Education workers represented by CUPE gather outside One Government Place on Granville Street to protest their exclusion from a public accounts committee meeting held Wednesday June 19. The meeting was a chance for members of the committee to question the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and regional school representatives on details from the auditor general’s June 11 report, Preventing And Addressing Violence Nova Scotia Public Schools.Lauren Phillips, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Stop me when you disagree: Workplace violence is not appropriate. Disproportionate workplace violence is not appropriate. Those being disproportionately harmed should be included in a discussion about ways to address and prevent workplace violence.
Those deciding on appropriate witnesses to include in the conversation about violence in public schools showed their disagreement with that last statement on Wednesday, June 19 at the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) meeting that was called to discuss the auditor general’s recent report, Preventing and Addressing Violence in Public Schools

That morning, 5,000 school support workers with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) were unrepresented at a table of six witnesses.        

Teachers were at the table, through the president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) Ryan Lutes. Administrators were at the table, through the chair of the Public School Administrators Association of Nova Scotia (PSAANS) Scott Armstrong.        

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (EECD) was at the table, through both the deputy minister Elwin LeRoux and the executive director of student services and equity, Annie Baert. Regional centres for education were there, through Halifax Regional Centre for Education’s (HRCE) executive director, Steve Gallagher, and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP) executive director, Michel Collette. 

And technically CUPE school support workers were there—standing outside the meeting’s front doors holding signs disputing their exclusion from the meeting before moving inside to sit silently as members of the public behind the row of six speakers discussing their daily working conditions.        

Mary Fougère, national representative with CUPE Atlantic, says “to have a conversation about violence and to be talked about instead of talked to is very disappointing and frustrating for us.”        

CUPE school support workers have been saying for years what the auditor general’s report showed: “that violence disproportionately affects our members in these positions,” says Fougère. A press release from CUPE on June 12 notes that in their own 2022 workplace violence survey, “43% of CUPE school support staff said they do not feel their employer does enough to prevent workplace violence” and “50% said they did not even receive a response to workplace violence reports.” These survey results were compiled into a report that has been shared with the EECD since 2022.        

In the same release, CUPE says that of the over 600 reported violent incidents that the joint Occupational Health and Safety committee at the HRCE  received from September 2023 to March 2024, “almost 70% of these reports were from CUPE school support staff.”

“It’s completely disproportionate,” Fougère tells The Coast. She says a culture has perpetuated in the workplace around school support workers not being heard, which is what these workers want: to be heard when they ask for school violence to be understood as workplace violence, for staff supports to be put in place in schools, for compensation and resources to be put behind those supports to show workers that what they’ve been raising concerns about for years is being heard and addressed adequately.        

“It’s shocking that it takes an [auditor general] report to put it front and centre when we are saying it, too, but we’re not being heard and a shift of culture needs to happen so that this issue is recognized for what it is and we can really move forward to create safe workspaces.”       

Other than hearing from CUPE members themselves, the auditor general concluded from her investigation that education workers in Nova Scotia public schools are at “high risk” of experiencing violence in the workplace.        

The auditor’s survey results show 65% of education workers who responded said they’d witnessed or experienced violence in schools “at least weekly,” and 31% said they’d experienced violence daily. “That should shock us,” said Lutes at the PAC meeting Wednesday–who was the only unionized member at the table who had the role of speaking for workers and not administrators or department staff.        

The auditor also reported the frequency of violence experienced by teaching assistants (TAs) based on their survey responses, showing that 52% of TAs experienced violence daily. TAs are CUPE workers.        

TAs don’t have access to reporting to PowerSchool–the app used to track students’ performance and behavioural incidents, which is also working as a violent incident reporting system–but teachers and administrators do.        

When the auditor asked TAs if they had requested violent incidents be reported into the PowerSchool app on their behalf, by teachers or administrators, TAs shared two reasons for sometimes not requesting this: because they would have to ask someone else to do it for them and because “often their entire workday was comprised of incidents, and it would be difficult to have them all reported.”        

Speaking of typical workloads for TAs, Nelson Scott, chair of the Nova Scotia School Board Council of Unions (NSSBCU) and president of CUPE Local 5050 was a member of the silent audience at the PAC meeting, and spoke with The Coast, along with Fougère, following its wrap.        

Scott says that TAs aren’t necessarily, or even typically, supporting one student each per school day. He’s heard from some members that they have six students they’re supporting a day, with two of those being flight risks.        

A problem is that CUPE school support workers aren’t clear on what determines how many TAs are needed at each school and when these ratios are being reassessed.

Fougère says the HRCE is the only CUPE Local 5047 that actually has a negotiated number of full-time teaching assistants in their collective agreement with the province, and that number is roughly 280 full-time workers. However, there are much more than that employed within schools–but they’re term positions that fluctuate from year to year, Fougère says.       

“There’s no job security necessarily involved with it, which means it’s a challenge when we get to the bargaining table…to try to move the needle and increase commitments to stable funding to those positions.”       

On school support staff ratios as they stand now,  Fougère says students are presenting with a lot of complex needs which are initially assessed when they first enroll. However, “we’re not seeing that there is consistent monitoring, or that feedback from the teaching assistants that are working with those students is necessarily being considered, when they’re re-evaluating if needs are going to increase or potentially decrease.”       

