There has been a lot of information in the press over the last year about the precipitous increase in violence and misbehaviour in Ontario’s schools. Reports of classrooms being trashed, students being evacuated, and education workers being injured abound. I was hopeful that the sheer volume of information coming out might force the government to increase funding to deal with these problems, but alas the Conservative government’s insistence on even further cuts to education and the necessary job actions that have followed have completely derailed any serious consideration of this situation, let alone concrete action to address it.
There has been a general dislike of teachers ever since the days of Mike Harris – a feeling he largely instigated and shamelessly stoked. It was therefore no surprise to me that it took so many reports of injuries to education workers before anyone really noticed, but what is being overlooked in this situation, and what makes it much more pressing than anyone in power has chosen to acknowledge, is the effect it is having on children. I have yet to see any coverage in the mainstream media in which children who have witnessed violence are interviewed, nor have I heard any mention of how being a helpless bystander to repeated assaults and aggression might effect their mental health. I would therefore like to share some instances where I have seen first hand the heavy toll this situation is taking on students.
Let’s start with a student I’ll call Dan. My first encounter with Dan came when he was in JK and therefore an unknown quantity. He came with his class to the library and the bulk of the visit ran smoothly – I read to the kids, helped them choose books, checked them out and then lined them up to go back to their room. There was an EA with them who was assigned to another child in the class.
I don’t know what prompted his outburst, but suddenly another EA was in the library (I assume the one with the class had called for help on her walkie), and Dan was in the corner screaming and throwing chairs around. The kids were pushing to get out the door, so the EA and I got them into some kind of order and she led them out. Then I went over to try and calm Dan down (standing at a safe distance with the new EA), when he turned on me and said,
“Ms. Monis, I am going to kill you and cut you up into little pieces and put the pieces in boxes and bury them in different places so your family can never find them.”
I barely even knew this boy, certainly had never done anything to him, and he was 5 at most!
It took years of tracking and massive amounts of paperwork before Dan was assigned an EA. In grade two he was still without support, but his teacher tried to create some normalcy and order in her class by assigning seats. One day when I brought the class back from the library a lovely little guy named Riley sidled up to me. Riley tried his best at school and was eager to please – a little quieter than most but otherwise a normal 7 year old. I bent down towards him when I noticed him standing there, and he said,
“Dan is in my seat.”
I took Riley’s hand and we walked over to Dan where I asked him if he was in his proper seat.
“No.”, he replied. “I just feel like sitting here.”
So I then politely asked him to go to his assigned desk as Riley wanted to sit down, and truly you had to be there to appreciate how foul and personally offensive his response was. I don’t know where he learned his vocabulary, but he strung expletives together in a way that would make a sailor blush.
And all the while quiet little Riley (not to mention the rest of the class) stood frozen while this cascade of obscenities and personal insults rained down on me. I was about to respond calmly to Dan’s verbal assault (as all adults in this situation are expected to do) when I felt a small tug on my hand. I looked down at Riley and he had tears streaming down his face. He gave a small shake of his head, asking me silently to please let it go, withdrew his hand and walked away.
Imagine you are 7 and see your teacher, someone you like, respect, and mostly need to be in charge, standing silently as a fellow student verbally eviscerates her. How safe would you feel? How traumatic would that situation be, particularly if it was a regular occurrence? Now extrapolate that to all of Dan’s classmates from K-8 who experienced this same thing, recognize that he is just one child out of thousands in the province with similar behaviours, and you’ll start to get a sense of the scope of the problem.
I was deeply upset by Riley’s distress and went to the office immediately after leaving his class. I explained the situation to the vice principal and said I was tired of seeing students traumatized by Dan’s outrageous and abusive behaviour. Wasn’t there some way we could protect the other children from his outbursts? The vice principal calmly replied that there were “mitigating circumstances” where Dan was concerned and therefore nothing could be done. “Mitigating circumstances” means that the child in question has a known mental or behavioural issue and therefore isn’t punished or chastised for their actions. But I wasn’t asking about Dan, I was asking about the welfare of the other nineteen children in the class.
Here is the unspoken but tacitly understood policy in regards to that: “The rights of the troubled child supersede the rights of all others – adults and children alike”. Let me give a little more extreme example of how this really is the prevailing ethos in education right now. We had a boy in our school who I’ll call Nat. Nat was clearly mentally ill – he would periodically fly into rages, often with no provocation at all, and lash out verbally and physically at anyone nearby. Eight adults that I know of had to seek professional medical care in response to injuries he inflicted including a broken cheek bone, a cracked scapula, two major concussions, and deep cuts to the hand and ear when an EA was hit by a large piece of glass Nat obtained by throwing a chair through a window.
It was nothing short of miraculous that no child was harmed by him. Let me take that back – it was because of extremely brave and caring adults that no child was harmed by him, but my whole staff sensed that it was only a matter of time before one was. With this in mind we got a meeting with the Special Education principal from the board office in hopes of finding out what could be done to protect children from Nat’s rage. The meeting ran for almost an hour during which time our questions became progressively more pointed, but we never got a straight answer or solution out of our guest.
We all left the meeting feeling somewhat frustrated, but mostly just saddened and baffled by the board’s seeming lack of concern for the welfare and rights of the majority in the face of one troubled child whose problems were not being addressed. On reflection I think it’s probably the case that they simply didn’t, and still don’t, have the funding or expertise to manage such children. In my experience most students with severe behavioural problems have mental health issues far beyond the training or purview of individuals in the education system. (In this regard therefore, surely the Ministry of Health needs to step up. Maybe they could expend less energy talking about ending the stigma around mental illness, and spend more time and money actually treating it.)
