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‘I feel helpless’: high rates of school violence against Australian principals

In his nearly 15 years of experience as a high school principal, Nick* has been "physically threatened", subject to verbal abuse and threats and been targeted online by parents and students.

"As principals, we take on everything on top of teaching and learning: issues or concerns that come in, abusive students or a parent having some online campaign against us, we have to deal with that," the NSW-based educator, who wished to remain anonymous, told Education Review.

"Yet, we seem to be left alone, isolated and vulnerable to anything that happens in and around the school as it has become a central focal point within the community."

Like Nick, around 44 per cent of school leaders in Australia have reported being subjected to physical violence in the workplace -  according to the results from the latest Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey.

One of the most troubling findings from the research identified parents were responsible for one-third of threats of violence against school leaders.

Nick, who taught in a variety of school settings across the state,  said social media was now a "weapon of choice" for parents.

"It used to be just an abuse over the phone, maybe someone yelling in a foyer or a bad meeting, and you'd be abused or threatened, and people would walk out," he said.

"Now, with social media, there seems to be no end to the situation."

He said some of his student's parents have used  his school's social media pages to write derogatory comments about the school or target staff members.

"Senior executives often get targeted as they're the ones that make decisions in a school, and then it gets out of hand very, very quickly," he said.

"Their abusive behaviour becomes quite personal and targets specific individuals when it might not even be related to the event that's happened; people jump on their grievances.

"All these things take a toll on principals."

The wellbeing survey, released last week, found principals working in the Northern Territory were most at risk of physical violence and/or threats from parents.

This was followed by Queensland at 41.9 per cent, the ACT at 39 per cent, Tasmania at 35.3 per cent, and  NSW at 33.1 per cent.

"As principals, we are resilient and try to ignore these things and get on with our core business, but it wears you down and, after a while, has an impact on wellbeing and ultimately impacts how you're performing in your job," he said.

In addition to reported abusive behavior from parents, the most recent wellbeing survey also identified an increase in offensive behaviours from students.

School leaders in ACT reported the highest rate of physical violence and/or threats from students at 80.5 per cent, followed by NT at 75.5 per cent, WA at 57.2 per cent and Tasmania at 55.9 per cent.

Nick said students are coming from primary school with more "extreme behaviour" such as threats and violence towards students and staff.

"These are behaviours we used to see from older students, if not at all in a secondary setting," he said.

"What staff need are a lot more training around mental health challenges in adolescents and more mechanisms within school and resources to support that.

"But right now, we are all fatigued and burned out."

According to the 2022 Principal's wellbeing survey, school leaders were now 11 times more at risk of experiencing physical violence in their workplace than the general population.

ACU co-lead investigator Associate Professor Theresa Dicke said state governments should implement more comprehensive policies to prevent school violence.

"Principals deserve to be safe at school," Associate Professor Dicke told Education Review.

"This is not what they've signed up for, and the situation we see now is the result of the culmination of demands from all parties."

Victoria, which introduced the School Community Safety Orders earlier this year, reported a lower rates in school-based violence compared to other states after allowing teachers and principals to remove carers or parents from school grounds if their behaviours risk the safety the school community.

Associate Professor Dicke said other states should follow and start listening to school leaders' experience.

"School violence is not what we should accept; even a small percentage of offensive behaviours or threats of violence towards a principal is a no-go. Why even tolerate a little amount of that?" she said.

In addition to facing violent behaviours, school leaders in primary and secondary schools from Catholic, public and independent sectors also reported their a decline in their well being due to unmanageable workloads.

"The constant competing deadlines and the different directions coming from various directorates within the department do not filter any of these tasks," Associate Professor Dicke said.

Additionally, the survey showed  94.5 per cent of school leaders were concerned about staff stress, and 98 per cent said they were worried about educators burning out.

Nick said after working as a principal for over 14 years, he noticed staff were the most burn out at the end of last year.

"I am a very proud educator; I was the first person in my family to get the highest school certificate and attend university. I value education but understand why people are moving away from the profession.

"I feel helpless as I can't help my staff."

While Nick feels anxious for his staff and school community, he said he had been left wondering what will happen to his profession in the long term.

"The profession changed dramatically; it really isn't what it was five years ago, let alone 10 years ago.

"We just celebrated someone who's been a principal for 20 years; I don't think this will happen in the future.

"I just don't see how in the current climate, principals are gonna be able to survive for that length of time with all the expectations from the employer, our workload, and the dysfunction that we're dealing with from communities."

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