From the President: Safety at work is not negotiable
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 124 No 6, 16 August 2019, page no. 7
Two new data sets show that the lived experience of occupational violence for teachers, principals and school support staff is now more accurately reported.
The sharp rise in the number of days of student disciplinary absence resulting from assaults and the number of WorkCover claims from school staff linked to assaults have been the focus of appropriate and sympathetic media attention. The key messages are that staff have a right to expect to be safe in the workplace, that student disciplinary absence data reflects schools trying to deal with student behaviour decisions in accordance with school behaviour plans, and that a rise in WorkCover claims reflects a willingness among school staff to report workplace violence and its consequences.
While such information cannot fully explain the choices students make or the personal cost of occupational violence for school staff, the data represents issues that can be easily understood by the broader community. Students who break the rules should expect consequences for their behaviour, and the employer must accept some accountability for injuries suffered in the workplace.
The experience in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), shared with our QTU Conference delegates in early July, was that a clear message from the employer that it was ready to take the issue seriously resulted in a sharp rise in the number of reports of occupational violence. Increased reporting, therefore, is not a bad thing in itself, but a more accurate reflection of what is going on in our schools.
Recent survey data revealed that more than 90 per cent of health care workers in the Victorian public hospital system had been subjected to occupational violence. This comes on the back of seven years of data on the experiences of principals in Australian, Irish and New Zealand schools, which clearly shows that leaders in our schools are subject to violence at a much higher rate than the general public, and that the incidence is increasing.
As it inevitably does in these scenarios, the questions from the media turned to what can be done to protect teachers, principals and school support staff. If there was a simple answer to this problem, then it would have been implemented before now.
What we know is that the change in community attitudes toward the pervasive issue of domestic and family violence has begun to highlight and address the human cost of this insidious form of violence. Nonetheless, while government and the police have begun to address the issue through a change in culture, one woman dies each week as a result of the violence of an intimate partner.
The 2019 QTU State Conference Statement identified the need to address occupational violence in schools as one key way to improve teacher and principal wellbeing. The changes necessary are as complex and varied as the issues diminishing wellbeing, but change and improvement are possible.
We need a concerted effort to build trust and respectful relationships among students, between parents and staff, and between staff and the broader community. This platform will contribute to students and parents making better choices about their behaviour and positively influence the outlook of the whole school community toward preventing occupational violence.
It is also important to assert the equivalent importance of the right of all children to an education and the right of workers in schools to be safe and healthy. A massive breakthrough in the ACT, the acceptance of equivalence in these issues has underpinned the path to change. The whole community is clear on the expectations in terms of behaviour inside schools. The rights of the individual are balanced with the rights of the collective such that all students have their right to learn protected. The employer unequivocally accepts its responsibility to keep workers safe and acts to deliver that requirement.
Most students are well behaved at school. Most parents do not enter schools and assault school staff. The clear majority of people know and accept that it is wrong to perpetrate violence against another person. Young people, overall, also know this. Our challenge is to get everyone to take that knowledge and turn it into more appropriate behaviour in schools.