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'State of shock': Sask. teachers detail violent classroom incidents

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Chairs thrown across the classroom, destroyed equipment and violent outbursts from students are just some of the working realities for Saskatchewan teachers.

A woman named Shelby was working as a first-year teacher in Saskatoon last March when she was attacked by a student as she approached a commotion in the hallway during recess.

Shelby says a Grade 7 student began punching and kicking her repeatedly. She says it took multiple staff members to pull the student off her and restrain them.

When first responders arrived, Shelby was taken to hospital to be treated for a severe concussion, a broken nose and multiple bruises.

"I stayed in a state of shock for about a month. I wasn't really able to process what had happened or how severe it was," she said during a news conference Wednesday.

Shelby didn't return to work for 27 days. She tried to reintegrate herself into her school but ultimately transferred to a different school to finish the year, before leaving the province altogether.

"Still today I have to work with my different therapists to help me navigate the anxieties that I have in the classroom," Shelby said. "And it took me quite a while to become comfortable teaching in a classroom by myself again."

Before Shelby began her new teaching job in a different province, she was pointed to the school's incident reporting system, which not only supports teachers, but tracks incidents involving students and allows them to receive added supports to keep their education on track.

No system like that is currently in place in Saskatchewan, and The Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation would like to see that change if they can strike a deal with the province over a new collective agreement.

"Education leaders lack the data necessary to meaningfully respond to violence and harassment in schools," STF President Samantha Becotte said, adding that Occupational Health and Safety oversight isn't meeting the needs of teachers.

"Teachers have shared that OHS reporting is ineffective and that school division policy and procedures lack consistency across the province."

Using pseudonyms to protect other teachers' identities, the STF shared other stories of escalating violence.

Roman, a retiree who returned as a substitute teacher to his local high school, had his jaw broken in multiple places when he told two students not to run in the hallways.

“He began pummeling me, striking me in the head and jaw several times. My glasses went flying on the floor, along with my left hearing aid,” Roman said.

Roman was taken to the local emergency room, where doctors discovered a compound fracture. Facial surgery was not available in his community and he was forced to wait for surgery for six days in severe pain.

His jaw was clamped shut for a month while the bones healed. Roman was on a liquid diet and unable to speak due to restricted jaw movement and pain. The STF says he has nerve damage in his lips and jaw that makes eating, drinking and pronouncing words difficult.

He doesn't plan on teaching again.

"Teachers know that these incidents are at no fault of the students who are involved. Violent incidents are a symptom of underfunding and are a clear sign that there is not enough support for students or teachers in our schools," Becotte said.

An STF survey from 2023 found that more than 35 per cent of respondents experienced violence on the job in the last five years, an increase of nearly six per cent since 2021.

Of those who had experienced violence, over four out of five noted they had experienced two to three instances in the last five years. Forty per cent of teacher respondents also reported workplace harassment in the last five years.

Incidents aren't limited to physical violence, either. Another teacher under the pseudonym Carla says a student sent to a "sensory room" to settle down removed his or her clothing, urinated and defecated on the floor before throwing and smearing it all over.

The result of an incident with a student the STF says is not receiving adequate support. (Courtesy: Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation)

Becotte says conversations with the Saskatchewan School Boards Association (SSBA) and the province haven't led to much movement on the issue.

"There's often a denial about the reality and the frequency of these violent incidents that are happening," Becotte said. "There's definitely misunderstanding about what we're talking about in terms of violence and our aggressive incidents."

Becotte says the STF wants to have violence addressed in the new collective agreement, whether that be articles for more mental health counselors, behavioral therapists, educational psychologists or smaller class sizes.

In January, the SSBA proposed forming a committee to address violence, but since it was outside the bargaining process, the STF declined.

In a statement, the Ministry of Education says The Government-Trustee Bargaining Committee is at the bargaining table in Regina, awaiting the return of the teachers' union. Another invitation was extended Wednesday morning, which has not been responded to by the union. 

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