In the third part of our series looking into the issue of youth violence in Northland, Karina Cooper talks to our schools to find out how they are coping and the programmes they have in place to help ease the problem.
Northland principals are finding it "harder and harder" to meet a creeping demand for support to help aggressive students entangled in societal problems.
But rather than buckle under the pressure, schools are flexing their innovative muscles as a response to the aggression and trauma a minority of children are carrying from home into school grounds.
Te Tai Tokerau Principals' Association president Pat Newman said community expectations schools will "fix" their children has stretched learning centres beyond their role as educators.
"What we are seeing at primary level are 5-year-olds picking up desks, chairs, what they can or they're ripping up library books," he said. "The solution goes beyond educational psychology."
Newman, Hora Hora School principal, wanted to see Northland schools have better access to mental health expertise as they supported students burdened by violence, substance abuse, or housing woes in their homes.
"We need that expertise that we can tap into to know how to help these children and at the same time keep others safe. We're talking about approaches to mental health and effective interventions at home."
Newman said immediate responses to children violently lashing out were hamstrung by the Ministry of Education's (MoE) strict rules around physically restraining a student - which can only be done as a last resort.
However, MoE recognises a student may need to be physically restrained to prevent imminent harm to themselves or another person.
Hikurangi School principal Bruce Crawford said when these circumstances did not apply staff were left with limited options to de-escalate an unfolding situation.
"When a student is playing up in the classroom, threatening to throw chairs around you take the class out. We have a responsibility to keep our staff and students safe ."
Crawford said this could be a contributing reason as to why police are called to schools.
This year police have intervened in schools in Whangārei, the mid and Far North on a few occasions to support staff with incidents – some of which involved arranged fighting - on school grounds or school bus routes.
External agencies specialising in trauma and counselling are also counted on to come to the aid of a student in crisis.
"The Miriam Centre is just amazing – we've used them on and off for the better part of 20-years to help our students in need," Crawford said.
The Miriam Centre, based in Whangārei, is a not for profit charitable trust that provides a first response service to support people as they address and heal from issues of sexual and physical violence.
The centre's director Patsy Henderson-Watt said they were supporting teachers and students in 104 Northland schools at the end of December last year.
"The fact we are asking teachers to teach an entire curriculum, make sure children have food and other essentials, as well as diffuse situations that might involve someone threatening to take scissors to someone – you're asking them to be superhuman."
But schools are not shying away from the challenges presented by, what they say, is a small portion of their total student populations.
Crawford said fights between Hikurangi School students, that used to take place in the last 20-minutes of lunchtime, had greatly diminished since they created two breaks for lunchtime and had teachers checking students had lunch.
"It means if a teacher spots a child without food they can arrange a lunch for them by the time there is the second break. These things have a big impact because we haven't got hangry kids when they're playing together."
Oturu School in Kaitaia is a decile one school with a huge proportion of its predominately Māori students stemming from low socio-economic communities.
The school's principal Sacha Williams said they encounter every sort of issue you could think about as students are exposed to abuse, family violence, and poverty.
"We're trying to break cycles in our school by, this year, putting our focus on resilience in children and emotional regulation. Within my school we have high and complex needs and we have violence towards children and violence towards teachers and adults."
The school has implemented Mana Potential, which is a tikanga Māori approach to teaching children about their emotions, emotional literacy and language, equipping them to de-escalate themselves before they get to the "red zone", and when they do escalate how to reflect afterwards.
"We're empowering our children not to feel backed into a corner because when they are their only way out is fight or flight," Williams said.
And she is seeing results as the number of violent incidents has dropped.
"By providing children with language and emotional literacy they are then able to say what they want to be heard and we can work with the information they're giving us."
A big part of the school's success is the close bond they form with the community and the families of their students – an extension of the whānau they create within their school, Williams said.
Whangārei Intermediate School principal Hayley Read said her school uses a variety of approaches to promote positive behaviour within the 752 students – such as school values, positive behaviour programmes and anger management modules to an award system.
"For 98 per cent of my students, they can all function really well in our environment but there is 2 per cent - and I do believe this represents society – that come into our school gates and are really challenging for us because they experience violence and other issues elsewhere."
Read said wraparound services and resources as well as the school's tirohanga about building strong relationships were helping the school to manage issues of senior boys fighting across the school.
But teachers and staff were struggling with the number of resources they needed to commit while at the same time trying to continue their role as educators.
"The families of these students are struggling, we're struggling. Somewhere on the way, we have a responsibility as a village to help these students – not only overcome fighting – but access the curriculum."
Part one : Mum's plea 'Protect our babies
Part two: Social factors
Part three: How our education systems are coping
Part four: Solutions