Integrating children with special needs without the proper supports has led to “complex classrooms” and growing incidents of violence against teachers, says the head of Canada’s teachers federation.

Teachers report being punched kicked, shoved, bitten and threatened. Some even say they have had chairs thrown at them, been stabbed with scissors or had their heads slammed into a desk. Some teachers and educational assistants report they are wearing body armour to school.

Seventy per cent of elementary school teachers in Ontario have experienced or witnessed a violent incident against a staff member, according to a recent survey of 20,000 teachers by the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.

Seventy-nine per cent of respondents said the frequency of violence is increasing, 75 per cent said it is becoming more severe and 83 per cent believe student violence is making teaching more difficult.

Mark Ramsankar, president of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, says the ETFO survey is helpful in painting a clear picture of what today’s classrooms look like. He said his association is urging its member organizations to begin collecting data to understand and track the scope of the problem nationally.

He said teachers are reporting increased violence from younger children because they lack the in-class supports to work with children who have special needs, including mental health, behaviour and physical accommodations, in integrated classrooms.

It makes for “very unique, complex classrooms right now,” he told CTV’s Your Morning Thursday. He said teachers are concerned for their own safety, but also that of the special needs children and their classmates.

There is plenty of evidence that student-on-teacher violence is a significant problem, even though many school boards and provincial teachers associations are only now beginning to collect data.

A report presented to the Waterloo Region District School Board in southern Ontario last week showed there were around 1,300 incidents in its elementary schools in 2017, up from 900 the year before.

In B.C., 115 teachers take time off each year due to injuries inflicted by students, according to WorkSafe BC. There were 1,800 violent incidents against teachers in Nova Scotia reported during the 2016-2017 school year, with 85 per cent occurring in elementary schools.

But 22 per cent of teachers in the ETFO survey say they did not report a violent incident to administrators and 62 per cent said school administrators do not take violence as seriously as they should. Half of respondents say there is an investigation in all or some reported cases and more than three-quarters said actions taken by administrators to prevent recurrence of violence were not effective.

The survey also found:

  • 38 per cent have suffered mental stress, physical injury or illness as a result of workplace violence;
  • 48 per cent suffered mental stress from experiencing or witnessing violence;
  • 28 per cent sustained a physical injury;
  • 12 per cent became ill.

Ramsankar said CTF would like to see school boards provide more staff and resources for classrooms, including adequate training and school-based mental health services.

In Ontario, ETFO is calling for an overhaul of the funding model that sees school boards receive $612 less per elementary school student than secondary school student.