How can we defend teachers under attack?

12th June 2015 at 01:00
With verbal and physical assaults on the rise and perceived anonymity fanning the flames of online abuse from both pupils and parents, Julia Belgutay asks what can be done to protect staff

It is something all teachers hope to avoid: being confronted, threatened or even attacked by a pupil. And while the picture may not be as bleak as the scare stories and portrayals on film and television make out, teaching unions and professional associations have long warned that incidents of violence and abuse remain a feature of Scottish school life.

Last autumn, a Freedom of Information request by the Scottish Conservatives revealed that 14 local authorities had reported a rise in the number of assaults on teachers by pupils between 2011-12 and 2013-14. In total, 1,879 incidents were logged in 2013-14 - fewer than in 2012-13 but 16 per cent more than in 2011-12. The incidents included physical attacks such as kicking, punching or shoving, and also verbal assaults.

A spokesman for the NASUWT teaching union tells TESS that violence and abuse against teachers remains "a serious issue". In the union's most recent survey, conducted earlier this year, 21 per cent of teachers reported having been victims of a physical assault at work.

And last month, the union turned the spotlight on an issue triggered by the advent of modern technology - one that involves not only teachers and pupils but also parents. According to figures released by the union, 68 per cent of teachers have had insulting comments made about them on social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, while almost half have had comments posted online about their performance as a teacher.

The figures also reveal that 44 per cent of respondents have had insulting comments posted about them on websites by parents, and 11 per cent say that allegations of inappropriate behaviour have been made against them. However, 70 per cent of the teachers questioned chose not to report incidents of abuse by parents, and 65 per cent did not report online abuse by pupils, because they felt no action would be taken.

`Brushed under the carpet'

The statistics are sobering, and for teachers who suffer abuse and violence it is likely to be a life-altering experience. One teacher tells TESS that she ended up in hospital after she was hit on the head and had things thrown at her by a P7 pupil with additional support needs.

The primary teacher, who is based in a specialist unit, was left with "a massive black eye" and a concussion when she was attacked in November last year. She reported the incident but still teaches the pupil, who has also attacked a colleague and a fellow pupil, and who as recently as a few weeks ago "wrecked a classroom trying to get to me, saying that when he did he would punch my face in".

The teacher claims she wasn't supported by her school's management team, who seemed "annoyed" that she had brought the matter up. "I was told that as I was working in a specialist unit I should have expected it," she says, adding that staff are actively discouraged from reporting incidents. "Some teachers could probably fill in five forms a day. But it takes 20 minutes, so they don't get filled in. If [the management team] wanted these things reported, they wouldn't make it so complicated. They would rather it was just brushed under the carpet."

As a result of this experience, the teacher has decided to leave the profession.

There is a flip side to this story, of course. Some teachers feel well supported by their school leaders. One maths teacher from the east of Scotland explains that had it not been for the backing of her managers and colleagues, she would have left her job when she became the subject of abusive comments online. After pupils clashed with her partner, who is also a teacher at the school, they set up a fake Facebook profile in his name.

"There were three boys who were mainly involved in it. They put up some quite brutal and rude stuff about me. We ended up calling the police in," the teacher says. "They went to the homes of the boys and one of them was charged. All of that happened probably within the week. But you don't know who has seen it, and I was aware that some of my colleagues had to read the comments to deal with them."

The experience left her shaken. "For a long time afterwards, I was really paranoid. I would spend time looking around online to see if there was anything about me. I was only just back from maternity for a few months, which is difficult enough.

"I am [seen as] a fairly decent teacher in the school, and these were pupils I did not know. I was just really disappointed that I treated all pupils with respect and then this happened. It changed the way I deal with pupils. I don't give them as much of myself as I might have. It just shows how vulnerable you are.

"I am happy with the way the school has dealt with it and I am happy we involved the police. There was a point to be made."

Both the teacher and her partner continue to follow professional advice and neither has a Twitter or Facebook account.

Culture of abuse

The NASUWT says it is difficult to "pinpoint a single reason" for the ongoing issue of violence and abuse in schools. However, the union argues that "reductions in specialist support for pupils with behavioural difficulties and a wider culture of online abuse are both significant factors", adding: "With regard to online abuse, it is clear that many schools are simply not addressing the problem, while some parents, rather than helping to tackle the issue, are themselves contributing to it."

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said earlier this year that reductions in staffing - including a decline in teacher numbers, deep cuts to specialist support staff and a fall in the number of professional educational psychologists - were exacerbating problems with school discipline.

And Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, says that online abuse is "particularly hard to deal with because of the difficulties around social media and the internet with its own legal issues". He adds that reporting processes within schools are "usually very clear" and it is "difficult to know what more can be done within schools' powers".

Cunningham stresses that for most headteachers, staff safety comes first. "I have no doubt that there may have been an instance of someone trying to [discourage reporting] for the sake of the high pressure on schools around negative media publicity, but no headteacher should be ignoring any such abuse and I'm not conscious of anyone doing that," he says.

Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, says that social media provides "a different platform for abuse" that affects people "in every walk of life", adding: "We deal with parents' enquiries on this in relation to inappropriate behaviour between parents, by children and also by teachers."

Playing it safe online

So what can be done? Pamela Graham, campaigns and communications manager for anti-bullying charity Respectme, says: "It's important to distinguish between incidents of abuse and those of violence; if someone is assaulted it should always be treated as an assault and the relevant authorities should be notified. Similarly, any online abuse which can be viewed as threatening, or a hate crime, should be dealt with accordingly."

Children and young people have always made comments about their teachers, "nasty or otherwise", she notes, adding: "Although this behaviour is never acceptable, there is an opportunity for parents and teachers to role model responsible behaviour on social media, both in the comments they post online and the way they react and communicate with others.

"This means being mindful of what they're posting, and making sure that their online conduct and language mirrors how they would behave with children and young people on a day-to-day basis."

Graham urges teachers to be aware of their profile settings on social networks. "They should be [set to] private - and they should never become online friends with students."

Prior adds: "We always urge caution in using social media. The golden rule is not to put something on social media that you wouldn't say in a public forum. We advise parent groups to have usage policies for Facebook and so on. The apparent anonymity of online communication is certainly an issue - for everyone - and of course it is becoming clear that `apparent' is the right word to use."

Immediate action

The EIS' Flanagan stressed earlier this year that it was important to "keep the true scale of the problem in perspective", adding: "However, it is essential that when serious incidents do occur they are dealt with swiftly and firmly - including police involvement where a teacher has been physically assaulted or placed under severe threat."

An NASUWT spokesman says that schools and local authorities should act immediately to tackle violence, "which does not just mean applying sanctions such as exclusion swiftly and consistently but also committing resources to properly support pupils with behavioural difficulties".

He adds that all schools should have a clear policy on the use and abuse of technology.

Detective inspector Peter Lloyd, of the internet investigations unit at Police Scotland, advises that most reputable online platforms have mechanisms for reporting abuse or concerning behaviour, and also to enable users to block interactions.

"Any online behaviour which is considered criminal should be reported to the police in the usual manner," Lloyd says. "Police Scotland has strong record of dealing with online criminality and reports of on bullying will be appropriately dealt with."

Legal niceties

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service have recently issued social media guidance identifying the boundary between criminal and non-criminal communications. Read more at bit.lyCOPFSguidance

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