Saturday, June 16, 2018

Violence in the workplace

My father was a prison officer, so I have a polarising viewpoint when it comes to the judicial system.  His viewpoint was biased as he noted recidivism in the system.  This has also biased my outlook as once a child enters the judicial system, they become exposed to others in the same system which can normalise behaviours that wouldn't occur otherwise.

So when I was faced with violence in the workplace for the first time in my career where I believed a student intended physical harm to myself, I had to consider what my philosophical viewpoint is regarding children coming to grips with their physicality and using it to influence their environment.  Did this need to be reported to police?

I considered that students have maturing brains, are impulsive and will have limited empathy for others.  I considered that my actions, as administrative staff, sets the tone for the school and my personal philosophy needed to take into account the norms that the school wished to purvey.  I considered societal expectations of what teaching staff were expected to deal with.

These probably need to be dealt with separately.

Student influences / Context

There are many reasons students become violent.  Frustration, domestic violence, physical abuse, peer interactions, sexual abuse, physical development, trauma, self image, helplessness, modelling/culture, attachment, gender confusion, sexuality, mental health, drug abuse are just a few reasons that spring to mind.  Any one can make a student respond in a violent manner given particular situations.  Schools today are expected to identify issues, manage risk, provide options for counseling and deal with situations that arise when plans put in place fail to adequately cover a violent series of incidents.

School influences

Maintaining a safe workplace is a necessity as a school becomes a melting pot of these issues.  How a school responds to the threat of violence, dictates how safe children and staff feel when in the school.  The ability of a school to predict where a problem may occur and develop a rapport that prevents violent outbursts is critical to the managing of low socio-economic schools experiencing many of the issues identified above. Staff that can do this effectively are rare as each issue tends to demand a different response and the responses can be personally draining and require high levels of support for students and support staff.

The maximum immediate penalty that can be imposed is 10 days of suspension, a period intended to allow time to improve risk plans, allow time to consider actions, organise support for families and support staff and work with students impacted upon by the violence.  Diversion of a student to another location may be attempted, but if different solutions cannot be used, this may only move the violence from one school to another. When a school cannot devise a solution that is likely to succeed (and has likely failed many times with attempted solutions) then, and only then can exclusion be considered - it is a long and arduous process, as it should be, as there is no real solution at the end of it, other than saying school is not for that student.

Philosophical issues

Teachers do not report students to the police often or probably often enough.  There are a few reasons for this, the main one being is that (good) teachers see students for who and what they are, not for their aberrant behaviours.  In most cases these children are the most needy and require our assistance not our condemnation.  I didn't start in education to be a pathway to the judicial system.

The counter is that as a deputy I have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment, with limited resources to deal with violent offenders.  Nothing in the EBA indicates that it is ok for a teacher (as a worker for the Education department) to feel unsafe in their environment.  Physical aggression, intimidation and assault are not ok and need to be seen to be dealt with for the mental health and confidence of staff, students and parents in the school.  In a no tolerance for violence environment, 10 day suspensions for breaches are one part of a two part solution.  Consequence for behaviour together with assistance to prevent similar behaviour in the future is key to success.

Societal Expectations

Schools are being asked to be a one size fits all solution to youth issues, increasingly working with agencies to fill gaps where there are no resources to deal with them.  Finding alternate agencies with capacity in itself requires resources and deviates from the core business of teaching students the curriculum.  In a high care, high expectation environment, schools are required to deal with context and deliver results.

What then?

I still have not in my career referred a student to police for threatening me physically (although I have for student welfare concerns and have restrained students on a number of occasions), I do hope that it remains this way.  I must say though in the past five years, I have gone from feeling that students understand that threatening a teacher is unthinkable to now being a threat becoming relatively commonplace. I am more reliant on personal rapport with students than respect for my position to keep me safe.  Both in junior and senior school  there have been times when I have felt there has been risk I would be assaulted and that dealing with the student situation had a level of risk of physical assault, I may end in being physically hurt.  Although schools are supportive when police reports are made over assaults, teachers like myself remain reluctant to ignore the factors that cause the assault in the first place (listed under student influences above) and fail to make a report - our knowledge of why student's behave violently is part of why we are teachers in schools like ours.

Mandatory reporting of assault against staff together as suggested by the union (did I just agree with the union??) with protection from freedom of information may be one solution to measuring the issue and to target higher levels of resourcing to support students with anger management issues.  Blanket FOI would be problematic (as with NAPLAN) as it would target schools attempting to deal with spikes in violence that occur with particular cohorts.  Identifying accurately epicentres of issues, their causes, teachers struggling and then providing schools targeted assistance through existing processes would be a good start.

Violence in schools remains an area of potential conflict between parents, administration and teaching staff, where any action may be viewed as too little or too much, with clear differences in opinion in what is necessary to protect staff in their workplace and students in their high school depending on the perspective of the situation.  

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