Blood and bruises: inclusive classrooms gone wrong

Features News Provincial

Teachers and students are increasingly at risk of attack in a system that cannot support traumatized and violent children in regular classrooms

Illustration by Austin Willis, Design Director.

VICTORIA B.C. – In Emily’s* primary school classroom, a student is triggered. Several people are attacked. Emily, the educational assistant (EA), and the other students are all at risk. The bad knee of the EA is a particular target.

“Most of the time it seems like they go for your weak points,” Emily says. “We have teachers that are pregnant, and kids will punch and kick their stomachs.”

Violent outbursts are common at Emily’s school, but reached a new level after a special needs program disbanded and a student with severe behavioural problems was placed in her class.

“This child was sprung on me from part-days in a behavioural program — [the child] couldn’t even handle full-days … in a behavioural programto full-days in my classroom. That makes no sense!” Emily exclaims. “[This student] had a full-time [EA] last year, and [now] … has to share one with five other students in my class this year.”

The inclusion of this student in Emily’s class put everyone at risk, as violent episodes were occurring every two weeks.

Emily only received additional support after WorkSafe B.C. became involved due to serious injuries in the classroom. And though safety precautions keep others safe, Emily doesn’t believe they are helping the traumatized child.

“I can’t think of any other profession where it’s okay for you to get beat up at work.”

“The trauma is so deep and has been happening for so long with this child that [the] only options are fight or flight,” says Emily. “And [this child] is always on edge … always ready to go, because no place is safe and that’s what [this child has] had to do to cope and survive.”

Considering the severity of the attacks and the mental state of the child, Emily is disappointed that her school administration did not provide her with support, and that WorkSafe B.C. had to be involved because of that.

“I never hesitate to use outside services, but that’s one that you never want,” she says. “It’s really disheartening and sad that myself and the other adults in my room didn’t feel supported and didn’t feel like we were given the right tools to keep everyone safe.”

Emily’s emotion  is palpable as she describes working in a classroom where a violent attack can be triggered by anything from a noise, to a smell, to a light bulb flickering: “It’s really traumatic … everything becomes a weapon. Everything.”

Emily is not easily fazed. She took a non-violent crisis intervention course on a professional development day. She knows how to restrain children and has done so. She is more prepared than many teachers to manage a violent child. And she knows that just because violence is common does not mean it should be ignored or accepted.

“I can’t think of any other profession where it’s okay for you to get beat up at work,” Emily says.

Emily strongly believes that teachers and EAs would benefit from group debriefs with school administrators after a violent incident for emotional support and an acknowledgement that the violence is not okay. WorkSafe B.C. recommended debriefings to Emily’s school administration, but they still haven’t manifested as a regular practice.

“I think they did just as much as they needed to do to get WorkSafe off their back,” says Emily.  

She suspects that her administrators were reluctant to hire the substitute teachers necessary to facilitate these debriefing sessions.

Inclusion policy

The B.C. Teacher’s Federation’s (BCTF) policy of inclusion states that children with special needs are entitled to be included in the regular classrooms of publicly funded schools.

The policy states that “appropriate facilities, equipment, and assisting personnel must be provided by the school district.”

The school district is also supposed to ensure that schools have learning specialist teachers to design individualized education programs for students who need them.

But underfunding has created lengthy wait times for the assessments students require to gain additional support, and recruitment and retention of school counsellors and specialist teachers is a province-wide issue, says second vice-president of the BCTF Clint Johnson.

Many students with special needs do not pose a risk to their teachers or classmates. However, some, like Emily’s student, do.

And the common practice of pulling these staff out of their specialized roles to fill in for classroom teachers makes special needs support even more inaccessible.

When the inclusion policy cannot be properly implemented, students like the child in Emily’s class are in regular classrooms without the support of a full-time, personal EA.

Meanwhile, the Worker’s Compensation Act dictates that employers must ensure employees’ health and safety and must minimize or eliminate the risk of violence as much as possible.

Many students with special needs do not pose a risk to their teachers or classmates. However, some, like Emily’s student, do. Despite the commitment of individual teachers and the BCTF to the principle of inclusion, implementing inclusive classrooms in schools that are unequipped for them violates teachers’ rights as employees by putting them at risk of attack.  

In crisis

Teachers like Emily often lack support, not only because some schools need  resources, but because teachers are not the priority for some administrators.

For Jane* and Sara*, administrators with decades of educational experience between them, the focus should be more on support for the children.

“Over my dead body will an adult take priority over a child,” says Jane. “My moral purpose in going into this job is, if I’m the last person standing, I have the best interests of the child at heart.”

