View from here - Violence sets alarm bells ringing

16th July 2010 at 01:00
A rise in pupil attacks on teachers in Australia has prompted calls for distress buttons to be installed in classrooms. Geoff Maslen reports

Apart from the occasional school-yard fist fight, the most violence that occurred in Australian schools in the good old days until corporal punishment was banned was when teachers set about whacking recalcitrant students with leather straps.

"Six of the best" seemed a cure-all for most misdemeanours. These days, however, it is the teachers themselves who are under attack. So much so that some have called for emergency distress buttons to be installed in their classrooms.

In South Australia alone over the past two years, students injured almost 3,000 state school teachers.

At a primary school in a northern suburb of Adelaide, a woman teacher on yard duty was hit on the back of the head with a brick. As she lay on the ground in shock, the young attackers stole her office keys and took cash from a drawer in her desk.

Correna Haythorpe, president of the South Australian Education Union, said the startling occupational health and safety report showed that students were "deliberately" responsible for 98 per cent of the nearly 3,000 injuries reported by teachers in the two years up to the start of 2010.

"The figures paint a picture of rising levels of violent incidents that teachers are facing," Ms Haythorpe said. "Teachers expect to go to work to teach, not to be assaulted or injured."

In Western Australia, teachers proposed emergency buttons in classrooms after a 13-year-old girl threw a garbage bin at her male teacher and repeatedly punched him. The teenager was charged with "assaulting a public officer" and suspended from school for ten days. An Education Department official said a decision would be made whether to expel the girl or send her to a departmental behaviour centre.

Another student faces suspension for filming the attack on her mobile phone. The film shows the teacher backing away as the girl screams, punches him and then throws a bin at him.

Anne Gisborne, president of the State School Teachers Union, said measures were needed to ensure an urgent response when staff were in danger.

"In circumstances such as at that school, there might need to be phones in each classroom ... or an emergency bell," she said.

Liz Constable, education minister, said all options would be looked at. "But you have to be in the place where that panic button is when the incident occurs," she said.

Australian teachers are legally allowed to restrain students if they put others in immediate danger, but Ms Gisborne said that was not an easy call to make.

"Making that sort of choice and decision can be quite complicated because there always will be an investigation. And one of the issues will be, has the teacher intervened in an appropriate way in the circumstance?"

But it is not just teachers who suffer attacks: violence in the playground is also on the rise. In Brisbane earlier this year, Elliot Fletcher, 12, was fatally stabbed in the chest by a student in the school toilets of St Patrick's College. A 13-year-old was later charged with murder.

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