Ottawa educators offered padded shirts, arm and shin guards to protect themselves from violent students
Educators at Ottawa’s English school boards can wear shin and forearm guards, foam-padded jackets and reinforced gloves to protect themselves from students who bite, kick, scratch and punch.
The “personal protective equipment” is employed as a last resort, say spokespeople for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board.
Currently, about 45 educators in the English public board use the equipment, mainly educational assistants, says spokesperson Sharlene Hunter. Educational assistants help children with special needs and behaviour problems.
The Catholic board maintains a “wide inventory” of protective equipment, says spokesperson Mardi de Kemp. It’s usually employed on a temporary basis or for a specific period of time, she says. Board officials did not have information on how many staff are currently using protective equipment.
The use of personal protective equipment at schools has been steadily increasing across Ontario, says Laura Walton, president of a union that represents 55,000 educational assistants and other educators in the province’s four school systems. “We’ve had it for a long time, but It’s just becoming more and more prevalent.”
Violence among school children appears to be on the rise, says Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions. Her assessment, based on anecdotal evidence, is shared by Martha Hradowy, an executive with another major union that represents educational assistants and early childhood educators as well as high school teachers.
School boards are also reacting to changes in Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, made to ensure employers protect staff from violence in the workplace, Hradowy says.
The union representing elementary teachers has also raised the alarm about aggressive children, saying it has become a key issue for their members.
At the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, the number of violent incidents educators reported experiencing personally has increased dramatically over the past three years, from 1,909 incidents in 2015-16 to 3,746 incidents in 2017-18.
In the first seven months of this school year, 4,223 incidents were reported. That may be due partly to more reporting after the board switched to an electronic system this school year.
StealthWear Protective Clothing, a Toronto company specializing in equipment for educators, now sells its products to most school boards in the province, says president Aaron Wood.
His company supplies the Ottawa Catholic School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.
StealthWear looks more like sports garb than riot gear.
That’s deliberate. It’s designed to look as much like ordinary clothing as possible, says Wood.
He started the company in 2011 because there were virtually no protective products designed for educators, he said.
The equipment is not made with Kevlar, the super-strong fibre often used in bullet-proof vests and combat helmets.
StealthWear uses breathable, high-impact foam encased in plastic, which “provides excellent resistance to pinches, bites, scratches and hits,” says the website.
The $174.95 StealthWear black jacket has foam inserts sewn into the places educators said they are most likely to be attacked: the upper arms and chest. Pockets in the jacket allow inserts to be added in the abdomen, back and underarms.
The company also sells shin guards, forearm protectors and two types of gloves: a thermo-plastic rubber model that resists blunt force and an abrasion-resistant glove for protection from scratches and nail gouging.
Wood says the garments use technology common in sportswear brands, such as moisture-wicking CoolMax fabric.
StealthWear equipment is an improvement, says Walton, who remembers in the past educators improvising with soccer shin guards and protective gear for BMX bikers.
Everyone wants protective clothing that doesn’t stand out, so children don’t feel threatened or intimidated. “I don’t think schools want us to walk around looking like a linebacker,” says Walton.
However, protective gear can be hot, especially in the summer, she says. Some schools have installed portable air conditioners or provided extra breaks to educators who must wear it. “In May and June when the schools are hot, there aren’t a lot of people wanting to put on a black jacket.”
And while protective jackets “are good if you have a biter, when it comes to strikes or blows or punches, the padding doesn’t always absorb the shock,” says Walton.
The gear can also make educators a target, since some students with sensory issues like the feeling of punching or pinching the foam, she says.
An educational assistant at the Ottawa Catholic School Board says she was offered forearm protectors after being attacked by a high school student.
This newspaper is not revealing the woman’s name because she does not want the student to be identified.
The woman says she declined the protection, partly because she feared that if she started wearing the equipment it would be required permanently.
In addition, a behaviour specialist called in after the attack told her the student would probably just aim his punch higher on her arm if she wore a forearm protector, she says.
The student is high-needs and can be violent. He is integrated into a regular classroom, but has two educational assistants with him at all times, she says.
“He’s a very challenging student. Throwing chairs, flipping desks, hitting, kicking … ”
Sometimes when he becomes aggressive the classroom is evacuated, with the other students leaving for their own safety, she says.
There is also a “quiet room,” where he can stay on his own, sometimes while staff hold the door shut. The student will often walk there himself, but if he becomes violent staff have locked down the school, preventing other students from entering the hallways as he is escorted to the quiet room, she says.
She says he attacked her one day after she opened the door to the quiet room. The student jumped on her, grabbing her arm so tightly she was left with multiple bruises and swelling. “I had to pry him off … it was almost like a wrestling match.” She was able to fend him off long enough to radio for help.
The woman said when she began her job as an educational assistant more than a decade ago, she would often help students with academics as well as their medical needs and behaviour.
Now her job is primarily dealing with behaviour problems. “There is more hitting, kicking, punching — and I don’t know the reason why.”
“I still love it,” she says. “I still see successes and I’m excited for some of the kids … But it’s draining, every day.”
Protective equipment is a last resort, say local school board officials.
The Catholic board develops a behaviour plan for aggressive students, and intervention without specialized equipment is “preferred and often has the best result,” De Kemp said in a statement.
At the public board, protective equipment is used in “limited circumstances where it is required after other reasonable measures have been considered and implemented,” Hunter said in a statement.
That would usually include developing a “safety plan” for a student that identifies triggers for aggressive behaviour and develops strategies for staff to both prevent and respond to incidents; training staff in behaviour management and non-violent crisis intervention; and making sure staff have communications devices to call for help, says the statement.
A spokesperson for the French-language Catholic schools in Ottawa says the board does not use protective equipment. At the French-language public school board, a spokesperson said officials are “doing a pilot project with various types of equipment.”
Across the province, Walton says educators are facing increasingly diverse classrooms that incorporate children with special needs.
More support is required, but it’s not always available, she says.
Some school boards offer protective equipment as a “quick fix” after an educator is injured rather than spending the time and resources required to figure out the problem and provide more support to the child, she says.
“If you come and say that a student bit you, and you have to go to the hospital and get a tetanus shot, that’s a WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) claim against the board.
“It’s so much easier for (the board) to assign you an armguard than it is to really do a deep dive and understand … Are you providing sufficient programming? Are you meeting the needs of the student? In the majority of cases, the violence has been an outcome of an unaddressed need.”