At every school where she has had an administrative role, Jane has dealt with students who exhibit violent behaviour and teaching staff who struggle to cope. Sometimes, a student can no longer be in the school. She describes these situations as adults banding together against children.

Both Jane and Sara have fought to keep students with behavioural problems in their schools.

Jane tears up describing how she cried for weeks after a student involved in drugs and gangs was removed from her previous school because she was unable to ensure the safety of staff and other students.

Many students who act violently or are seriously disruptive in other ways are “in crisis” as a result of trauma or difficult home lives.

An incident at one of Sara’s previous schools resulted in an EA’s face being cut open. Despite sustaining injuries herself, Sara still uses a nice nickname for the student.

“[The student] was removed and has never been accepted into an enrolling school again. [Their] parents have also given up custody of [them]. So, everybody’s abandoned [them] … I bawled my eyes out for a very long time,” Sara recalls.

Jane and Sara recognize that many students who act violently or are seriously disruptive in other ways are “in crisis” as a result of trauma or difficult home lives.  They believe in determining the root causes of problematic behaviour and in attempting to remediate.

But not all teachers share their philosophy.

“I actually find that it’s the adults who feel assaulted who want the child to go home … they want a consequence,” Sara says.

Jane’s stance is that adults take personal offence to children’s attacks, “and then their responses are often as problematic as the behaviour was in the first place.”

In Sara and Jane’s schools, teachers and students must accommodate the needs of violently disruptive students.

“There is training to do with the whole class connected around empathy and understanding and [being] accepting of what’s going on,” says Sara.

“In a very competent classroom setting, kids are well versed in what they can do independently, [but] in classrooms where there’s less competent management” an EA or an administrator will need to be brought in to help when an incident occurs, says Jane.

Neither Jane nor Sara see having an EA in every classroom as the solution.

“I don’t want another ineffective adult in the setting, frankly. It’s one more person for me to manage,” says Jane.

“We know the single greatest contributor to student success is the quality of the classroom teacher, and that is the same for EAs, counsellors, learning support teachers, principals, and vice principals. So, you get a good one in a good situation, things are probably going along pretty well. Get a weak one in a bad situation, things are probably not going well.”

Many children are made vulnerable by deeper issues. Jane and Sara mention inner-city elementary and middle schools, where large numbers of students are affected by poverty, generational trauma, unsafe and overcrowded housing, and food insecurity.

“More bodies are not going to solve the situation,” says Jane. “It’s the skill.”

But the situation in primary schools has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

“Schools are just so much more complex than they ever were,” says Jane. “There’s so much expectation that we’ll be everything. We’ll be social workers, we’ll be counsellors, we’re police sometimes, we’re teachers, we’re parents.”

As Sara and Jane describe, the complexity of 21st century primary schools is rooted in homes. Single-parent families, or families in which both parents work, are increasingly normal. The support, stability, and downtime that comes with  a secure home life and a stay-at-home parent has become a luxury.

Many children are made vulnerable by deeper issues. Jane and Sara mention inner-city elementary and middle schools, where large numbers of students are affected by poverty, generational trauma, unsafe and overcrowded housing, and food insecurity.

All these factors play a part in causing disruptive and violent behaviours that teachers are now expected to deal with.

“Throwing chairs, knocking tables over, teachers don’t sign up for that,” Jane acknowledges. “They have this vision of going in and teaching, but there’s times at certain schools where you are far less a teacher and way more feel like you’re working in a psychiatric unit.”

When the education program fails to educate

Training teachers as pediatric psychiatric nurses would be extreme. However, the University of Victoria falls woefully short in terms of preparing student teachers for the violent aspects of their profession’s reality.

Charlotte*, a UVic graduate and teacher-on-call, feels that the education program missed important skills. Though the curriculum includes the concept of inclusivity, accommodation of specific learning needs, and strategies for helping students to self-regulate, Charlotte says that she was not taught to defend herself or her students from aggression and violence.  

Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs at the Faculty of Education James Nahachewsky, however, says students in the Faculty of Education are trained for this.

Jane doesn’t believe that the UVic education department has any idea what classrooms are currently like.

“Teacher candidates [have] considerable course work in how to prevent conflict and aggression in the classroom,” with a focus on building positive relationships with students, says Nahachewsky.

But for Charlotte, “in situations where a student is throwing chairs, using scissors and pencils as weapons to harm a teacher or another student … the conflict resolution and self-regulation strategies we were being taught are useless.”

Jane doesn’t believe that the UVic education department has any idea what classrooms are currently like.

“There’s such a disconnect with the people who are up [at UVic] teaching [and the reality],” she says.

Sara thinks that assigning student teachers to mentors at high-risk schools following their practicums would help expose  teachers to classroom realities before they are expected to teach solo.

