The number of Bay of Plenty students being stood down, suspended and excluded for physically assaulting teachers and school leaders is on the rise and children between 5 and 9 make up more than half the incidents.
A youth psychotherapist says the “dire” figures show a need for better resourcing in schools and New Zealand’s largest education union says staffing resources in primary schools across the country are “stretched to breaking point”.
But the Ministry of Education says its Budget 2020 package allocated almost $200 million to support students with their mental health needs.
Data released by the Ministry of Education under the Official Information Act reveals the number of students disciplined for physically assaulting school staff has almost doubled since 2016.
In 2016, 30 students were stood down for physically assaulting school staff members in the Bay of Plenty. Of those, 18 were aged between 5 and 9.
Fifteen students were suspended for the same reason.
In 2020, 66 students were stood down for physically assaulting school staff members. Of those, 42 students were aged between 5 and 9. Seventeen students were aged between 10 and 14, and seven were aged 15 up.
That same year 12 students were suspended for physically assaulting school staff members, and six were excluded.
Western Bay of Plenty Principals Association president Suzanne Billington was “surprised” by the ministry figures. She said students physically assaulting school staff was a “clear” issue for schools in the region.
“I would have expected the numbers to be higher, just listening to the challenging situations a lot of our schools are dealing with.”
But she said stand-downs, suspensions and exclusions were a “last resort” for these schools.
Billington, who is also the Tauriko School principal, believed the figures were generally higher among those between 5 and 9 because of the “huge staffing disparity” between primary and secondary schools.
Secondary schools had counsellors and more management staff in place to “wrap around” students.
“We really need equity across the country around resourcing for challenging students.”
All primary schools needed counsellors, special education needs co-ordinators and learning support co-ordinators, she said.
Students being suspended or stood down for physically assaulting a staff member was “gut-wrenching” for the individual adult involved.
She said school leaders had to support the wellbeing of teachers who had been subjected to this type of behaviour. Bruises, bites and other injuries also had to be documented.
Meanwhile, Bay of Plenty child and adolescent psychotherapist Joanne Bruce said the “dire” figures only showed schools needed more resources to support the psychological needs of students.
Bruce had recently seen an increase in younger children demonstrating complex behaviours. Currently, she was “overwhelmed” with referrals to work with young people ranging from preschool age to teenagers.
Children who demonstrated violent behaviours often did not know how to calm themselves, she said.
“When children misbehave they are distressed. They are feeling out of control because they are having overwhelming feelings,” she said. “Sometimes they can hit out.”
Stable relationships with safe adults were needed to support challenging students.
It was essential children did not take on the burden of looking after their own mental health, she said.
“It is about taking a holistic approach for these issues rather than just saying ‘That kid needs therapy’ and sending them to me.
“We should be looking at what we can do better as adults to help to help the kid do better.”
She said a “global, holistic approach” was needed when working to solve these behavioural issues.
Results from the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) 2020 Health and Wellbeing Survey showed in the last 12 months at work 35 per cent of school leaders had experienced physical violence.
It stated a “major cause for concern” was the increase in the proportion of school leaders experiencing physical violence from approximately 32.5 per cent in 2019 to 35 per cent in 2020.
Asked why there had been an increase in the proportion of school leaders experiencing physical violence, NZEI president Liam Rutherford said more children were entering school with “high additional needs, severe trauma and violent behaviour”.
He put this down to an increase in inequality and poverty.
“Teachers and school leaders want to help children in this situation but what we see time and time again is they don’t have the staffing resource to do so.
“What teachers and school leaders need is the staffing resource to be able to provide care, support, and learning to these children in an environment that is safe for everyone.”
Being subject to abuse and assault could take a “serious toll on mental health” of teachers. He said long term, this could lead to teachers leaving the profession or having to take extended breaks due to poor mental health.
Limited resources in schools were creating “unsafe work environments” for educators across New Zealand.
“It is the legal obligation of the government to ensure every school is a safe working environment and the core way it can do that is by making sure every school has safe staffing levels.”
Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft said support plans were important for students who behaved in ways that created “imminent harm”.
“Identifying signs of distress and associated triggers, and strategies that will help calm the situation, helps prevent students from behaving in ways that create a risk of harm to themselves or others,” he said.
He said students had usually lost control of their emotions when acting out physically which could be “distressing and embarrassing” for them and others.
Becroft said physical restraint shouldn’t be used unless there was no other option available.
“It should only be used when people are certain the harm being prevented by doing it is greater than the harm potentially caused by using it.”
Ministry deputy secretary sector engagement and support Helen Hurst said
good mental health and wellbeing were essential for student attendance, engagement, and learning.
Hurst said Budget 2020 included a package of almost $200 million to support students with their mental health needs.
This included $75.8m, over four years, to increase access to counselling in schools; $44m of this funding is being used to increase access to counselling services for students in selected primary, intermediate, area and secondary schools.
A stand-down is the removal of a student for a period of up to five days, where
the decision is made by the principal.
A suspension is the formal removal of a student from a school until the school board of trustees decides the outcome.
Exclusion is the formal removal of a child under the age of 16 from school.
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