Taking a stand on occupational violence

AEU officers from every state and territory attended the inaugural national forum

The AEU is leading a national push to change the way education systems respond to violence and aggression against our members, writes Jarvis Ryan

When you think of managing work health and safety risks in a school setting, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Asbestos? Chemicals? Maybe trip hazards? Think again. While all of these are risks that need to be managed, they’re small fry in the education sector.

According to the Department of Education’s 2017-18 annual report, there were 571 reported WHS incidents last year. Fully half of those – 288 – were classified as “being hit by moving objects”.

Although this category includes several sub-groups, AEU officers know from experience that the vast bulk of these incidents are assaults against employees by students.

Sadly, the biggest threat to the health and wellbeing of our members in schools often comes from the very young people educators are legally and ethically duty bound to protect.

Physical and verbal aggression and violence against teaching staff by students, and also by parents, is a growing problem in schools.

There is a term for it: occupational violence.

our starting point must be to say that it’s not acceptable, and work collectively to improve our response

We know there are many reasons underlying it. But our starting point must be to say that it’s not acceptable, and work collectively to improve our response to it.

It was this thinking that led to a recent national forum in Canberra on occupational violence in public schools, hosted by the ACT Education Directorate.

Driven by the AEU, this was the first event of its kind, bringing together key organisations from across Australia to discuss the growing national problem of violence and aggression against staff in public schools.

In addition to an AEU presence from every branch, the forum consisted of senior representatives from all education departments (including NT DoE CE Vicki Baylis), representatives of principal associations and officials from three state WHS regulators, including the CEO of WorkSafe Victoria.

The key theme was the need for a proper balance to be struck between competing responsibilities to both students and employees, rather than the current paradigm which often sees educators’ primary moral purpose of putting children first overshadowing employers’ legal requirement to take all reasonable steps to ensure a safe work environment for employees.

the AEU is setting up a national working group to guide our strategy

Much of the day was spent in round table discussion looking at hypothetical workplace violence scenarios and hearing different perspectives. There was significant goodwill from all involved and a recognition that the challenges schools face in managing violence and threats against staff are growing but complex, with no easy solutions.

All agreed that better strategies and systems must be developed. To that end, the AEU is setting up a national working group to guide our strategy. In the NT, the Full-Time Officers have requested that the Chief Executive list occupational violence for discussion with her colleagues at AESOC, the national senior education officers’ forum.

As a union, we are deeply committed to ensuring members feel safe at work. If you are the victim of violence or aggression in the workplace, we urge you to lodge an incident report and notify the union office.

This article was first published in the Term 2, 2019 edition of the Territory Educator magazine.