The Ontario government has finally responded to lobbying efforts by OSSTF/FEESO and others on the issue of violence in our schools, with an emphasis on enforcement of the Occupation Health and Safety Act, more training for staff, and revised reporting processes. This is a positive start for all of those who work in education, and for Ontario students. However, there remains an underlying and largely unnamed facet to the violent incidents that education workers are experiencing in schools. The term ‘school violence’ is an all-encompassing one, a generalized term used to describe the verbal and physical abuse of education workers by students and sometimes parents. This general term does not differentiate between violent incidents that may result from the frustration of a child with behavioural issues, and violent incidents perpetrated by a student or parent with malicious intent, though it needs to be stressed that all forms must be dealt with seriously.
In addition, the term masks the fact that, in a system where the overwhelming majority of workers identify as women, the victims of all forms of school violence are primarily female. School violence is a gender issue.
In a recent Toronto Star article, Durham Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) President David Mastin raised the issue of gender in an interview on school violence. He says, “It’s a gender issue, too—I have significant concerns about students who are going home after witnessing violence against women.”i Front-line education union leaders know what gender-based violence in schools looks like. The following are real-life examples of this form of violence against OSSTF/FEESO members:
- A male student simulates sexual intercourse behind a teacher as she is bent over in class organizing materials
- A male student repeatedly asks a teacher for a hug in front of class, and when she says no, says loudly, ‘that’s not what you said last night’
- A parent, via email, informs a pregnant teacher that he doesn’t want his child ‘at the mercy of a pregnant, hormonal woman’
- An educational assistant repeatedly has her breasts grabbed by a student in her class
- The school office administrator is called a ‘fucking bitch’ by a parent
- A teacher is being taunted repeatedly by a group of boys as she walks down the hall. The boys also use their bodies to ‘body check’ her and block her path
In almost any other context, these incidents would be framed as sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. But in the school system, they are often not taken seriously. The Ministry of Education’s own definition of gender-based violence is “any form of behaviour—including psychological, physical, and sexual behaviour—that is based on an individual’s gender and is intended to control, intimidate, or harm the individual.” ii Neither the Ministry nor the unions that represent education workers can ignore the issue of gender as they tackle the issue of school violence.
We also cannot ignore the fact that schools are a microcosm of society at large, and that violence against women is still not viewed as seriously as other forms of crime. In Canada, all forms of violent crime have steadily decreased over time—with the exception of sexual assault, which has remained at steady rates.iii Increasingly violent pornography is readily available for consumption online. Popular music and media still perpetuate sexism and sexual violence. To the south, the United States handed its most powerful position to a man who publicly bragged about sexually assaulting women. We can’t for one moment assume that the school system is free of the sexism that is so prevalent in all other facets of life, or that students and parents will leave sexist behaviour at the door upon entering the school. Education is a feminized profession: it is no wonder that it still appears to be a place where gender-based violence is normalized, and where generalized violence against mostly women workers is still somehow seen as acceptable.
Tackling this issue in schools is a huge job, but it is one that is essential for the protection of education workers. Doing so will also result in a safer environment for students, who are witnessing this violence without it being deconstructed or addressed. There are three areas that we can use to address gender-based violence, and all three should be used simultaneously, rather than as
Policy and procedure
The Ministry of Education and the school boards must include specific language around gender-based violence in Codes of Conduct, in order to ensure that this form of violence is understood as specific and not buried under the general term of ‘violence.’ There must be specific consequences and procedures in response to incidents. Policy must align with federal and provincial legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender and gender-identity.
Education and training
Education workers must be trained so that they can frame specific incidents as gender-based violence and report them accordingly. There must be an understanding by workers themselves that sexual harassment and sexual assault are not a normal part of their day, or that the context of a school somehow lessens the seriousness and impact that they have.
The training of Board administration at all levels is also essential. Administration must acquire an equity lens in order to frame specific incidents of gender-based violence when a staff member reports them—and even if the staff member has not quite fully framed the incident themselves. They must take these incidents seriously and understand the impact that they have on both staff and students. They must have a fulsome understanding of Ministry and Board policy and procedure in order to immediately and appropriately respond.
Students and parents must also be educated on the issue, including the consequences of any objectionable behaviour as per Ministry and Board policy.
Due to the nature of gender-based violence—which keeps coming back if it’s not continually dealt with—unions must keep up the momentum. By educating their members and lobbying the Ministry and Boards, they must continually work for improved policies and procedures, appropriate responses to incidents, and ongoing training. They can also bargain contract language that helps protect their members and allows them avenues to push back when Boards are not addressing the issues. Parent groups are also a valuable ally in tackling gender-based school violence, as it also directly impacts their children’s safety and learning.
If the Ministry of Education wishes to truly promote safe and healthy schools, it must provide school Boards with time, resources, and expertise to tackle gender-based violence against staff as well as students. If Boards want to pay more than lip service to positive learning climates and environments, they must absolutely commit to dealing with the issue on an ongoing basis by revisiting policy, procedure, and the training of staff. If unions who represent education workers wish to continue to promote equity and protect their members, they need to build awareness around the issue, not only among their own members, but in the political arena as well. All stakeholders must continue to combat all forms of school violence, while acknowledging and responding to the gender-based violence that is masked by the catch-all phrase.
The school system may be a reflection of society at large, but it can also be a prime site for social change. When Boards and unions educate staff on gender-based school violence, they educate students as well. It’s time to acknowledge the gendered face of violence in schools, and to take concrete steps to deal with it. There can only be a positive outcome of increased awareness and safety that extends beyond schools into other areas, now and into the future.
i Rushowy, K. (2017, June 24). Violence in Ontario schools prompts call for more front-line staff. The Toronto Star. Retrieved from www.thestar.com
ii Safe Schools Action Team. Ministry of Education: Ontario (2008). Shaping a Culture of Respect in Our Schools: Promoting Safe and Healthy Relationships. www.edu.gov.on/ca/eng/teachers/RespectCulture.pdf
iii Statistics Canada. 2015. Self-reported victimization, 2014. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 11-001-X, November 23, 2015.