More than 500 special-needs assistants (SNAs) and teachers took leave due to physical assaults in schools in the last six years and union representatives believe that incidents are “getting more serious and more frequent”.
New figures released to The Irish Times show 150 teachers and more than 500 SNAs applied for “assault leave” since the scheme was introduced in 2017. There were 142 successful applications for leave under the scheme in the last school year, the highest number so far.
When calling for wider use of the scheme, Fórsa SNA representative for north Leinster Carol McSherry referred to a recent incident in which one SNA had her ear bitten by a child in a school in the region. In a bulletin sent to members in February, the union, which represents more than 12,000 SNAs, said “our SNA colleagues were shocked to hear about the most recent incident”, which has left the woman with a permanent injury. Ms McSherry, speaking to The Irish Times, said the woman had been “disfigured. It’s not going to properly heal.”
Ms McSherry also referenced another incident in a different school in which a woman in her early 60s was assaulted in work by a child. “Her shoulder was broken … [and] she’s in constant pain,” she said. “She needs pain medication every night to sleep. And now she has a thing called frozen shoulder. Her worry is … she’s now expected to go back into the same environment again and work but she can’t lift her hands up properly.”
Department of Education figures show that from September 2017 to January of this year there were 663 applications for leave, 341 of which were in primary schools, 313 in special schools and nine in post-primary schools.
Under the scheme, leave may be granted to a teacher or SNA who is unable to perform his/her duties due to a physical injury following an assault in the course of their duties and during approved school activities.
The maximum leave available for assault is three months at full pay in a rolling four-year period but this can be extended for another three months in cases of serious assault. There have been 10 cases where the applicant availed of the maximum 183 days off.
The department said no specific details on the circumstances of individual applications were available but it appeared most assaults were of a non-deliberate nature carried out by pupils with additional needs.
Fórsa’s education division organiser for Connacht/Ulster, Séamus Ryan, stressed that “there’s a complex set of situations for each child that has special needs. They’re not really responsible for their actions in something like this … Nobody is ascribing blame or fault.”
Inclusion Ireland chief executive Derval McDonagh said: “It is apparent that for many children with higher support needs, the system is not working … When a child exhibits any type of ‘behaviour’, it is often a way for them to communicate or to indicate that their needs are not being met. Schools need proper resources, teachers and SNAs need support and rights-based training. The children are fine exactly as they are, it is the system that needs to change.”
Teachers’ unions have for some time been calling for the parameters of the assault leave scheme to be widened. Last summer, the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) passed motions calling for the department to review its policies to ensure that teachers are protected from sexual assault, online harassment and abuse as well as physical assault.
In a statement, an ASTI spokeswoman said the number of second-level teachers taking assault leave per annum was “typically extremely low”.
However, the spokeswoman said the union was concerned the actual number of assaults is under-reported due to the narrowness of the definition of assault and the requirement to provide evidence of physical injury.
TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said in the context of more than 60,000 teachers around the country 150 is quite a small number to have needed the leave over the period. “We are glad that [the number of teachers needing the leave] is low but each one creates its own problems.”
“We think [the scheme] should cover any sort of post-traumatic stress or any mental health issues that might occur because someone has been threatened or verbally abused.”
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), which represents teachers in special schools, said a review of the scheme was long overdue.
A spokesman said in a statement: “The circular was issued in 2017 and was set to be reviewed after two years, but this has yet to happen. The INTO has been seeking to have this definition widened, but the Department of Education have not acceded to that.”
The department said the scheme had been under review, revised circulars were in preparation and school management bodies and unions would be consulted.
A department spokeswoman added that the definition of “assault” under the scheme had been discussed with the teacher unions and had been raised at the Teachers Conciliation Council, which includes union, Government and school management representatives.