No one was more surprised than Kathy Zador when one of her Grade 4 students jumped her from behind and grabbed her around the neck just as Zador was calling the office to report the girl. Yet calmly Zador called a ‘code pink’, named for the colour of the students’ math books, which they picked up and carried to the library — the designated safe area.
The code had been developed with Zador’s help as part of the school’s violence response plan. The incident only served to reinforce her insistence that all schools adopt written procedures for reporting and handling such incidents. The student in this case received a five-day suspension, three days at home and two days in school.
Zador, a teacher with the Waterloo Region District School Board, readily shares her experiences with other members of her union, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO). A committed local activist and former joint health and safety committee worker co-chair, Zador says the committee modified an existing school procedure for dealing with violent strangers and applied it to aggressive students. But she’s quick to point out that threats can come from parents too and should also be documented.
As a member of the ETFO’s provincial health and safety committee Zador says aggressive behaviour is of growing concern especially among occasional teachers. Workplace violence is a thorny issue to address she says because teachers have a limited right to refuse under the Occupational Health and Safety Act
and the Education Act
requires them to ensure the safety of their students first. “Teachers are forced to place themselves between the aggressive student and the rest of the class,” Zador says.
Finding solutions may be difficult but not impossible she concludes. Zador has used her communication skills as a Workers Centre-qualified instructor to facilitate workplace violence workshops both locally and earlier this year at ETFO’s women’s conference. “Communication is of the essence,” she says. “By increasing awareness you create a safer environment for everyone in the school.”
As with any potential threat or hazard Zador says you need to begin by identifying the troubled students. This can be accomplished by working with principals, educational assistants and school board staff such as psychologists and social workers. Written procedures should include a process for contacting support personnel, perhaps indicated by a code word, a process for safe removal of both the class and the violent person. Non-violent conflict resolution training can further help teachers diffuse a potentially hostile situation. Post-incident debriefing, re-entry procedures and counseling for all involved are just as crucial she adds for calming students’ fears and for re-establishing a positive learning environment.
In the end Zador admits, “Doing everything the right way may not prevent a violent incident,” but she offers this advice. “Think of it as a fire drill. You’ve got something in place in case you have an incident.”
Emily Noble is president of the ETFO. “Kathy has been passionate about the health and safety of her members and their workplace environment. She is diligent about ensuring that safety standards are maintained. Members know that they can talk to her at any time about issues around health and safety. Kathy will look into the matter and she will find an answer. She has been a keen advocate for proper and safe working conditions in schools.”