The European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) defines third party violence in the context of the workplace as “physical violence, verbal aggression or the threat of physical violence where the aggressor is not a work colleague, e.g. the person, customer, client or patient receiving the goods or services”, and is clear that in this context, assaults by pupils or parents are included . As such it is an occupational health and safety hazard, covered by EU legislation. OSHA notes that workers in the education sector are more at risk of violence when their jobs involve working with children with special educational needs.
In Ireland, the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 sets out the duties of employers and employees in relation to the maintenance of safe workplaces. The Board of Management of a school, as the employer, “shall ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety, health and welfare at work of his or her employees.” They are also obliged to assess the risks to health, safety and welfare at work, and minimize those risks through taking measures set out in the Act. In addition, they are required to report to the Health and Safety Authority incidents where employees suffer an accident or injury at work, which causes absence of 3 consecutive days or more. Employees are required to take reasonable care to protect their safety at work.
As outlined above, assaults and violence are categorized as risks to occupational health and safety, so in this context, school boards of management are required to assess the risk of assaults and violence against staff occurring and put measures in place to ensure that such risks are minimized. In addition, they are required to make reports to the authorities in relation to incidents which occur.
Violence, harassment or assaults may also constitute criminal offences under the Non- Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997, which states that
“ 2.—(1) A person shall be guilty of the offence of assault who, without lawful excuse, intentionally or recklessly—
(a) directly or indirectly applies force to or causes an impact on the body of another, or
(b) causes another to believe on reasonable grounds that he or she is likely immediately to be subjected to any such force or impact, without the consent of the other”.
In cases where a criminal assault is suspected, the matter should be reported to the Gardaí. It must be borne in mind that an assault on an employee by a primary school pupil is unlikely to be classed as a criminal assault, as the criminal age of responsibility is 12.
A growing body of research indicates that verbal and physical attacks on teachers are on the increase. When they occur, the impact on the individual teacher can be profound. An INTO survey (2012) found that 20% of principals and 18% of teachers reported that they had been the subject of a physical assault. 54% of principals and 39% of teachers had experienced verbal assault. Most physical assaults were by pupils, and most verbal assaults were carried out by adults.
OSHA has outlined the consequences of violence at work, which include
For the individual:
- physical harm
- emotional trauma
- feelings of powerlessness
For the employer/organisation:
- higher staff turnover
- increased absenteeism and sickness absence
- higher insurance costs
In the INTO survey (2012) noted above teachers noted an increase in anxiety and stress as a result of assaults, as well as absence from work and having to seek medical advice.
DES Circular 40/97– Assaults on Teachers
Circular 40/97 emphasises the necessity to create and maintain a culture where acts of violence are not tolerated and where incidents when they do occur are effectively and speedily dealt with.
Creating such a climate requires the cooperation of the whole community. However, where in a minority of cases parents do not abide by the agreed procedures the circular offers little practical assistance in how to proceed.
Circular 40/97 focuses on:
- The board’s duty to provide a safe place of work for employees
- Measures to be taken to prevent or minimise the risk of assaults to teachers or other staff employed in schools
- Measures to be taken in support of staff who have been assaulted or threatened with assault; and ensuring that appropriate action is taken to safeguard against a recurrence.
Where an assault occurs, the following steps as outlined in Circular 40/97 should be taken:
(i) The incident should be immediately reported to the principal teacher/other colleague.
The details of the incident should be recorded in an Incident Book kept for this purpose in the workplace. Situations in which members have been intimidated or threatened with physical violence should also be recorded.
(ii) Where necessary immediate medical assistance should be sought.
(iii) The matter should be reported to the Gardaí, where appropriate. This report would normally be made by the teacher who was assaulted.
(iv) The Board of Management should be notified of the incident and where necessary an emergency meeting of the Board should take place. The Board should notify its legal advisors of the assault. The Board’s insurance company should also be notified.
(v) Where the assault is by a pupil the matter should be dealt with in accordance with the school’s Code of Discipline and as provided for in Rule 130(5) of the Rules for National Schools.
(vi) Repeatedly aggressive pupils should be referred, with the consent of parents, for psychological assessment in order to assess the pupils’ social and emotional needs and to determine how these can be best met.
(vii) Where the assault is committed by a parent/guardian, the parent/guardian should be immediately instructed in writing not to make direct contact with the teacher/school pending full consideration of the matter by the Board. Subsequently the Board should correspond with the parent/ guardian stating:
- that the Board considers the assault unacceptable
- what action the Board intends to take
- outlining what pre-conditions should be met before access to the school is restored.
(viii) Applications for leave of absence, in relation to a member who has been assaulted, should be forwarded to Primary Payments Section, Department of Education, Cornamaddy, Athlone, Co. Westmeath. Each application will be assessed on its merits. (It should be noted that paid assault leave will only be granted when a teacher’s entitlement to paid sick leave has been exhausted)
(ix) Where an employee’s personal property is damaged in the course of an assault, compensation for its replacement value may be paid by the Board of Management under the extended school Protection Policy.
 EU- OSHA (2011), Workplace Violence and Harassment: a European Picture
 EU-OSHA (2003), FACTS 47 – Prevention of Violence to Staff in the Education Sector