I am an assistant principal in a special school in the state of Victoria, Australia, and recently I have found a potential part of my role – and the role of others in the sector in which I work – the subject of public debate. Here, the use of restraint is back on the media agenda.
I spend a large amount of time monitoring student engagement and assisting with implementing positive behaviour support interventions. The most important element of this is developing productive relationships with students. Considering the sensory sensitivities of individuals, being aware of environmental factors can help reduce triggers to challenging behaviours. Communicating with staff and keeping abreast of changing circumstances in students’ home lives helps me be as proactive as possible in ensuring students are ready for learning.
But despite all of the proactive measures, from time to time I am called to support highly escalated and agitated students. Sometimes the situation means that there is a real risk to the health and safety of members of the school community. What should I do then?
Media in the state of Victoria where I work have put the spotlight on the issue of the use of restraint and seclusion as a student management practice. There has been much debate, but the fact remains that principals, assistant principals, teachers and education support staff face situations everyday where there is legitimately a high risk of danger to themselves and to the students in their care. Real discussion needs to happen on how schools can support students with challenging behaviours when a risk to health and safety has been identified.
A 2012 report from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission indicated that 514 educators had reported using restraint. Half of those educators felt their training was inadequate to deal with the situation. The Australian Principal Occupational Health and Wellbeing Survey 2011-14 also raises alarm bells. The survey describes principals and assistant principals being threatened with violence at five times the rate of the general population and experiencing actual violence at seven times the rate of the general population.
Too often the portrayal of incidents of restrictive interventions is a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach. In reality, restraint can only be used when there is imminent danger and no other alternative is possible.
Clearly the management of dangerous behaviours is a growing concern. There is a need for teacher training in how to support children with challenging behaviours. But what of the human rights of the children involved, particularly when those students have disabilities? Is there a place for restraint in any school?
Recent measures by the Victorian Department of Education and Training have attempted to increase accountability within the system when incidences of restrictive interventions occur. Any use of restraint must be reported to the department. Official collection of data on the use of these practices will allow a better picture to develop of how widespread these practices are in reality.
Teachers are in the unenviable position of being at the pinch point of the restraint debate. In the moment in which a teacher is facing a real threat to their own safety or the safety of the children in their care, they must act quickly. How can we ensure that in this moment teachers are able to confidently balance the rights of all the people who could be potentially harmed with the rights of the escalated student to be treated with dignity and respect?
Kai Pukarinen is an assistant principal in a special school in Victoria, Australia