Monday, 17 April 2017

It's not just the wellbeing and safety of students we need to consider, but the teachers too

As a profession - teachers, principals and support staff - we are extremely focused on the wellbeing and safety of our students.  We have extensive expectations, systems and processes in place to ensure the students in our schools are safe and if an incident were to happen, no matter how minor, it is documented, systems are improved or changed and dangers are rectifed.

But do we do the same for our staff?

In recent weeks there have been two big issues that impact the wellbeing and safety of school staff as well as students, and I have to question whether or not we are doing enough to keep teachers safe.

Firstly, it was reported last month that a number of Year 9 boys (that’s 13 year olds) at St Patrick’s College in Silverstream (Upper Hutt) had sexually harassed several female teachers.  The boys had apparently filmed the teachers in an inappropriate way without their knowledge and shared the footage.  This week it was revealed that the school had decided to keep the students within the school (after a short suspension) to ‘educate’ them, and that the female teachers had resigned.  See this article: Teachers resign from an Upper Hutt school after being sexually harassed by students (Stuff, 13 April 2017).

The other big story originated from Northland, where principal Pat Newman explained that P babies and children with other high behavioural needs were a danger to his staff as well as fellow students.  Principal Federation Chair Whetu Cormick echoed that this was indeed a problem around the country, more so in certain provinces than others, but still a nation wide issue.  See this article: Teachers kicked, punched, stabbed by disturbed ‘P kids’ (NZ Herald, 13 April 2017).

The implications of the sexual harassment of the teachers.  

I have seen the article above commented on in four forums on Facebook and on Twitter.  There have been a variety of comments.

I’ve mostly seen many supportive comments of the teachers and dismay at the actions of the boys and of the school.  The general consensus is that the school has made an unsafe workplace for the teachers by allowing the boys to stay within the school environment and a condonement of the actions of the boys has been implied.  It is intimated in the above linked article that the teachers have resigned and that legal action (a personal grievance perhaps) is being taken.  I am wondering where Worksafe fit into all this, because surely it does.

I did see the odd random comment asking about how the teachers were dressed to encourage the boys to behave in a disreputable manner.  Needless to say that commenter was well and truly informed about the professionalism of teachers and schools like St Patrick’s having a dress code along with condemnation for victim blaming.

I did see some comments commending the school on wanting to work with these young men to improve their understanding of what is acceptable or not.  But to prioritise the students over someone’s ability to earn an income and feel safe in their workplace?  I think the safety and wellbeing of the victim should have been the priority here, not the students.  They have parents to think about their safety and wellbeing as well as the school.  However, in this case, the principal and board should have prioritised the teachers.

And I say this because, as many commenters pointed out, if it had have been the teachers sexually harassing the students, the teachers would have been kicked to the curb, outted publicly and lost their jobs, with the support rightly being on the victims - the students.

You may remember the Losi Filipo controversy last year, the Wellington contracted rugby player who initially was given a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket after a vicious assault on four other young people…. Well, Filipo went to St Patrick's and one commenter said that St Patrick's had put their support in behind Filipo.

The classic Van Halen song,
'Hot for Teacher' does not apply
in this case.
Then there were the odd comments on “boys will be boys” and references to the Van Halen classic ‘Hot for Teacher’ were made.  Yes, “boys will be boys”, but that doesn’t mean we don’t call them out and make them take responsibility for their actions.  They need to learn that there are consequences for every action, good or not so good or just bad.  If we don’t, as a society we will continue to condone rape culture and sexist behaviour.  And yes, some boys will get crushes on some teachers, but this behaviour certainly is not indicative of a crush.

I did see another few commenters supporting the school’s stance, saying it is a very good school with a great culture, that you can not lay the responsibility of the actions of a few Year 9 boys only in their fourth week at the school on St Patrick’s culture.  But let’s just remember that this is the culture that Filipo was immersed in for five years.

And then there were some other commenters who sat on the fence, who felt there was more to the story and therefore they could not yet make an informed judgement.  Fair enough.  But don’t defend the school while you are sitting on that fence, because they do have the power to give out more information than they are… but they have a process to go through first.  We can only hope that when the process is completed the public are more informed.

Regardless of which commenter anyone is, the fact remains that the perpetrators of the unacceptable acts have been allowed to remain and it is the victims that feel they have to resign and leave.  That is unacceptable and it continues to allow the rape culture mentality that invades our society to keep bubbling away because the school has implied that the perpetrators’ rights are greater than the rights of the victims.

