Violence in Schools: Let’s Get Serious

The two knife attacks in Brisbane schools in the last fortnight that have left two students in hospital and another two under arrest facing various charges should not come as any real surprise for Education authorities. Whilst politicians were quick to downplay the incidents as rare (although two attacks in as many weeks hardly supports such a claim), the reality is that there are students regularly taking weapons into Queensland schools. It really is good luck, rather than good management, that more incidents of this type don’t occur because, in my experience, schools don’t really have any preventative strategies in place to prevent such items being taken to school. Yes, it is true to say that we see few reports of such serious incidents taking place in Queensland schools, but it is also true that incidents of violence and the use of weapons don’t always necessarily make it into the public domain. If schools don’t take any formal action against a student who engages in dangerous behaviour and the media doesn’t find out about it, then the incident has, in the eyes of Education administrators, never happened.

Why wouldn’t schools report such incidents and/or take action? Because, with schools under increasing scrutiny and comparison, image is everything. It is sad to say that some school administrators would rather protect the overall image of their school than take action on behalf of an individual who may have been the victim of an act of violence. Bullying is rife in schools across Queensland and whilst schools claim to have the latest and greatest strategies in place to combat such behaviours, the reality is that almost all of these have thus far proven ineffective. Bullying and violence in schools is rampant. I cannot think of a day in my teaching career thus far where I haven’t witnessed such behaviours, almost always without any consequences for the perpetrators. There is no doubt that schools either do not know how to, or simply don’t want to, combat bullying and other anti-social behaviours that lead to elevated levels of conflict and, ultimately, serious acts of violence.

A few years ago I was teaching at a school in which a student threatened a heavily pregnant teacher with a knife, telling her that he was going ‘cut her open and kill her baby’. The teacher, not surprisingly, was terrified and duly reported the incident to the school administration. However, low and behold, the student was not suspended at all and was back in class with the same teacher the next day. Needless to say, faced with that student again – knowing that they had not suffered any consequences for such a brazen threat of violence and possessing a weapon – the teacher was rightly afraid and subsequently decided to take immediate leave before ultimately resigning. Unbelievably, when explaining her departure to other staff, the school principal declared that the teacher/victim ‘perhaps wasn’t suited to teaching and won’t be returning to school’. The student’s behaviour was attributed to them ‘having a bad day’ and the school didn’t take any action because they didn’t want to ‘create a wrong impression about what our students are like’. This is perhaps the most serious incident I have come across, but it is certainly not the only incident I know of in which a teacher or student has been threatened with violence in which no action has been taken for fear of bad publicity or upsetting parents.

Teachers witness a wide range of unacceptable behaviours within the classroom and school grounds but are often hamstrung in their efforts to see students held accountable and subject to consequences for their actions. It seems to me that a lack of effective management of less serious behaviour issues often leads to more serious situations as students, emboldened by having ‘got away with it’, want to push the envelope even further. I, and other teachers, have had numerous situations in which a student has told us to ‘fuck off’ or ‘get fucked’ or used any other such expletive without fear of any consequence from the school administration. Upon returning to class, students know they can engage in such behaviours without any fear of repercussions, putting the teacher is in an untenable position that undermines their authority. However, whilst school administrators are reluctant to take action when teachers and students are subjected to foul or abusive language, the same standards don’t apply in other contexts. One such example is the case of a Year 12 student who, during a performance at a student talent/variety night, used the word ‘fuck’ in a musical performance. The word was part of the song’s lyrics, yet the student, who was a high achieving student with no history of behaviour problems, was suspended for a week. The punishment was universally condemned by staff and students at the school, especially in light of the fact that other students using similar or worse language in the classroom – whether talking to teachers or to other students – had not been subject to similar consequences. For schools to say that swearing and abusing teachers is acceptable, yet using the same language in an artistic context is unacceptable, provides significant insight into what is wrong with our education system.

