WHSC

Growing violence in schools – disturbing reality, study finds

June 26, 2024

The following is from WHSC:

Violence in Ontario’s public schools continues to grow to critical levels finds new research.

A recent study released by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) shows 75% of members report more incidents of violence since they began working in Ontario schools. Thirty-one per cent report having personally had physical force used against them.

OSSTF/FEESO commissioned an online survey of more than 6,500 educators working in public schools from kindergarten to grade 12, aiming to gain insight into their experiences with workplace violence during the 2022-2023 school year and early 2023-2024 school year.

It’s important to note that violence in schools is not new, what’s new is that the problem continues to grow to levels that impede educators from doing their jobs and creates unsafe environments for both staff and students.

“The alarming results of our survey highlight a disturbing reality: violence in Ontario schools is not just a rare occurrence, but a growing threat to the safety and well-being of staff and students alike,” said Karen Littlewood, President of OSSTF/FEESO.

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Out of the survey came five key findings:

  1. Violence in schools is a critically growing concern.

Violence against teachers and education workers in schools is growing and negatively impacting the well-being of school communities and student learning. Many point to the COVID-19 pandemic as responsible for violence disrupting schools, this is not the whole story. Violence was increasing long before COVID, but the pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated the problem.

75% of members say there are more incidents of violence since they began working in the Ontario public school system.
60% say the severity of violence has gotten worse since they began working in the Ontario public system.
69% say the number of incidents of violence against teachers and education workers has increased since before March 2020.

  1. Significant numbers of education workers witnessed or experienced violence in the 2023 school year alone.

Physical violence against teachers and education workers includes biting, hitting, kicking, and the use of physical objects and furniture to inflict harm. The violence experienced has been serious enough to require emergency medical care. Teachers also confront violence in the form of verbal abuse, including threats to their physical safety and, in severe instances, their lives, as well as bullying and harassment from secondary school students.

43% of members witnessed physical force against another staff member. This number rises to over 60% among child and youth workers, educational assistants, and early childhood educators.
36% of members witnessed the actual use of force against another staff person. This number again rises to more than 60% for child and youth workers, educational assistants, and early childhood educators.
31% of members reported having personally experienced physical force used against them.

  1. Women experience a greater risk, especially those education workers who provide direct services and supports for students.

35% of female members personally experienced physical force compared to 20% of males.
For educational assistants, the incidence is more than double, with 75% reporting having had physical force used against them in the 2022-2023 school year; 89% of educational assistants identify as female.

  1. Lack of resources and accountability are at issue.

The lack of accountability among decision-makers has heightened concerns about workplace violence, exacerbated by provincial funding issues. Ontario’s education system is increasingly characterized by the theme of “working more with less” due to large class sizes, inadequate funding, and staffing shortages, all of which compound the problem. Additionally, greater support for students with behavioral and health needs must be addressed.

69% of members report there has been a decrease in in-class educational assistants and support personnel.
And in-school child and youth counsellors and guidance counsellors’ support has decreased by 50%.
A survey of Ontario school principals conducted by an organization called People for Education in 2022-2023 came to similar conclusions, namely that the percentage of schools with no access to psychologists has doubled in the last ten years. They and education unions remind us all, working conditions are also students’ learning environments and when we improve them, we help both education workers and students. Equally true that when we better support student mental health we support educators.

5. Recruiting and retaining qualified staff is adversely affected.

Publicly available data, including this study, indicates that workplace violence is compelling both potential and current education staff to leave Ontario’s public schools. Members in focus groups conducted for this study said they are contemplating leaving the profession due to numerous workplace stresses, notably the exposure to violence. This situation exacerbates school boards’ challenges in recruiting qualified professionals to fill essential roles such as educational assistants, child and youth workers, counsellors, and others. The combination of violence and inadequate compensation has fostered unsustainable working conditions for frontline staff.

Working toward better – safer schools now
OSSTF/FEESO is calling on the government to work with them and other education unions to implement four proposed solutions to stop the rise of violence in schools.

  1. Emergency safe school funding – educators are calling for increased government funding to increase educational assistants and other specialized personnel who provide supports to students.
  2. Stay and Learn – creation of a tuition waiver to attract students into education programs for occupations experiencing shortages like educational assistants and professional student support workers. This has already been introduced in the health care and long-term care and is supported by the provincial government.
  3. Release of data – a call on government for greater transparency regarding violence in schools. Educators are still awaiting results of a blitz conducted by the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development last year.
  4. Safe School Action Table – a commitment by the government to the development of a Safe School Action Plan, with a Community and Stakeholder Action Table that includes the voices of various education unions.

REGISTER FOR TRAINING TO HELP PREVENT WORKPLACE VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT

Legal Obligations
Every worker has the right to a safe workplace free from violence and harassment. Ontario Health and Safety Act provisions require employers to develop and implement workplace violence and harassment policies and programs. It’s not enough to have a written policy, employers have an obligation to provide all workers with information about their policies and provide training on programs implemented. Just as important, by law these policies and programs must be current and reviewed annually.

While the proposed solutions can take time to implement, consider immediate action by way of training for all workplace parties. Workers Health & Safety Centre (WHSC) can help with Workplace Violence and Harassment training that covers essentials for those creating a new workplace-specific program and policy or evaluating an existing workplace violence program. WHSC also offers training in related issues such as critical incident and post traumatic stress, plus psychosocial hazards and workplace mental health. Regardless, all training is available online, in-class or even onsite if you have many to train.
And to ensure learning, WHSC training is always instructor-led in real time no matter the mode of delivery.

Related readings
WHSC Workplace Violence Resources
Harassment at work rising, marginalized groups suffering most
Principles sound the alarm about students’ mental health
Workplace violence, harassment widespread but unaddressed, report. 
Prioritizing a violence- and harassment-free workplace
Workplace violence solutions for schools central to recent ETFO symposium
Violence, harassment in elementary schools at crisis levels: report
Violence in long-term care cries out for prevention: new reports
Workplace bullying survey finds high level of non-compliance
Workplace violence growing in education sector, study finds

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