This comes form Employment NZ:  "Health and safety law requires that employees and others are given the highest level of protection from workplace health and safety risks, as is reasonably practicable. This includes risks to both physical and mental health."  Consequently St Patrick's in in violation of health and safety law they are required to uphold.

The leaders of St Patrick's have failed the standard as good employers and have now shown other schools how not to have the backs of your staff.

Children who can not control their behaviour and pose a danger to staff and students.

Pretty much every teacher will have had a student like this.  At some schools you may have classes with a lot more than one student like this.

I have personally had students that swore at and abused me, stormed out of class to go hiding somewhere or to leave the school, who have thrown chairs and desks, or have used sticks from the playground or metal bars they’ve acquired from out of bounds areas to threaten and attack other children.  I’ve seen children randomly physically attack other children.

What set them off?  It may be a disagreement over a playground game or an item in the classroom.  Someone might of said something nasty or looked at them the wrong way - or just looked at them.  They may be tired or stressed or under an influence of a substance from outside of school.  You may see it bubbling and try to avert it and, while sometimes you succeed, you fail and the kid blows.  Sometimes the eruption comes without warning.

I’ve had kids with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, ADHD, kids on the autism spectrum, kids with sensory issues, P babies, kids from homes with violence, kids who have suffered abuse, kids who are not handling a parental separation or have lost a parent or sibling to death, kids with conduct disorders, kids with low self-esteem, kids who are on ORS or should have ORS but don’t, kids who are frustrated due to learning difficulties, kids who just can’t make friends or form healthy social attachments, kids with anxiety…. All sorts of kids have "gone off" over my teaching career.

Sometimes my experiences have been very scary.  I had one child swinging a metal bar around like a taiaha and I had to lock my class in a room and go seek help.  Another time I had to, along with the principal, physically intervene to stop a student from hurting themselves and several others at great risk to our own safety.  Both these situations were incredibly scary.  I’ve had to sit on the floor and hug a child to me to keep him safe and calm in an assembly because the noise was too much to bare for him.  The unknown is when a child decides to leave the school grounds.  In a small school the conundrum is who will go after them, because who will supervise the other students?

And this then brings into question a teacher’s professional safety.  When is a teacher allowed to step into a situation and restrain or handle students to prevent them hurting themselves or others?  When should a teacher step back?  Who decides if a teacher went too far?  What if the teacher is condemned for not having done enough?

Last October the Ministry of Education released a document called Guidance for New Zealand Schools on Behaviour Management to Minimise Physical Restraint.  Within this document it says:

Physical restraint is a serious intervention. The emotional and physical impact on the student being restrained, and the person doing the restraining, can be significant. There are legal and reputational risks if a student is harmed.

Staff need to use their professional judgement when they decide whether to use physical restraint. They should consider their duty of care to students, their right to protect themselves and others from harm, and their obligation to act lawfully.

Physical restraint should only be used in emergency situations when the student’s behaviour poses an imminent danger of physical injury to themselves or others.

This is the basis I personally have always applied to these situations.  It is a common sense approach.  But teachers and principals feel the ground has shifted under their feet and do not trust their safety as professional if they have to restrain a student in the midst of a violent outburst.  See: 'It could jeopardise teacher safety' - concerns over new laws guiding when teachers can intervene in school fights (1news, 28 March 2017).

The Minister in a recent answer in Parliament Question Time advised schools to call the police to deal with violent students.  I question if the police would come or not.  They have their hands full dealing with mental health call outs because our mental health system can not cope with the demand on their overstretched services.  

This is from a transcript of Question Time on Thursday 6 April 2017, when New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin asked a question to Education Minister Hekia Parata:

1. TRACEY MARTIN (NZ First) to the Minister of Education: Does she agree with the Ministry of Education's National Director for Learning Support that schools in Northland should contact the police when primary school children threaten teachers and other students with violence?

Hon HEKIA PARATA (Minister of Education): Tēnā koe, Mr Speaker. Yes, I agree with the full quote that the ministry's National Director for Learning Support made and the context in which it was given. For the benefit of the House, he stated: "I would certainly see suspension as being a last resort. If we're talking about very violent behaviour, then that's a matter that schools need to be discussing with police." As per the Guidance for New Zealand Schools on Behaviour Management to Minimise Physical Restraint, released by the ministry in October last year, schools across the country should call the police in situations when a student cannot be managed safely and the imminent danger to students, staff, or themselves remains after all alternatives have been explored. As we expect in all situations, the police are the most appropriate people to deal with violence.

