School Violence: The Delicate Balance Between Staff Safety and Student Duty of Care (Part One)

23 August 2018

This is the first part of a two part series exploring violence in schools. Part One focuses on violence against principals and teachers, and the results of the Principal Wellbeing Survey 2017. Part Two will focus on violence perpetrated by parents and students and how discipline and behaviour management policies impact a school’s reaction.

Principals, deputy principals and teachers are expected to balance their duty of care to their students with their own personal safety daily. With recent articles in the media outlining the stabbing of a student in an Adelaide school and a wild brawl outside a school in Western Australia, principals would be forgiven for thinking they are not balancing these two needs appropriately. However, the Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey (2017) (the  2017 Survey) would seem to indicate that other factors are at play as violence against principals and teachers is rising around Australia.

Violence Against School Principals

The Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, which is now in its seventh year, has been conducted by researchers at the Australian Catholic University every year since 2011. Over that time, 5,580 school leaders have participated in the Survey.

The 2017 Survey results show that principals and deputy principals are increasingly being subjected to violence, with:

  • 44% of principals reporting receiving verbal threats of violence (predominantly from parents and students)
  • 34% reporting being victims of bullying (with parents the most common bullies), and
  • 36% reporting being victims of physical violence (primarily at the hands of students).

Secondary school principals received the most threats with approximately one in two Government school principals, one in three Catholic school principals and one in 8 to 12 Independent school principals threatened each year. The 2017 Survey deduced that this was not surprising as both the Catholic and Independent sectors can remove violent students from their systems but the Government system cannot, which means that most violent students will eventually end up in the Government system by late secondary school.

Disturbingly, violence against school principals has seen a rise in the last year. However that rise, according to the 2017 Survey is not uniform. In New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania, the trend has remained extremely worrying, while violence in Victoria and Queensland significantly increased in 2017. In Tasmania, the rates for threats of violence doubled between 2011-2015, but fell in 2016 and 2017. (South Australia was not represented in the survey results.)

Finally, the 2017 Survey states that 10 per cent of principals and deputy principals reported in the 2017 Survey that they were threatened either weekly or monthly across the entirety of 2017, with the most common offenders being parents and students.

The 2017 Survey recommends the establishment of an independent authority to investigate violence and bullying in schools and determine who is most at risk and what can be done to protect them. It also recommends that better policies and resources to support principals be put in place, noting that unlike other professions with high emotional demands such as psychology and social work, principals do not receive sufficient levels of professional support and are instead expected to learn to cope on the job.

However, the 2017 Survey also noted that it was not just a problem to be fixed internally within the school, stating, in Recommendation 7, that “the offensive behaviour must stop. This is beyond debate. It simply must stop. The real issue is how to achieve this outcome. The steadily increasing levels of offensive behaviour across the country in schools of all types should give us pause. But this is not just occurring in schools, with increases noted in all frontline professions and domestic violence rates that we should be nationally ashamed about. Australia needs to have an adult conversation about the root causes of this and set about addressing them at every level of society.”

Work, Health and Safety and Violence Against Teachers

Schools also owe a duty of care to their staff and other employees to protect them from the risk of harm. This is a core component of the school's duties under work, health and safety laws. Not only principals, but teachers and other staff, have reported a rise in violence in schools.

As an example, figures obtained from the WA Education Department show that 595 physical incidents involving students against teachers were reported in 2017, compared with 444 in 2015 and 165 in 2014. Figures for 2018 are on track to continue the upward trend, with 568 physical incidents reported in the first three school terms. In these situations, only 9 per cent of attacks were reported to the WA Police.

In Queensland, figures show that public school staff submitted 359 claims in relation to assault or exposure to violence between 1 July 2017 and 15 June 2018 this year. This was an increase of 55 incidents reported during the previous financial year. 229 claims were made by teachers with 130 claims made by other staff.

Department of Education spokesperson from Queensland stated that, “principals were responsible for 'the good order and management of their schools and had a range of statutory powers they could use to discipline bad behaviour and protect staff and students. This includes the power to suspend and exclude students and to ban hostile persons from the school premises.” However, this seems to ignore the careful balancing act for both principals and staff where student duty of care might be involved. The main aim for schools is to ensure that they maintain the safety of the working and learning environment to prevent serious injury or death of a student or staff member. Schools will need to assess themselves on what the risk of violence is in their school and determine how to deal with it. This may involve introducing relevant training or implementing procedures to deal with violence.

What Schools Can do to Protect Their Staff

Violence in schools, at any level and no matter how serious, has severe consequences for the school and its community.  The risk of violence in a school not only poses the obvious risk of students and staff being injured, but it could also carry the risk of work, health and safety, or legal, claims against the school.

Schools need to ensure they have control measures (such as policies, procedure and training) and a culture in place to avoid instances of violence such as student assault against teachers. In the event that a staff member is threatened or is assaulted, a critical incident report must be sent to the state or territory’s responsible authority, procedures must be followed and if necessary the Police must be informed.

However, teachers are only one piece of the puzzle in solving school violence. Schools are under increasing pressure to consider and appropriately balance student duty of care and teacher welfare. An appropriate way to start for most schools would be to:

  • agree upon expectations through setting firm staff and student codes of conduct
  • set ground rules for interaction including professional boundaries, and
  • maintain these boundaries consistently by involving the school community, especially upskilling families.

This holistic approach involving students, staff, parents and the school community will be the most effective way to start addressing any issues of violence.


Lauren Osbich

Lauren is a Content Development and Legal Research Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over ten years of experience in legal research and legal publishing, working nationally across Australia. She studied at Macquarie University completing a Bachelor of Laws with an Honours in English, followed by being admitted as a solicitor of the NSW Supreme Court. Lauren is also passionate about giving back to the community through the not for profit sector as well as donating time to mentor and coach young lawyers in their professional development and finding time to also be a member of a not for profit Board.