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Time for a law change to fight school violence

Time for a law change to fight school violence

school, violence, bully

There’s been an alarming increase in WorkCover claims by Queensland teachers subjected to violence in their classrooms and we may need a significant law change to deal with it, writes Bruce Simmonds.

Media reports in Queensland speak of soaring attacks on teachers by students, with almost 400 workers compensation claims in less than a year by teachers subjected to violence from their pupils. It’s a frightening statistic.

Maybe it’s time to make violent students criminally liable for their actions? At the moment the range of disciplinary options, including suspension or expulsion, seem to be scoffed at by those students who are plainly out of control.

As a compensation lawyer, I’ve seen the human impact on teachers whose students have an obvious lack of respect toward them and unless it’s stopped, the fear is that violent students will grow into violent adults.

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Domestic violence is a plague on our society and there’s a real fear that domestic violence can start in the schoolyard, especially if children feel they can even abuse and assault teachers without fear of any real comebacks.

Latest Queensland WorkCover data shows public school staff submitted 359 claims between 1 July 2017 and 15 June 2018 for assault or exposure to violence. This was an increase of 55 incidents reported during the previous financial year. A total of 229 claims were made by teachers with 130 claims made by other staff.

The Queensland Teachers’ Union and the Independent Education Union have detailed terrifying incidents at schools, including students throwing chairs at teachers and stalking them.

They speak of incidents where teachers have been punched by students and, apparently, verbal abuse of teachers is commonplace in some areas.

So there needs to be tough protocols with a zero tolerance policy for assaults on teachers to control unruly students and students need to be made responsible for their behaviour.

While principals have a range of statutory powers available to deal with unruly students including the power to suspend or expel pupils, and ban hostile people from school premises, this does not necessarily change the student’s mindset and in some respects might only shift the behaviour from one school to another.

Domestic violence dominates the headlines in Queensland on any given day, so much so that specialist domestic violence courts are now needed in the state to cope with the spiralling workload.

Lawyers recognise the very real risk that violent children can grow into violent adults so addressing schoolroom violence now may be a way to address the future perils of domestic violence.

So what should we do? Corporal punishment — banned in Australian State schools but apparently still legal in private schools in Queensland — is not really regarded as a viable option. Violence to address violence won’t win any public relations awards.

One option to consider involves laying criminal charges against any students who attack their teachers.

Dragging them before the courts would certainly inject a hard dose of real world reality into the mix and it may make them realise they can be held liable or at the very least it would alert parents to a lack of control of their kids.

The role and influence of parents is a major factor in any campaign to address schoolroom violence. If parents are unaware of their child’s behaviour at school, they need to be forcefully made aware of it. If they know of the violent behaviour and do nothing to address it, then they should be held accountable too. Parental responsibility does not stop when they drop the kids at the school gates.

Student violence is not confined to Queensland. The Victorian government has launched a special programme to tackle aggressive and violent behaviour in schools there.

Teachers in WA have threatened to take industrial action over demands for better protection from violent children and parents. Physical attacks by students against WA teachers have tripled since 2014, reaching 595 last year, and the State School Teachers Union said its members were seeing more extreme violence from increasingly younger pupils.

Legislation drafted in America last year called for schools to report physical assaults or violent crimes against teachers to law enforcement.

Teaching should not be a dangerous occupation yet in some places it has become so. The breakdown of respect by some students towards teachers demands a strong community response.

Parents of uncontrollable children need to take a lot more responsibility. Teachers are not social workers or child care workers. They are, and should be respected, as educators.

Maybe if violent children are made to understand that an assault on the teacher means they’ll go to court, it might get the message through to them.

Bruce Simmonds is an injury compensation law expert with Gold Coast firm Parker Simmonds Solicitors & Lawyers.

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