And so a long, difficult term ended with one of my staff being punched in the head by an angry student. Actually, the student wasn’t that angry. She was more frustrated – frustrated that owing to her poor behaviour over the last seven weeks, she wasn’t allowed to go on the end of term trip, which was a key part of our behaviour system. It wasn’t a shock to him that she wasn’t going. Attendance on the trip is always based on good behaviour and in the weeks leading up to it, it is made clear to all the students how close to the trip they are. She wasn’t close at all.
She wasn’t expected to work all day though. She needed to do some work and then could do a range of activities such as sport in the gym or ICT or a range of other activities. Such extrinsic rewards are a common feature of many special schools. We reward good behaviour in many ways. An end-of-term trip was one of the most popular incentives to follow the rules. You can argue about the benefit of intrinsic motivation but the trip made a big difference.
The Year 7 student in question, Cara*, had earned the Bronze reward, but that wasn’t good enough to get her on the trip. This, to her, was an injustice. In her head, this warranted attempting to spoil the day for all the students that were going on the trip by stopping the minibus leaving the school. She stood defiantly in front of the gate and refused to move.
Her actions could have had disastrous consequences. A bus-load of angry students with social, emotional and mental health difficulties and a righteous sense of injustice could be difficult to deal with. Things could quickly get out of control. What was planned to be a good day could end in chaos; such is the fragile atmosphere in schools such as ours. They had earned a place on the trip. Their happiness could quickly turn to anger if they couldn’t go.
We had attempted to reason with her. One of her key tutors had tried to negotiate a deal so that she moved. Even though it was raining, she refused to move. Even though people who were going on the trip had asked her (in a variety of ways, some nicely, some not so) to move, she refused to budge. The decision was made for staff to move her.
We are all trained in positive handling. We understand the risks and the times in which the use of force is acceptable. We know it was the last resort but she was holding a large number of students to ransom; students who had worked hard and overcome their own difficulties and followed the rules in a system that they understood and had been involved in creating. her behaviour wasn’t fair or acceptable. If the system could so easily be undermined, then everyone would lose faith in it.
Students can’t be allowed to do what they want, when they want at the expense of other people. It isn’t good for them or, ultimately, for society. I wholeheartedly support student voice and the rights of the student. Everyone should be treated fairly and with dignity and respect, but they are children. They can’t be allowed to bully and intimidate to get what they want. They can’t be allowed to spoil things for other people because they fell aggrieved. That isn’t right. Many of our students dominate at home. We have many parents, mothers and fathers, who are scared of their children: they control their households.
We can’t allow this to happen at school. When I had started at the school five years previously, the students had controlled it. It was a frightening, intimidating place where very little work was done and no-one felt safe. Bullying was rife. We were deepest darkest special measures – it was horrible. I never want to go back to that. We had to uphold the system that all the stakeholders had signed up to.
It should have been a simple process. Two staff escorted Cara (in a single-elbow for those who have had the same training as us) away from the gate. Then they let go of her and that should have been the end of it. The minibus could leave and everyone could have a great day.
That wasn’t the end of it because Cara chose to punch a member of staff in the head – that action was a choice. I understand the effect of anger on the brain; how the rational part suffers as blood and adrenaline are pumped to the big muscles: fight or flight (or smile or climb.) She still made a choice. In her head, punching a member of staff in the head was acceptable.
I like the quote from Victor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and author of “The Search for Meaning”. He said: “Between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Cara chose violence.
The police were called. The assaulted member of staff was looked after by other staff. We are a supportive team: we have to be. The teacher was more angry than injured.
I think it is important that our students do not justify violence just because they are angry. We have to help them learn self-control. They have to understand the consequences of their actions, and some actions are unacceptable in society.
Her father arrived before the police did. He was outraged at the injustice of it all. Not outraged that his daughter had punched a member of staff in the head, but that she wasn’t going on the trip and that the police had been called. He knew other students who had been in trouble who were going on the trip. How could this be right? The issue of his daughter’s assault was, it seemed, irrelevant, or possibly even justified. She had been wrongly treated. We are a special school. In his head, this seemed to legitimise us being assaulted. I have heard this argument many times and every time I challenge it, to no avail. At no point did he tell his daughter that what she did was unacceptable. Nor did he ask how the staff member was.
We don’t like calling the police. We don’t want to criminalise our students, but there has to be a line in the sand. There has to be serious consequences for assault. It cannot be allowed to become normalised: just because we choose to work in a special school, it doesn’t mean it is acceptable to assault us.
We will review the whole incident and learn from this experience, that’s what we do. We can always do things better or differently. My staff member will go home with a large lump on his head and he will reflect on his actions and the response. I hope he doesn’t decide that he isn’t prepared to put himself in such situations again. The decisions we make regularly expose us to risk and harm. We can be vulnerable. One wrong decision could end our careers, particularly in the current climate where people are so ready to be critical. None of us want to go home bruised and battered (especially if we have children of our own who see our injuries) but too often we do.
We need resilient, caring, dedicated staff who are prepared to hold the line when necessary. He is one of those. I hope he comes back next term.
*Names have been changed. The writer is a teacher in an alternative provision school.