Union calls for more funding, staffers to address Hamilton school violence

Click to play video: 'Violence against teachers increasing in Canadian schools'
Violence against teachers increasing in Canadian schools
RELATED: The new school year has just started, but for many educators, safety is top of mind. Multiple unions across Canada say reports of student violence against teachers are on the rise. As Naomi Barghiel reports, teachers are worried it'll get worse without proper support. – Sep 30, 2023

The union that represents support staff in Hamilton, Ont. public schools says more funding and staffing from both the province and the city’s board is needed amid a spike in violence against educators.

COPE Local 527, representing education support staff within the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), characterized increases reported to a human resources committee as “deeply concerning.”

“Students with special needs are often without the one to one support they require, often receiving limited educational assistant support as a result,” the union said in a statement.

In a recent release, COPE went as far as sharing “stories” and “visuals” exhibiting the effects violence has had on some of its members.

The total number of violent incident reports filed by staff went up in both elementary and secondary schools across the city, with some 3,442 and 888 respectively detailed in the 2022/2023 school year.

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Both almost double the 1,719 and 333 reported in 2021/2022.

Full-day kindergarten and self-contained classrooms receive the largest percentage of reports and education assistants and early childhood educators were most affected by violence.

HWDSB’s Health & Safety manager told committee members that numbers have “skewed” over the past five school years with disruptions for in-person learning due to the pandemic.

But Matthew Kwan said the numbers are “closer to returning to normal” and admitted incidents have been difficult to measure considering a single incident could generate as many as six reports from staffers.

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“So oftentimes we’ll receive multiple reports for the same incident just because of the number of staff that might be asked to respond,” he said.

Additionally, he said the report addresses Ministry of Labour definitions of violence — physical force by a person against a worker, in a workplace — and not those commonly used by police describing altercations.

High school EA Cheryl Baker, who’s been on workers compensation since last summer due to a pinched disc in her spine, says her violent encounter was not so much a malicious episode after being wrenched in two different directions in special needs class.

“Quite often the violence that happens isn’t always … the student’s fault,” she explained.

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“A lot of time it’s just trying to communicate, and we are very short-staffed so what happens is that the student is just trying to communicate in a way they can.”

Baker says she’s seen colleagues take more sick days to recover from in-classroom injuries and believes it not only adds to the potential for physical danger but challenges mental stability as well.

“You know, if we aren’t feeling well, we’re not pushing ourselves to come in the way we used to,” she suggested.

“I think that’s important for our own mental health piece. We don’t get mental health days, so we have to be pretty sick to not show up.”

Last April, the province invested $24 million to help reduce the risk of violence in schools and promote safety in response to recent violence in schools.

It came months after the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF) said its union members were seeking help to keep schools safe from violence.

OSSTF president Karen Littlewood said teachers of her union insisted the situation was worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“We need the investments in education that will allow for the full school team to be available,” she said.

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“It’s not just the teachers, but it’s the other supports, the mental health support, the child and youth workers.”

Half of the money was directed at adding psychologists, social workers and child/youth workers to enhance additional direct services for students.

Only $4 million was earmarked for more educational assistants.

The Ministry of Education also pointed to additional available supports via a $114 million mental health resource investment for students.

However, COPE still went to Queens Park last October for a press conference and called on Doug Ford and Stephen Lecce to do more citing the 4000-plus incidents tied to support staff in Hamilton as an example.

Baker believes the opportunity for improvement will reside with parents who she suggests have to push Ontario and school boards to do more.

“There are a lot of parents who fight for their child, but they just don’t know the right avenues to go,” Baker said.

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