Ten cases every week – the shameful wave of violence confronting our teachers

Almost 500 Queensland state school staff claimed compensation for occupational violence last financial year, but the teachers’ union says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Oct 02, 2020, updated Oct 02, 2020
Tracy Tully says she and her family have been threatened by pupils' families. Photo: ABC

Tracy Tully says she and her family have been threatened by pupils' families. Photo: ABC

Former school principal Tracy Tully remembers vividly the day she received a phone call from a disgruntled parent threatening to bash her family, burn down her house and kill her dog.

The threat in 2006 sent her rural state high school into lockdown and she was confronted with an angry mob on school grounds.

Tully is one of thousands of teachers who have experienced violence at work, according to research by Deakin University.

“[It’s] very prevalent and very hidden; a lot of people won’t talk about it,” she said.

“They don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to bring it back up.”

Union says more violence unreported

Last financial year in Queensland, 478 Department of Education staff claimed WorkCover compensation for injuries suffered through occupational violence.

The Queensland Teachers’ Union (QTU) said those numbers were chronically under-reported.

Tully worked at rural schools across Queensland for 38 years but resigned in 2018 after she was admitted to hospital for high blood pressure.

She said the 2006 incident was the worst in her career but that abusive incidents were common on the job, adding that, in her experience, rural staff faced even greater risk.

“There’s people coming past your home in the evening, and because you’re a teacher, they’re throwing rocks through your window, or on your roof and spitting at you when you go shopping,” Tully said. “No-one will talk about that publicly.”

In a statement, the Department of Education said it would not comment on individual claims or incidents but that the number of claims represented about 0.5 per cent of its 85,000 staff.

Principals 10 times more likely to face violence

QTU president Kevin Bates said he believed the real number of incidents in the state system was much higher.

“People tend to treat occupational violence as part of the job, and so they fail to report, particularly through the WorkCover process, when in fact that’s exactly what they should be doing.”

Professor Philip Riley from Deakin University has conducted a nationwide study of violence against school principals for the past decade, which found rates of violence have increased every year since 2011.

“They started off at very high levels, much higher than the general population and they’re now orders of magnitude higher, about 7.5 times higher than the general population,” Riley said.

“Now we’re up to a bit more than 10 times the population rate, which is a very worrying increase in such a short amount of time.”

Department of Education data showed the number of WorkCover claims for occupational violence had fallen by about 45 from the 2018–19 financial year.

However, Bates said the blip could be explained by the move to home learning during coronavirus restrictions.

He said the issue was not confined to the state system.

“There appears to be little difference between urban and rural and little difference between Catholic, independent and public schools,” Bates said. “This is an insidious problem that is occurring in every school.”

The data released in Parliament did not include claims made by independent or Catholic school staff.

Riley said the Queensland Government had addressed the issue more proactively than other states.

“They’ve taken it on squarely as an issue and when we first started this research a long time ago, I think every government in Australia said ‘oh it can’t really be that bad’, and they’re all starting to come on board now,” he said.

“Queensland is one of the early ones.”

In June, the State Government launched a Principal Health and Wellbeing Strategy and the department said all staff were supported by an occupational violence prevention procedure.

Violence ‘putting people off the job’

This month, Education Minister Grace Grace launched a campaign to entice more school leavers into teaching to deal with anticipated growth in student numbers and rising vacancy rates.

Riley said occupational violence could be deterring people from the profession.

“It’s putting people off going for the job, so we’re losing people that we probably need in the system,” he said.

Tully agreed.

“They’re hearing it within their family groups, within their friendship groups,” she said.

“They’re hearing it all the time, and these kids are in schools, they’re seeing, they’re seeing a fair bit.”

– ABC / Jemima Burt

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