Broken bones, chipped teeth, and concussion: the new life of some teachers
A teacher was murdered in a school in Leeds last week. How violent are some Irish schools?
Steve Mort, head teacher of Corpus Christi Catholic College, reads the hundreds of tributes left in honour of slain teacher Ann Maguire on April 30th, 2014 in Leeds, England. A 15-year-old male student has been arrested in connection with the death of teacher. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
‘Teachers in my school have been brought to hospital by ambulance after being attacked by students. It has happened twice per term. They have suffered broken bones, concussion, chipped teeth and kicks in the face. They are commonly spat at and subjected to regular verbal abuse. Pregnant teachers have been knocked to the ground.”
Speaking at the Teachers’ Union of Ireland conference in Kilkenny this Easter, this teacher laid bare a growing problem of violence in some post-primary schools. Delegates heard that a gangland culture that reveres violence and criminality is seeping into schools as more young people in disadvantaged areas feel alienated and marginalised by the worst effects of the economic crisis. Students who want to speak out and defend their teachers are afraid of reprisals.
It’s an issue primarily affecting post-primary schools as older students are more likely to be intimidating than younger children. And while the two teachers who told us their personal experiences of violence and threats in the classroom (see panel, below) both worked in disadvantaged schools, it would appear from feedback at the conference that violence against teachers takes place regardless of the demographic .
Last week, Ann Maguire, a 61-year-old teacher at Corpus Christi College in Leeds, was stabbed to death by a 15-year-old pupil. Teachers here are publicly keen to play down any parallels between the murder of Maguire in the UK and the problem of violence in Ireland’s schools. But, speaking privately, one teacher who has been assaulted on several occasions admits his colleagues have, for some time, been concerned that a fatal classroom incident “will eventually happen here”. And he’s not the only teacher who expressed similar worries to The Irish Times over the past fortnight.
In the UK, teachers have spoken of a constant feeling of menace in the classroom, particularly in some inner-city areas. Their fears are echoed by some post-primary teachers across Ireland, but particularly in disadvantaged parts of inner-city Dublin, west Dublin, north Cork, and parts of Limerick. Sources estimate there may be serious discipline issues in up to one in five schools.
In one Dublin school, whose identity is known to me, the principal has advised staff not to sanction students for using the word “f***” or for telling a teacher to “f***-off”. Sources have said that the levels of violence against staff in this “dysfunctional” school is “endemic”.
We are aware of several instances in which a student assaulted a teacher, spat in their face, or threatened their life, but still returned to school the next day. Schools are generally reluctant to invoke the ultimate sanction of expulsion. Parents also have the right to appeal an exclusion order.
In 2013, 52 cases where a school had decided to expel a student were brought to appeal, with 15 students winning their case.
The reasons for exclusion are not always revealed, but violence is often a factor. Where a decision is made to exclude a child, they must be accommodated in another school.
Audrey Cepeda, a teacher and representative for the Dublin city branch of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), believes part of the problem is cutbacks to social services. “Families in crisis are being abandoned by social workers with high case loads when they desperately need support. We are dealing with the fallout and it is impacting on our ability to do our job: to provide an education for young people.”