Weeks after Global News reported on concerns from front-line teachers about violence in the province’s classrooms, particularly in Durham Region, Ontario’s education minister says the government is taking action.
“It’s imperative that we ensure there is a safe and welcoming environment in all of our schools for all of our students and of course for the staff who work there, and that’s something that I’m very strongly committed to – building a culture of safety in our schools,” Mitzie Hunter told Global News Tuesday.
Hunter said that it starts with sharing and expanding access to student information.
“Our educational assistants and all of those who work with students need to have access to certain types of information so that they are understanding when there are sensitivities, there could be triggers,” she said.
“That type of information is available so that they can better support students’ learning and students’ outcome in the classroom … access to information is something our front-line workers have asked us for.”
The province is also bringing in inspectors from the Ministry of Labour to visit all of Ontario’s 72 school boards, Hunter said, beginning in the upcoming school year to ensure compliance with provincial health and safety laws.
“If they identify things that are not in compliance, that the resources and the tools specific to education are (put) in place to provide appropriate guidance and support.”
Global News shared with Hunter a picture sent in by a teacher showing a bite mark allegedly caused by a student inside a classroom.
“That’s an unfortunate incident,” she said.
“I believe in a culture of health and safety. I believe everyone who comes to work should go home the way they came and they shouldn’t go home with any kind of bruises or any interaction that causes a risk of harm.”
Over the past few months, Global News has heard from several educators and parents across Ontario about their concerns over integrated classrooms and supports being offered to children with disabilities.
Jennifer, a Durham District School Board teacher, whose identity was withheld by Global News due to her concerns about how it could impact her job, described what she has experienced.
“I was punched in the head multiple times in one week,” Jennifer said, noting some of the children who initiated physical contact have been as young as seven- or eight-years old.
Jennifer works in an integrated classroom where students with special needs and those without are in the same class.
She said she has heard similar stories from other Durham schools, where teachers and educational assistants have been issued Kevlar-like jackets and shin pads.
In late May, the Durham Local Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario held a public meeting in Oshawa to discuss increased violence in schools, the education funding formula and special education.
“We have some of our members who are off on long-term disability,” union president David Mastin told Global News at the time. “We have some who have been permanently, negatively impacted. Their psychological, their physical, their emotional health because of issues of violence within their work environment, and that’s unacceptable.”
“So from a teacher perspective, that’s something that we have to address. But … from a parent perspective, there are students that are witnessing violence, that are creating norms and values based on what their experiencing and that also is a significant problem.”
Parents, educators and union officials walked away from that meeting calling for more supports.
Hunter said a health and safety group comprised of teachers, school administration officials, education workers and unions have been meeting to discuss the “culture of safety” for the province’s schools.
The government is investing in training for educators, Hunter said, and new teachers are receiving training on health and safety, special education and classroom management. Hunter also said the Ministry of Education is investigating in professional development and training, specifically in health and safety, for existing teachers.
One of the common complaints teachers have shared with Global News is about classroom incident reports not being addressed by school administrators, something Hunter said needs to be improved as she emphasized the importance of reporting.
“It has to be dealt with. It’s important that we create an environment that it’s actually safe to report,” she said, noting the province will be moving to an online reporting system.
When asked about the government’s plan Tuesday, Mastin said the union is encouraged by the initiatives but more is needed.
“What we would ideally like to see is more supports for child and youth workers, more supports for educational assistants, who are professionally trained to deal with students who have mental health challenges.”
With files from Tom Hayes