Nobody should face violence in their place of work or study. No student should suffer in fear of their peers, worrying whether they will be attacked today and whether that attack will be filmed and uploaded to the internet. No teacher should be hurt, subjected to physical intimidation or verbally assaulted. None of this is acceptable.
Today, the West Australian is reporting that Sue Ellery, a Labor politician and Minister for Education, is launching a new approach to school violence in that state. Moreover, in a feat akin to herding cats, Ellery has managed to persuade all the major unions and professional associations to co-sign a letter outlining the approach.
The letter states that, although, ‘School fights are not new,’ Western Australia does not intend to tolerate violence any more. There is an appeal to the community at large to support the initiative and plans for new guidelines on suspension and exclusion. The plan also includes the provision of alternative education options for excluded students and programmes to tackle and change behaviour. Importantly, the letter notes that, “Getting tougher on this issue means we will see an increase in the number of students suspended and excluded from public schools. That’s the reality.”
School violence is a complex problem to tackle and it is unusual to see such a clear commitment. I hope Ellery and her team understand the nature of the backlash that they will face.
A counter narrative
When schools start acting to address obvious behaviour issues, they open the door to a group of people who have made it their mission to frustrate any such efforts. It is important to understand the logic they use.
Ellery’s opponents will note that, among those students who are excluded, there will be a higher proportion of students with special educational needs than in the general population. This claim is essentially true and hardly surprising given that many of the kinds of behaviours that lead to exclusion are also diagnostic criteria for disorders such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder.
In this rhetorical landscape, needs morph seamlessly into disorders which in turn morph seamlessly into disabilities. The implication is that schools who exclude are discriminating against children on the basis of them having a disability. Such a claim is dishonest – schools exclude students for behaviours which may or may not be all or partially caused by a disorder or disability. Even if we know that a child is violent because of a disability, does that mean that everyone else just has to tolerate that violence? This is not about blame as much as it is about keeping everyone safe.
Another common claim is about the proportion of prisoners who have been excluded from school, with the implication that school exclusion causes people to end up in prison. Correlation is not causation and it is highly likely that something else causes both the school exclusion and the criminal activity. Indeed, many acts that lead to children being excluded from school are, in my experience, acts that could draw criminal charges in the outside world.
The vast majority of children with a disability do not, have not and will not pose any risk to the safety or educational experience of other children. If anything, their presence in a regular school environment is educative and good for all members of the community. It is unfair to use them as pawns in this way. The rhetorical trick of switching the discussion from school violence to disability does nobody any favours.
I hope Ellery stands her ground and is not put-off by a backlash. She seems like a pretty formidable politician and she has the time to see through her reforms, with the next Western Australian election not due until 2021.
And it is a powerful message that will resonate with the voters. After all, who really thinks that a child should go to school today and have to sit in a classroom with someone who violently assaulted them yesterday? There is nothing morally superior in holding such a position. Instead, it represents a triumph of ideology over basic human decency.