School fights and teacher assaults: Round 1 goes to …

06 July 2017

Scarily, teacher assaults are a growing trend around Australia.  Media reports highlight an ever increasing rate of teachers being assaulted or suffering injuries sustained during the course of their work. Is it any wonder why teachers have one of the largest attrition rates of any profession in Australia?

Recently the Herald Sun reported that a Victorian high school teacher was punched in the head by a student and taken to hospital with a broken nose after trying to break up a fight. We are not talking about a boxing ring with Manny Pacqiao in one corner and Jeff Horn in the other, these are schools where children come to learn and people go to work.

In response to the Victorian teacher being injured trying to break up the fight, the President of the Australian Education Union (AEU) said: “Violence is not acceptable in any workplace, including schools, where the safety of students and staff is paramount … All risks cannot be eliminated, however the Department of Education and Training must ensure sufficient resources are provided to schools, with appropriate policies and procedures to mitigate any risk.”

The AEU President is right. Violence is not acceptable in any workplace and not all risks can be eliminated. However, proper training in how to diffuse heated situations between students or knowing how to deal with violent students is an important strategy that teachers should learn.  Of course, one of the most important testaments teachers live by is that student/child safety is paramount; but one thing that teachers must not neglect is their own safety. This might be hard to remember in the heat of the moment, however, it is something that teachers must consider if they are faced with that situation.

There are multiple instances when a teacher can be injured by a student. These situations generally include:

  • a genuine accident, such as bumping into or knocking a teacher over by accident. For example, students running in a corridor and bumping into a teacher who inadvertently walks in front of them.
  • a sports injury, for example, a student/teacher sports game where there is the possibility of physical tackling such as in rugby or football.
  • teacher restraint of a student who:
    • is involved in a student on student fight;
    • has a violent outburst – either due to a disability or just bad behaviour;
    • is doing something that may cause injury to himself or others. For example, about to run onto a busy road or perhaps throwing objects at people.
  • where a student decides to deliberately assault a teacher.

Teachers exposed to, or threatened with, violence may also experience mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. This occurred with Mr Doulis who suffered a mental breakdown when he taught a ‘feral’ class and was forced to break up a fight during a foundation class. At one point, the student said to Mr Doulis, "you’re gone. I’m going to get you". The student was sent to the year coordinator. Mr Doulis then went to check on the student but the student had left and was later seen by Mr Doulis in front of the school office making a throat-slitting motion at Mr Doulis. This was the final straw after many previous incidents.

The growing trend

Unfortunately, this issue is not exclusive to Victoria. It is a growing trend all around Australia. Although there are no national statistics on student caused teacher injuries, media reports show that assaults and injuries suffered by teachers are increasing.

In NSW’s Hunter Region, a large number of teachers have been subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Some of the incidents include: a student attempting to punch his teacher then spitting in their face; a teacher was verbally and physically abused, causing a jaw injury; and a male student, who was asked to stop, verbally abused a teacher who asked him to pick up rubbish, before throwing a bin that knocked the teacher to the ground.

In WA, an alarming number of students have been physically abusing teachers. In 2016, 558 cases of physical assaults were recorded, up from 165 in 2014. The Department of Education broadly categorised these incidents as 'assaults', which included minor to serious incidents requiring Police involvement.

In Queensland, teachers have been subjected to abuse from both students and parents.  Teachers have been sprayed in the face with fire extinguishers, struck with iron bars and students have even hurled chairs, books and whiteboards as weapons. Queensland teachers have also been subjected to death threats from parents.

This issue does not only affect teachers, it goes all the way to the top. According to the Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey (2016) (the Wellbeing Survey), principals are being subjected to ‘escalating levels of violence or violent threats brought against principals and school leaders’. This has caused levels of stress and burnout for principals and school leaders across Australia. The Wellbeing Survey showed an increase in violence against principals has increased from 27 per cent in 2011 to 34 per cent in 2016. The Wellbeing Survey also showed that 44 per cent of principals acknowledged that they have been threatened with violence at school.

What sort of force or restraint is okay?

To stop a child from causing harm to a person, themselves or damage to school property, sometimes it is necessary for a teacher to restrain a child. Teachers must make sure that they use reasonable force when restraining the child.

Of course, teachers cannot use corporal punishment to restrain a child as it has been abolished in every state and territory. Corporal punishment is the use of physical force to punish a child, such as caning of knuckles or use of a ruler to smack a child.

Therefore, it is all about how a teacher uses reasonable force to restrain the child. Teachers can legally stop a student from causing harm to themselves or to another by restraining a child, such as grabbing or holding a child. For example, if a child runs out towards a busy road without looking, a teacher can use any reasonable force necessary to grab the child to ensure they are not hit by oncoming traffic.

Teachers may take physical action when necessary to prevent or restrain a student at the school if the student is acting in a manner that may compromise the safety of other students or any other person on school property. This can include the use of such force that is necessary to restrain the student. However, no staff member should restrain a child unless they are appropriately trained, for example PART training in WA. Before intervening, teachers must remember that they never have a duty to put themselves at risk of physical harm. Just like the scenario above, a teacher can step in to stop a fight between two students but before entering into the fracas, they must ensure they can come out safely. If they have any uncertainty, they must seek assistance from other staff members or call Police.

The use of excessive force to restrain a student can be deemed as assault. However, what is deemed to be excessive depends on the circumstance of the case.

In considering what is reasonable under the circumstances, obvious other alternatives are isolating the student where possible, and/or removing other students and the teacher to a place of safety.

Another measure which a school must take to comply with WHS/OHS action is to have an emergency management plan which deals specifically with procedures to deal with extreme behavioural issues that can occur in the school, as well as control measures that deal with foreseeable lesser behavioural hazards.  This should be done even if there are no current students known to present such a risk.

If a staff member has been injured due a physical assault or has been threatened, then a critical incident must be reported to each state and territory’s responsible authority.

William Kelly

William is a Legal Research Coordinator at CompliSpace. He assists with drafting and reviewing policies and procedures, as directed, for CompliSpace clients as well as writing regular articles for the School Governance blog. William is a lawyer and an officer of the Supreme Court of Victoria.