We had regular lockdowns in the school when Nat “blew” in the hall. On one occasion I had just returned a grade one class to their room when one of these was called, and it so happened that moments later Nat and his entourage (the several adults who were trying to corral him into his “quiet room”, aka cell, at the end of the hall) were directly in front of my door. When Nat is in this state he will curse and often scream that people are hurting him and should stop touching him. This is obviously not the case because everyone around him is desperately trying to stay out of his arm’s reach while they talk him down, but it is either something Nat perceives to be happening or something he says for effect. Either way the 6-year-olds in the room with me had no way of knowing that he wasn’t being physically harmed, and I had been forbidden from explaining this to them because that would compromise Nat’s privacy, a clear example of his rights being paramount to those of other students.
On this particular occasion a little girl was in front of me doing the pee-pee dance, her eyes wide as she heard the screeching in the hall. I had no choice but to tell her that she could not leave the room at that moment, but I was sure she could soon. Again, I want you to imagine this from the child’s perspective when as far as she knows, here is what’s happening – there is a wild kid screaming bad words just outside the door while being brutalized by adults she thought she could trust, and not only is the adult in the room letting this happen, but she also won’t let her use the washroom and she really has to go! How safe does that child feel? Would it be fair to use the word “trauma” to describe that child’s experience? Now imagine how I felt standing in front of her – impotent, worried about the effect this would have on her, and concerned that I was letting her down. These feelings of helplessness are commonplace in the teaching profession, and in my case reared their head again last May, only this time they were so overwhelming that I chose to retire.
There was a grade two class in my school last year which had not one, not two, but three extremely troubled boys. In the past the behaviour of these boys would have been severe enough to merit support, but no more. Their room was directly across the hall from the library and I saw first hand that at least one of them was disruptive to his class every single day. You can imagine that as the school year progressed the other kids in the class became totally fed up with having grade two ruined by these three boys.
This class came in for their regular library period in early May and no sooner had they arrived than all three of the boys went off; yelling, running, and hitting. One of them, a boy with a good heart but serious mental issues caused by a brutal home life, began swearing and punching himself in the face sufficiently hard that his nose bled. I called for support and the boys were escorted out of the room. I was reading to the class ten minutes later when the second of the three boys was sent back from the office and immediately sat next to the one who’d proceeded him. I asked him to move but he complained about always being the one who has to move, and as I had no more patience with him I said he could stay but to keep his hands to himself and his lips zipped.
I continued reading to the class but before long could see in my peripheral vision that the two boys were taking turns punching each other in the arm. I put the book down, turned and asked them yet again to move away from each other. (Keep in mind that I cannot physically move them as adults are forbidden from touching students.) The one whined again about always having to move, and the other just silently and defiantly stared at me. Seeing that they had at least stopped hitting each other, I again lifted up the book and began reading. Moments later when they were punching each other sufficiently hard that they were crying out in pain, I put the book down and lowered my head in exasperation. That’s when I heard a small voice from the class quietly say,
I looked up into the tearful eyes of a lovely little boy who proceeded to say,
“Could we please just read the book?”
I looked around and saw fifteen other pairs of eyes, all equally teary and hopeful, silently pleading with me to continue. They were just looking for a little scrap of normalcy in a year which had been marked by chaos, noise, violence and dissension. I simply did not have the heart to deny them, so I did something I thought I would never do and which makes me ashamed to this day – I literally turned my back on the two boys who were fighting and proceeded to finish the book with the rest of the class.
I thought a lot about that situation when I got home that night. I reflected on the myriad similar and sometimes worse ones I had experienced over the course my career. On paper my job was to foster a love of, and an appreciation for, the written word in children, but in practice my daily duties more closely mirrored those of a social worker or correctional officer.
Chronic underfunding by the Ministry of Education has left students like these three boys adrift, and their unchecked misbehaviour, whatever its cause, precludes dedicated professionals like myself from running effective educational programs. Lack of resources has also allowed similar situations to mushroom throughout the province. My frustration with the bureaucracy and feelings of impotence in the face of a system which prevented me from fully caring for the children in my charge had already pushed me to write my letter of retirement, and this incident was the last straw. Far too many students in Ontario’s elementary schools are being overlooked and under served, and I simply could not be a party to this outrageous situation any longer.
Most students come to school every day with the best of intentions, but their attempts to learn are constantly undermined by other children who desperately need support but get none, as well as by students who should not be in a regular classroom at all, such as those with autism and Down syndrome. These children learn much better in classrooms with smaller child-to-adult ratios and targeted programming, and many more of these specialized classes should be made available.
A great many students are also being subjected to traumatic situations far beyond their coping and processing abilities. Education workers are restricted from discussing these situations with students and parents, and are forbidden from letting the general public know how difficult things have become for children in the current school system. This essay is my celebration that I no longer have to be silent.
So the next time you hear yet another report of a lockdown or evacuation or someone being brutalized in a classroom, please spare a thought for the many children who are witnessing these things on a daily basis. It may be your paperboy, or the kid you see on her skateboard at the park every Saturday, but I can almost guarantee that unless steps are taken by the Ministry of Education and school boards to incisively curtail the burgeoning violence in our schools, one day it will be your child.