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‘This has to stop’ – school principals attacked and threatened at record levels, report finds

Professor Riley: “Part of the reason is that these schools can get rid of families and eventually move them to government sector.”

“WE are in trouble as a nation,” according to the author of an Australian Catholic University survey that reveals one in three Australian school principals have been attacked and half have experienced violent threats at work.

“This is a reflection of our society, it is much bigger than schools,” the survey’s chief investigator associate professor Philip Riley, from ACU’s Institute of Positive Psychology and Education, said.

“Police are reporting higher levels of violence, other frontline services too, and clearly domestic violence is up.

“It’s time to draw a line in the sand and say ‘this has got to stop’.”

In a worrying trend, almost half of school principals (45 per cent) were threatened with violence last year, compared with 38 per cent when Dr Riley conducted his first Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey in 2011.

Catholic schools and independent schools prove to be a “little bit” safer.

“Part of the reason is that these schools can get rid of families and eventually move them to government sector,” Dr Riley said.

“So by the time you get to end of secondary school there’s an over-representation in the government sector, because they can’t go anywhere else once they’ve been excluded from Catholic or independent schools.”

Dr Riley, a former school principal, spent 16 years in schools before moving to the tertiary sector, and attributes an escalation of violence to the high-stakes pressure and anxiety experienced by students and their working parents.

“Australia has gone from pretty low average working hours in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) to almost the highest in a generation. So everybody’s busy,” he said.

“So the quiet conversations that might have happened in the schoolyard between parents and teachers has gone.

“They (parents) have probably worked up a head of steam before they go up to school now. 

“The high-stakes nature of NAPLAN means people are trying to tell principals how to run their schools. And I think that is what’s playing out.

“To over-simplify, it’s parents in primary schools and students in secondary schools,” Dr Riley said, describing who are the chief perpetrators of violence.

“Students have watched what’s happened to parents in primary schools – have the behaviour modelled to them and said ‘Well, might is right, that’s how you get on in the world’.”

Dr Riley said the level and intensity of violence appeared to be increasing as well.

It included “kicking, biting, scratching of a kid who is disgruntled through to very serious attacks” and in some cases premeditated bashing of principals in their offices.

“Bad cases are principals being hospitalised for multiple days. It’s that serious,” Dr Riley said.

The latest survey of principals also found that increasing threats and violence, aggravated by excessive working hours, were leading to serious levels of distress, burnout and depression among school leaders.

Data collected from about half of Australia’s 10,000 principals from 2011 to 2018, showed that school leaders were overwhelmed by the volume of work; being threatened with violence; being physically attacked, having great difficulty sleeping; and experiencing high rates of depressive symptoms.

“Clearly, our nation builders are under attack,” Dr Riley said.

“Australia’s school leaders experience a far higher rate of offensive behaviour at work than the general population.

“Consequently, fewer people are willing to step into the role.

“At a time when 70 per cent of school leaders will reach retirement age within two or three years, we are ignoring a looming national crisis.”

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