For everyone Fight or flight: safety at school

What happened began as a typical lunchtime scene. A large group of raucous boys was jumping around outside the canteen, trying to slap an exit sign. When I asked them to quieten down, their ringleader told me that since I was the only one with a problem, I should leave them be. 

In the moment, I have to admit, the presence of more than a dozen senior male students led by a fast-talking rabble-rouser made me wonder whether it was worth the stress to press my point. But I held my ground, calmly repeating my request to no avail – and when it was clear I needed backup, I took out my phone and called the principal. 

This, as they say, is when things escalated. The ringleader shifted gears from intimidation to gaslighting, claiming I was filming them against their wishes, which riled up the group even more. I was saved by the bell. But as the boys started to disperse to their lockers, the ringleader came up to let me know that if we ever crossed paths outside of school, things would “end very differently” for me. Oh, the joys of yard duty. 

I wish this was an isolated incident, but in an article published the same day, I read about a school in Canberra that had to shut down due to “an assault against a teacher” and “student mobs forming”. Unfortunately, after years of lost social learning due to lockdowns, this kind of violence is becoming more common. And while schools have developed many strategies to support students involved in situations like mine, not only do the staff have to suffer the stress of the initial abuse, we also have to negotiate the paperwork of the aftermath that often places our wellbeing behind that of the students involved. 

It is our duty as teachers to show our students that the loss of a few personal liberties is a price worth paying for the systems that keep us all safe.

The wellbeing and behaviour policies of government schools are informed by the principles of the Respectful Relationships initiative. While these are effective, they can be used to excuse the aggressive behaviour of students as the effects of trauma. This can lead to teachers agreeing to consequences that do not address their needs, while others proudly state in meetings that the students in question behave well for them, as if behaviour management is a personal talent. Worst of all, I worry that this exclusive focus on respect threatens the foundation of our society.

You see, while some of us follow road rules or vaccination mandates out of respect for our fellow citizens, many more need the threat of impartial consequences. It is our duty as teachers to show our students that the loss of a few personal liberties is a price worth paying for the systems that keep us all safe. For employees of the Department of Education, the main system that protects us is Edusafe.

I first learned about Edusafe many years ago when a principal refused to do more than offer a stern warning to some students who had been verbally abusing a number of staff. At the time, an AEU rep advised us to lodge the incident on Edusafe, which I thought was just a place to report physical workplace hazards. Unlike the internal policies of a school, once an event is on Edusafe, the principal must go through a post-incident checklist that makes certain that the wellbeing of the staff involved has been properly addressed. Both the speed and severity of the principal’s response surprised us. After suspending the students, she claimed that we had used the system to impel her to do her job properly. It turns out even some leaders need an occasional reminder of the social contract.

This time, I lodged the lunchtime incident on Edusafe Plus for a different reason. While I had no doubt my principal would deal with the situation promptly and fairly, Edusafe records are also used by the department to measure the health of the entire system. When we suffer in silence, worried that lodging an incident might make us appear weak or litigious to our colleagues or leaders, we hinder the systemic change that can only occur when larger trends in workplace safety are brought to light.

We all want to work in respectful schools, but first and foremost we must be safe. And while we can do much to minimise conflict, when it does occur, we must use the processes we have to restore justice for everyone involved. It might even teach some of us how to end conflict outside of school, too.

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