But even proper training on handling violent students would not negate the fact that trying to incorporate these students into regular classrooms without proper support has safety ramifications and inhibits teachers’ ability to educate and students’ ability to learn.

When inclusion fails the included … and all the other students

Sara once taught a class that became conditioned to leave the room when one student escalated.

Jane currently has a student so unpredictable that his presence in a class is anxiety-inducing for his classmates.

But both women believe in keeping violently disruptive students in classrooms.

Charlotte and Emily take a different perspective.  

“Inclusion is fantastic. I’m all for inclusion — with the right supports and when children are ready,” Emily states.

She recognizes, however, that not all students are ready to be in classrooms.

Charlotte, too, supports the principle of inclusion, but draws a line at keeping violent students in classrooms that they cannot handle.

“If a student has repeated violent behaviour, it doesn’t make sense to be putting them back in a classroom environment where the behaviour has been recurring,” Charlotte says. “Having violent students in the class hugely affects other students.”

“It’s not fair that the needs of a particular violent student in the classroom trumps the rest of the students who are there to learn.”

Charlotte feels that children whose classrooms are frequently disrupted by violence miss out on attention and support from their teachers.  She is also concerned that students who feel uncomfortable or unsafe cannot learn to the best of their abilities.

“It’s not fair that the needs of a particular violent student in the classroom trumps the rest of the students who are there to learn,” Charlotte says.

However, fairness concerns raised by teachers, or even parents, are seen by some administrators as adults trying to put their needs over those of children in crisis.

“Fair does not mean equal,” says Sara. “And [that] teaching has to happen with the adults in the building, too.”

Jane, who has heard many parents ask, “What about my kid?” says, “Well, we all feel that way. We all want what’s best for our kids, but I would much rather know that my kid is learning acceptance and tolerance and learning how to support others than I would make sure that they get their just piece of the pie.

Inclusion is supposed to facilitate equal access to education for children with additional needs. The policy states that “every student can learn.” For some young survivors of trauma, however, they are suffering to such an extent that they can’t learn in regular classrooms.

Even Sara admits that some of her most in-crisis students are not picking up academics. She has one such student with unimaginable traumas.  

“My role right now is not to educate. It’s to have [the child] feel safe and trusting of an adult,” Sara says. “[The child] is escalated, I would say, 50 per cent of the time in a day. So, we just try to make the environment as safe as possible.”

According to Charlotte, the current system pushes children with special needs into classrooms before they have the skills to succeed.  

The lack of pediatric psychiatric services on Vancouver Island contributes to the number of violent students in classrooms, because children aren’t receiving early interventions.

“These students are lacking skills needed to cope with their emotions and are struggling with the social aspect of the classroom,” Charlotte says. “If there was more support in schools with specialized educators and counsellors who could work one-on-one with these students to help them build those skills and gradually get them integrated back into the classroom, [that] would be ideal, but that just isn’t the reality.”

Emily believes that healing should be prioritized for traumatized children — academics can come later.

She also thinks that the lack of pediatric psychiatric services on Vancouver Island contributes to the number of violent students in classrooms, because children aren’t receiving early interventions.  She is concerned about how not receiving professional support can impact children for the rest of their lives.

“I find, when it comes to mental health, that I can see that something’s going on, and then I can try and get the right specialist involved, and that’s about all I can do,” Emily said.

“I don’t want to do anything that’s going to harm a child in the sense of their healing process because I’m not trained in that area, and I’m not going to pretend to be an expert.”

Spreading the open secret

The education community is well aware that classroom violence is an ongoing problem. As Emily says, “it’s happening in every district,” and schools and districts compare stacks of incident reports.

The BCTF does not have an official policy regarding classroom violence. However, the union acknowledges that the phenomenon is a nation-wide problem. Johnston says that the BCTF is working with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation and welcomes “the work of the provincial government in terms of improving mental health supports.”

However, despite media coverage of the issue, many parents may be unaware of the extent of the problem.

To Charlotte, inclusion at the expense of a safe learning environment is the wrong choice.

Rules around releasing students’ private information prevents teachers from notifying parents about the occurrence of violence in the classroom. A parent is informed that there has been an incident if their child is hurt, but not if their child is routinely exposed to violent behaviour.

Emily says that none of her students’ parents have come to her with concerns, leading her to believe that her students are not telling their parents about what they are seeing at school. She hopes that the issue of classroom violence will gain enough awareness that public outcry pressures the education system to take the threat seriously.

To Charlotte, inclusion at the expense of a safe learning environment is the wrong choice.

“If students and teachers are feeling unsafe in their classrooms and at school, something in the system has to change.”

*The primary school educators interviewed currently work in the Victoria area. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy and careers.