LISTEN: Ontario classrooms' dirty little secret

Today's Classroom: Under the Microscope

One recently-retired teacher calls it the education system's "dirty little secret": the level of violence flaring up in Ontario classrooms on a regular basis.

Students are acting out by throwing furniture, smashing computers, spraying paint, hitting, punching, kicking and biting their peers and adults.

"There's an increasing issue of kids who are completely off the charts," former teacher Linda Schultz tells NEWSTALK 1010.

These are children as young as four with behavioural problems and mental health diagnoses.

Following the handcuffing of a six-year-old girl by police in Mississauga in early February, NEWSTALK 1010 has been examining the sometimes tumultuous learning environment students are being subjected to.

Today, we launch a three-part series, "Today's Classroom: Under the Microscope".

In January, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario publicly raised concerns about rise of at school violence, pushing the provincial government for more funding for special education, mental health supports, counsellors and teachers.

John Smith, President of ETFO Toronto says there is at least one reported incident of violence in public elementary classrooms everyday. But the union estimates the cases for which there is a paper trail account for less than a quarter of the violence teachers actually experience.

Advocacy group People for Education surveyed Ontario principals and found more than half of them had asked parents to keep a child home because of violent, disruptive behaviour. Some children are flagged with "evacuation orders"--if they start to act out, the room is cleared.

Over her 27 years as an elementary school teacher and librarian, Schultz says she has had students ram into her, punch her and pull her glasses from her face.

"There were times that it was hell."

Schultz says it was the violence in the classroom and in the schoolyard that pushed her to retire early.

"I felt that I couldn't handle any longer the emotional toll that, relatively speaking, a small group of kids was taking on the whole environment. And what I felt at that time is that I had no support."

If you doubt chaos and hurt someone who can barely tie their shoes can inflict, Schultz says she would break up a fight between 16-year-olds over five-year-olds because the little ones lack the kind of self-regulation that tells them to stop, they've gone too far.

She worries about not just about the well-being emotional and physical well-being of the students acting out and the educators, but of little learners watching startling aggression close-up.

"(Do) you know what it's like to look out at a sea of faces and some of those little kids that really haven't even had a lot of interaction with other kids and they're sitting on the carpet and this is going on around them and their eyes are popping out of their head. And I'm thinking to myself, this child's likely to be scarred by that."

Schultz's partner Ken Durkacz, a 30-year high school teacher who retired last June believes there is a fear of speaking out against classroom violence.

"Teachers won't talk about it because they would be punished...Principals don't talk about it, probably for the same reason. School boards don't talk about it because they don't want to give the impression that this kind of chaos is going on in their system, but the truth is it's going on everywhere."

No one NEWSTALK 1010 has spoken is advocating for greater segregation for children with special needs, behavioural issues or mental health problems.

But with increasing demands on teachers and wait lists for special needs supports or counselling, Durkacz thinks the government needs to do more.

"We have all these policies in place and people talk about mental health ad nauseam. But you have to do something. And absolutely the bare minimum is being done because of course, it's expensive."

The first installment of "Today's Classroom: Under the Microscope" lit up the phones and text boards at NEWSTALK 1010.

Margaret, a teaching assistant called NEWSTALK 1010's Jerry Agar to share her frustration with a "broken system": a system in which a nine-year-old boy punched her in the face a year ago, giving Margaret a severe, life-changing concussion.

Margaret says the dynamic that existed early in her career of one TA for a couple of students they stuck with all year has vanished.

"They've cut back on social work, they've cut back on programs. Even when these children are known to have mental health issues, it takes two years to get them into programs. In the meantime, they are in the school classrooms."

Now Margaret says educators like her are often dealing with one child acting out while a couple others "simmer" or pinging between classrooms running crisis intervention, all while trying to deliver a program.

In Part 2 of "Today's Classroom: Under the Microscope" on Wednesday, Dave Bradley will examine the behavioural and mental challenges facing children and how parents can help.