'Conspiracy of silence' in schools

23:50, Jan 27 2013

Teachers facing violence in the classroom are slipping through cracks in the system, say education advocates.

Standover tactics, verbal abuse, or pushing and shoving might not be considered an "assault" by teachers, but are among violent incidents against teachers thought to be going unreported.

Where "serious physical contact" occurred education authorities should be keeping track, Post Primary Teachers' Association president Robin Duff said. The union had in the past labelled a problem of under-reported violence against teachers in New Zealand schools a "conspiracy of silence".

"One of the complexities of this has been that some schools are not wishing to draw attention to themselves. For clearly obvious reasons there is a large pressure to keep these things quiet or secret," Mr Duff said. "A teacher must come to school knowing they are safe, it is an obvious bottom line."

Figures released by ACC under the Official Information Act show of the 5714 claims for workplace injuries made by teachers in 2012, 280 were struck by a person or animal, 136 were pushed or pulled, and 132 reported being struck by a tool or implement.

However neither ACC nor the Ministry of Education was able to give an indication of how many teachers were being assaulted in New Zealand schools.


ACC spokeswoman Stephanie Melville said ACC did not have a category for recording "assault" in any workplace and it was impossible to say how many of the injuries reported last year arose from violent incidents.

"In fact, the vast majority of these claims are not criminal assault.

"Rather, it can include incidents of insect or animal bites, physical education accidents, and unintentional contact that may have caused harm," Ms Melville said.

Ministry of Education figures show that in 2011, about 130 pupils aged 16 and over were stood down or suspended from school nationwide for physical or verbal attacks on staff, but none were expelled.

A Ministry of Education spokeswoman said the department would not rule out the possibility of a move to call for schools to report violent incidents targeting staff.

"Collecting assault information would require a lot of work by schools, and we are mindful of the demands on them.

"However we are happy to meet with unions and to have this conversation," the spokeswoman said.

Mr Duff acknowledged that keeping track of the problem could create extra work for schools and issues of accuracy would arise but it was a problem that begged attention.

"If there is an attitude in the school that is intensely unhealthy, a culture of violence in the school, something needs to be done about it," he said.

Labour associate education spokesman Chris Hipkins said where a history of physical or verbal bullying of staff by students was apparent, incidents should be reported to a higher authority in cases where statutory intervention could help.

"I think the Ministry of Education should actually be monitoring this, there should be a centralised system for recording incidents," he said. "Assault on a teacher is often a symptom of greater problems within a school. If a school has a pattern of this . . . it would suggest a need for an intervention."

Queen Elizabeth College principal Michael Houghton said assaults on teachers had seldom occurred in his history at the school and students were quickly set straight if they deviated from behavioural standards.

"We have put a lot of things in place to ensure that students understand what the acceptable behaviour standard is," he said.

"In most cases teachers are able to handle things when students are a little bit frustrated."

Manawatu Standard