The Minister is correct in saying hat the Guidance for New Zealand Schools on Behaviour Management to Minimise Physical Restraint says the police should be called in situations when a student can not be managed safely and is a danger.  This is all it says:

In the event that incidents cannot be resolved quickly and where there is a sustained level of significant physical risk the police should be contacted.

In this press release from the Te Tai Tokerau Principals Association, A Cry from the Heart: lack of assistance for children’s needs, a principal states: “Last time I called the police to help in Kaitaia they told me very politely not to do it again. They took 2 hours to get here and the kid could have really hurt himself.”  So clearly the police are really not in a position to help schools deals with students who are a risk to themselves or others.

In the NZ Herald article, 'P babies' are now at primary school (13 April 2017), Principal Pat Newman says he is disappointed in the response from the Ministry over his claims that children in primary school are presenting with more violent behavioural problems now and that P is at epidemic levels.  Ministry of Education spokeswoman, Katrina Casey said on Radio New Zealand there was no hard evidence that schools were dealing with more children with behavioural problems.  Newman countered that with, "What evidence is needed? What is hard data? Do we have to wait until a child or teacher is seriously hurt? There is not one principal in New Zealand, and certainly not in Te Tai Tokerau, who is not telling the ministry that this is the reality.  In fact a few years ago we in Te Tai Tokerau, in partnership with the ministry, researched the levels of violence we were putting up with in the north, and the ministry has that information."

The article continues as follows:

Casey said the ministry spent about $95 million on behaviour assistance for about 10,000 children last year, and that number of children had not changed much in the last couple of years.

"If this is the case, why are we only receiving help to cover two hours a day on average for high-end behavioural needs? The answer is always that there is no more money available," Newman said.

"Why is there little help for psychological counselling for these children?
"Why does it take a year to get a foetal alcohol assessment done, and little funding to actually help the child once diagnosed?"

Casey had claimed that stand-downs and suspensions for assaults had remained static for the past six years, and a recent survey of secondary school teachers by the Council for Educational Research found student behaviour had become less of a problem.
Newman rejected that, too.

"We have severely abused children in our schools," he said.

"The ministry has the figure in Whangarei of the high behavioural needs children currently in early childhood education in this town who are due to come through the primary service, and it is huge."

What planet is the Ministry of Education on?

Clearly there is a disconnect between the Ministry of Education and the reality of what is happening in schools.

And Pat Newman is not a happy principal and I bet that he is not the only unhappy principal.

Personally, as a teacher, I am scathing.

I can tell you that there is not enough support for schools to help these children.  I can't remember when I last saw a any form of psychological counselling in a primary school.  The last time I saw a Ministry behavioural specialist was in 2006.  We can't even get a speech language therapist for the most needy children who can not speak properly.  And as for the Wrap Around Services Ms Parata crows about, well good luck ever seeing them!  I wrote about a young teenager who has fallen out of the system because it doesn't work in Where are those wrap around services, Hekia? last year.  Nothing has changed.

Everything that Ms Parata and her minion Ms Casey says is complete and utter BULLSHIT because at school level we never ever see them and children are falling through the cracks educationally because the Ministry of Education does not have the specialists we need to help these children.

This government is failing our most vulnerable students and their Predictive Risk Index to fund schools will do diddly bloody squat to change anything for these vulnerable children while there are no specialists in the Ministry of Education to support these children and no funding for schools to put programmes and support staff in place to ensure these children reach their potential.

This government, this Ministry of Education and the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, have failed the standard when it comes to our most vulnerable children.  And they are failing the classmates of these children and their teachers, support staff and principals as they are put in danger by these children for whom help is a mythological fantasy because the Ministry simply does not have the resources.

While Boards of Trustees are responsible for the health and safety of staff and students, they are being hamstrug by the Ministry of Education due to their lack of funding and support.

If only they had listened to those of us at the chalkface.  If only $359 million had been spent on the children where it would make the most difference instead of on that IES folly, Communities of Learning.

The top picture regarding teacher wellbeing comes from this article:

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