Similarly, students are constantly going unpunished when referred to school administrators for acts of violence against other students. In the last 12 months alone, I have had one student pick up a chair and throw it another student, a student push another down a flight of stairs and a student punch another in the face. In each case, no action was taken by the school and the lack of consequences quickly becomes a matter of great pride for the perpetrators and leaves the victims, and everybody else for that matter, bewildered. Needless to say, those ‘minor’ acts of violence/harassment that play out every day – a student kicking another under the desk, a student throwing objects at another, a student constantly using terms such as ‘you’re gay’ to embarrass/taunt others – are pretty much ignored altogether. In fact, having banned students in my classroom from using the word gay as a form of insult – such as ‘you’re gay’, ‘that’s gay’ etc – I was told in no uncertain terms by the school administration that such a ban was not acceptable and that I was not to take any action against any students who used such terms to insult other students. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it too hard to believe that somebody who was being subjected to such taunts in every class every day might decide to lash out at some point, perhaps violently towards others or in some other way, such as avoiding school or inflicting self-harm.

It might seem a stretch to link serious violence with students abusing teachers or taunting their classmates with names or derogatory terms, but if anybody is allowed to get away with those types of behaviours unchecked, it stands to reason that they will push the envelope further to potentially much more serious actions. Similarly, it is not unreasonable to expect that somebody being subjected to physical and/or verbal assaults on a daily basis might just decide one day that enough is enough and take matters into their own hands. The fundamental problem is that schools allow the (relatively) minor incidents to go unchecked and are then shocked when something much more serious does happen, pleading ignorance as to what could have possibly caused it. Yes, there may not be a large number of serious acts of violence in Queensland schools (although certainly many more than are reported), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t violence happening in schools every day. In the aftermath of a serious act of violence in a school, politicians and school administrators always vow to stamp out such incidents and implement strategies and programs to prevent similar occurrences. However, these are never sustained in the long term and things soon return to normal.

Such an approach is in keeping with how schools generally deal with any moment of crisis. For example, youth suicide is another area in which schools are reactive but rarely proactive. In fact, the whole notion of suicide is deemed a taboo subject in most schools, with teachers forbidden from discussing it for fear of ‘encouraging’ such behaviours in students. Yes, I know such a ridiculous attitude is hard to fathom in the 21st century, particularly given the number of young people who take their own lives. Of course, when a student does commit suicide, school administrators are suddenly encouraging students and teachers to talk about such issues, but I think this is primarily so that the school can boast to be ‘taking the issue seriously’ rather than any genuine desire to assist students. Again, once the spotlight disappears, everything returns to normal and schools want to wash their hands of such ‘unsavoury’ topics. I remember once alerting a high school principal that a student was self-harming and at risk of suicide, to which he replied ‘well, whatever she does outside of school hours is not our concern, if students want to hurt themselves, that’s their business’. It didn’t seem to matter that things happening at school may have been the catalyst (at least in part) for the student engaging in such behaviour.

How can you tell that schools and education authorities aren’t really concerned about the welfare of students? It’s pretty easy really. You only need to look at the lack of support systems and services in state schools and the hypocrisy/inconsistency surrounding student behaviours. Yes, most schools have a token chaplain, which is fine for anybody who might want advice/support that is drawn from Christian values/principles, but not much help for anybody else. In my experience, schools primarily have a chaplain because they aren’t paying for them and, more often than not, often resort to using them as an extra body to assist with student supervision (such as attending excursions to reduce the number of teachers needed to attend and thereby reducing the financial burden to the school). Schools need to do a much better job in ensuring that vulnerable and at risk students have genuine access to a range of support systems every day, whether that be psychologists, counsellors or other such professionals. It could even be as simple as establishing support groups for students particularly vulnerable within a school environment (such as gay/lesbian students, for example). This is not so say that school chaplains are not dedicated people committed to assisting young people, but a chaplain should be just one of many avenues through which students can access support, advice, assistance and understanding that can help them deal with whatever issues might be impacting upon their school or home life, hopefully preventing the manifestation of more serious incidents/behaviours. With teachers (many of whom could draw from their life experiences and expertise to assist students in crisis and are genuinely interested in helping the young people in their classes) being told to keep their distance and not ‘get involved’ with student ‘problems’, the opportunity for strong, positive connections between teachers and students is lost. Therefore, it is essential that schools are developing policies and practices that provide sufficient support systems for all students in an effort to protect them from harm and make all Queensland schools the safe, supportive environment they should be.

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