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Some teachers in Alberta are calling for more oversight and accountability in classrooms, as they–along with educational assistants–deal with violence at the hands of students. The push comes after a Global News investigation found more than 300 incidents of violence against teachers in just one school year in Edmonton–a number experts believe is drastically lower than what is actually taking place.
Pamela Orr, now 58, knew she wanted to be a teacher by the time she was 12 years old. The St. Albert woman started teaching in 1984 and four years later, she earned her master’s degree in special education.
Then, an incident in 2010 turned her life upside down: Orr was assaulted by a student. She now suffers from chronic pain, is cognitively impaired and requires the use of canes, chair lifts and wheelchairs.
Orr was working for the Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools as a special education teacher at the time of the assault; she had been hired the year before. She said on the day the incident happened, there were only two educational assistants in the classroom; on most days, there were three.
“The student who assaulted me came up behind me. I mean, it was just a split second,” Orr said.
“The student…put me in a chokehold and was pulling and pulling and pulling my neck. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t scream. I…put my foot on the classroom floor and pushed backwards really hard. When I did that, that made the student really angry.”
Orr said the student, who has special needs, threw her to the ground.
“My spine felt like it was ready to explode. I landed on my head, my jaw got pushed out and I landed on my shoulder, which still has an impingement on it. I sustained a neck injury because I can’t move my neck totally from side-to-side as well as I could.”
Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools said the board does not comment on personnel issues and declined to answer questions about whether the incident was investigated and/or reported to OHS. An OHS spokesperson was not immediately able to comment on the incident on Monday.
Orr said she went to physiotherapy for two-and-a-half years after the incident, thinking her pain, memory problems and other issues were temporary. She later learned the condition was permanent.
She no longer teaches.
“The chronic pain is always there. It prevents me from sitting up for very long. Walking, sitting, standing, anything to do with those things,” she said.
“I really, really never ever thought that my career would end that way. My days are just consumed with trying to do very basic skills. I could not mobilize myself to even go to the bathroom. That’s how my life has changed.”
Teachers speak out
Orr’s story is just one of many that Global News heard after a series last month on student violence against teachers. Documents obtained through freedom of information (FOIP) requests revealed there were 311 reported incidents of violence towards teachers or educational assistants in one school year in Edmonton.
Half a dozen teachers or EAs who spoke to Global News said they did not have the supports or training they needed to deal with the violent students, many of whom they said had special needs. Some said they dreaded going to work and did not feel safe. Others said the severity of the incidents were sometimes downplayed by administration, and many feared being blacklisted if they reported the situations. Almost all teachers who spoke to Global News requested anonymity, fearing repercussions for speaking out about a sensitive issue.
The reports revealed 91 incidents of students biting or spitting on a teacher, 67 situations in which a teacher got hit or punched and 50 cases of students kicking a teacher. In 117 of cases reported in Edmonton, the teacher or EA required first aid as a result of the incident. But what’s more concerning are the 45 cases where the teacher or EA required medical aid or was required to take time off work.
Orr said there was no Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) investigation after her assault.
“I felt abandoned. There’s no other way to say it.”
Violence against teachers a ‘dirty little secret’
“Kathy,” an EA in western Alberta who worked with a student who had special needs, said her school did not provide adequate training.
“I had to ask the question, ‘Is there any kind of safety procedures that you do in case he does get violent?’ I was told, ‘Yes, you have to scream for help or call the front office,’” she said.
“There was nothing. I was told that there were a few pieces of paper on the counter, that these are the stories they said I could use to help him calm down.”
Kathy soon found herself on the receiving end of violence.
“He basically started attacking me. He would come flying at me over the table and start slapping me as hard as he could,” she recalled.
She described another incident as comparable to “some kind of bar fight” during which she said the student hit her with both fists for several minutes.
Kathy said she was often scared for her own safety.
“Every day that I went to work, before I’d go to work, I’d question myself on whether I really needed this job,” she said.
“Is today going to be the day? Am I going to get beat up at work today?”
Kathy, who calls violence from students a dirty little secret within schools, said she faced some resistance when she tried to report the incidents, suggesting there was discouragement from administration.
“This person is going to kill somebody. This person is going to seriously injure another student or myself and you don’t want me to report this?” she said.
She told Global News her last incident with the student involved her blacking out after he hit her on the head. Kathy, who no longer works at the school, said she is slowly getting better physically after the last assault, but has no desire to return to her previous position.
“I’m glad I’m out of that school. I feel sorry, deeply sorry, for the teachers and teacher’s aides who have to deal with this,” she said.
“Alice,” a now-retired teacher in Edmonton, said she was often embarrassed to report violent incidents she encountered over the roughly 40 years she spent teaching.
“I had one principal who showed no support whatsoever,” she said.
“If you ever did send a student to the office, he would almost demean you. ‘Can’t you handle your own class?’ That basically seeded that in my brain.”
Alice said she once had a student throw a pair of scissors at her. She said there was another who, when caught cheating, “flipped out” and threatened to kill her and a student who shoved a pin underneath Alice’s cosmetic nails.
Alice said some teachers who reported incidents and sent “trouble students” to the office were labeled as inept, and she wishes school administration had taken situations more seriously.
“You can’t expect the war to continue on if your soldiers are exhausted and if they’re so weary they can’t keep going,” she said.
Labour minister responds
Global News brought the stories to Labour Minister Christina Gray. Occupational Health and Safety oversees worksites, including schools, and while school boards are responsible for their employees’ safety, the labour minister is ultimately accountable for the safety and well-being of workers in the province.
Global News asked the minister about government oversight of schools, holding school boards accountable to teacher safety, the pattern of discouragement for teachers to report the incidents and the apparent lack of investigation and accountability for teachers who sustain serious injuries, such as Orr.
Gray’s responses continually reiterated how the NDP updated OHS legislation in June, which she said would strengthen protections for workers.
“There are a number of areas we’ve been able to improve the legislation and that, in turn, will begin to help improve processes, policies and procedures at all worksites,” she said.
Orr said it took her many years, but she finally felt ready to speak out and tell her story.
“If I don’t speak out and something happens to somebody, I probably could not live with myself.”
Coming up Tuesday, Oct. 2 online and at Global News Hour at 6: A labour relations professor fires back at the government of Alberta, arguing the province does not put the interest of employees before employers. Plus, more stories from teachers about dealing with violence in the classroom.