The Sunday Territorian (‘School of Hard knocks’ 9 September) touched on a subject that is too often ‘taboo’ in educational circles. Judith Aisthorpe reported that “hundreds of assaults are bring inflicted by students on Territory teachers each year … There have been more that 800 assaults … during the last three years.” That figure is based on students suspended for assault and does not include instances where a warning has sufficed.

Not all assaults by students on teachers are reported. Only those attracting a suspension become part of the formal statistical record. 186 injuries to staff have been inflicted by physical assault during this period. This, together with mental abuse of teachers should set the alarm bells ringing. AEU (NT) Secretary Anita Jonsberg said that schools do not always report incidents. “Sometimes teachers don’t report assaults and assaults don’t go beyond school level” she said (op.cit.)

The Department of Education upholds the fact that the safety of teachers and school staff is a matter of utmost importance. 230 alleged incidents occur on average each year in government schools. These are managed through due process.

Principals in a bind

In matters of assault against staff, principals may find themselves in a cleft stick situation. With the public now knowing a lot more about schools because of media penetration they can feel pressure about downplaying assault incidents. That has to do with preserving the good name and reputation of schools.

At the same time, staff have a right to feel protected and should not be discouraged from reporting and following through on matters of assault.

It is essential that school staff do not place themselves in situations which can lead to assault responses by students. “School pressure, peer pressure, distractions and student-teacher interactions are nominated … as the main cause of problem behaviour.” (Johnston Sargeant ‘Are we expelling too many children from Australian Schools’, The Conversation, 16 September)

There are significant management challenges for teachers and schools when individuals repeatedly disrupt classes with threatening behaviour. Behavioural issues have to be managed and suspension has to be an option.

Firm action against individual students provides a clear and visible message that a school is asserting a strong moral focus. That has to be paramount. Assaults against staff by primary and secondary aged students are intolerable. They have to be dealt with openly and visibly. If that happens, the reputation of schools will be enhanced.

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