class get settled. They could be there for hours, or even days, mapping out a strategy for the child to minimize negative behaviour.

Louise Sirisko, director of education at the board, said the majority of reported incidents at her board involves special-needs students. The hope is that the intervention team will help educators understand a student’s triggers and avoid situations such as staff injuries and classroom evacuations.

Data provided by the York school district shows there has been an increase in the number of employee reports of workplace violence over the past five years from 1,026 in 2014-15 to more than 3,000 in 2018-19. The majority of incidents did not require medical treatment, according to the data provided to The Globe. The rise in incidents could reflect a new focus on reporting incidents, Ms. Sirisko says.

Still, she acknowledges that there is a concern around the issue of violence against educators. Last year, the board set up a committee to look at how it responds to incidents such as the one involving Ms. Shakeel, she says.

“It is absolutely a fine balance. We have to be recognizing for the rest of the students that the episode might have been very, very scary. So we want to be making sure that our practices and our educators know what the triggers are ahead of time so that the incidents don’t occur at all.”

“It’s not an easy science,” Ms. Sirisko adds.

In depth: Two mothers’ stories

Nicole Kaler is pushing back at educators who brand children with complex needs as violent, including Maya, her daughter. Shameela Shakeel is pressing school boards to do better in helping students with behavioural issues, who caused her daughter, Yasmeen, to suffer anxiety. Both say more needs to be done to make schools truly inclusive for all students.

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