Scott echoes that this is what members are also sharing with him, “through many phone calls at early hours in the morning and late at night—my members are speaking and I’m listening to them say that they’re at their breaking point.” He’s reviewing the OH&S Act with them which outlines their right to refuse unsafe work and says he’s had TAs in his local that have used this process to refuse work “because they didn’t feel safe.” Scott says the phone calls start at 5:30 in the morning, “from concerned staff members who call me crying saying they don’t think they’re mentally fit to do the job today because they’re just so scared, they feel unappreciated and they’re not getting the support they need.”       

Scott says, as the president of his local, he’s trying to assure them that he’s working on it to help them as best he can because it can be a slow process and he doesn’t want anything to be missed, but says it’s a real problem of members not being listened to and feeling “overworked and underappreciated” alongside high levels of workplace violence.        

He says at his local OH&S committee, they receive two or three pages of violence a month. “And that’s just one centre.”       

“We need to listen to workers now,” says Scott. “We need to retain them. We need to get a game plan and assist them in every aspect we can to help them transition through this negative time because they need support—we need to support them, and the government needs to support them.”

The effect of taking away the voice of those most affected by workplace violence in schools, who are at their breaking point, is that CUPE members are unable to share their daily experiences with a committee questioning the ability of schools to keep students and workers safe, which also means they’re unable to offer potential solutions based on these same daily lived experiences.        

So, let’s take CUPE’s experience-based solutions into account now and listen to what they’re saying:       

 Recognize that most CUPE workers are female-identifying 

For starters, le’ts take the fact that the majority of CUPE education workers are female-identifying. According to CUPE’s own survey data from the last round of collective bargaining in 2022, the gender split is 83% female-identifying among school support staff.       

“That’s an important thing to recognize when we’re trying to develop strategies to address and prevent violence,” says Fougère. However, the auditor noted that this is not included in PowerSchool incident tracking data. But it could be.       

 Fix reporting roadblocks 

Scott mentions what he calls “administrative roadblocks” between CUPE education workers reporting incidents of workplace violence through PowerSchool so that trends can be observed and solutions found. For starters, teachers are overwhelmed with the work they do outside of having to report, says Scott. Second, “there’s no continuity for TAs who tell their teachers to report an incident.” Scott says this could change by allowing CUPE school support workers their own portal for reporting within PowerSchool so that data collection can be inclusive and transparent, and “so we can all see it together.”       

 Fix staffing shortages 

This relates to what Fougère calls “the biggest challenge,” of translating policy and “catch all phrases of ‘best practices’” into human resources to staff and manage those policies.       

“There’s been very little transparency with respect to the approach that the centres of education and CSAP are using to implement the inclusive educational policy when it comes to TA-to-student ratios,” for example. “We want to see consistency in all things because that truly is the thing that’s lacking.” Short term, as was mentioned in PAC, is the deputy minister of education, LeRoux, prepared to commit funding and human resources to fund more full-time support staff positions in schools today? “Because that is what’s needed,” says Fougère. “We know that based on the [auditor general’s report, violence has exponentially risen and while the number of TAs has also risen, it has not risen proportionate to the students’ needs which have become more complex.”       

 Stop downplaying violence as part of the job 

During Wednesday’s meeting, Fougère heard NSTU president Lutes say how some instances of violence are being downplayed as a means of support, through saying things it’s a part of the job or it’s an expected behaviour pattern of a student that you’re dealing with, to education workers supporting students with complex needs. “It’s minimized and not called for what it is,” says Fougère. “There’s no forethought to say ‘We can have student inclusivity and support while still recognizing that workplace violence is not appropriate.’”        

 Rethink relationship between inclusive education and workplace safety  

Much of the conversation around what is happening in schools with rising instances of many forms of violence is inextricable from conversations about the implementation of the provincial Inclusive Education Policy, which came into effect in September 2020.        

Fougère says these two conversations should not continue to run separately from each other, otherwise the issues around workplace violence are “going to continue to perpetuate and build.”        

“You can have student inclusivity and support while still recognizing that workplace violence is not appropriate.”

CUPE has entered into bargaining with the EECD for a new collective agreement since their current one expired on Mar. 31, 2024. They will look to hold public conversations involving CUPE education workers and workplace safety solutions, as well as conversations at the bargaining table.                  

“It’s very heartbreaking for us that we have never had the opportunity to go to the [PAC] to discuss our members’ issues with them” says Scott, “because we do represent over 5,000 members, and we thought we should have had the opportunity to voice our concerns and to work on a solution to help our members against violence in the workplace.”                   

Fougère and Scott are both involved in the current round of CUPE bargaining. “Right now we are trying to accomplish as much as we can, so that we aren’t unnecessarily delayed,” says Fougère, in reference to delays in previous years. “We’ve been told what our priorities are by our members and we are moving as quickly as possible to get things done,” within a typical bargaining timeline, which is usually a year.    

“We’re optimistic, says Fougère, who is hoping the province will convene all CUPE locals at a shared table throughout bargaining as they’ve requested to happen, and as has happened in previous years, to discuss broad systemic changes. “As soon as we can get things done,” says Fougère, “we’re going to get things done.”

By Lauren Phillips, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 26, 2024 at 15:47

This item reprinted with permission from   Coast Reporter   Sechelt, British Columbia

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