I recently lost a student to exclusion. It wasn't a surprise; I could see it coming from the moment the boy enrolled. You see, his needs were so significant that I suspected we wouldn't be able to manage him for long. He was violent and abusive. He needed therapy before we could teach him.
You do what you can in such situations. Referrals left, right and centre; meetings upon meetings upon meetings, rehearsing evacuation procedures with his class mates so that they could quickly exit their class when in harm's way and then supporting them after evacuations had occurred, the provision of a teacher aide as a minder (funded by the school), the purchasing of computers to replace those damaged in rages, the pressure of expectation from parents and teachers to act, and telephone calls to the ministry to plead for help.
Like many principals in similar situations, I felt caught in a vice. On one side, the law, requiring schools to enrol students living within our school zone and on the other, the law, the responsibility to ensure students and staff are safe and not harmed.
Now, can you conceive of a system where principals are placed in the crux of this challenge with no pathway forward other than being advised that suspension can be used as the ultimate sanction? That conception is a reality. We have that system.
It is a reality that plays on the natural desire for principals to do their best for kids in crisis. We are naturally predisposed to go above and beyond. It is in our DNA. We are reluctant to be the one who calls time on complex challenges. And so, we are slow to get to punitive decisions such as suspension that in many instances ends in exclusion.
But it is wrong to place principals in such a position. A system that has no credible answer for violent or abusive young people fails them, it fails their families, it fails educators, and it fails the wider community.
Violence and extreme behaviour are on the rise in classrooms and the status quo cannot remain. It is time to develop options beyond the classroom that reflect the genuine needs of students who are traumatised and damaged.
Young people are presenting with these issues at an increasingly young age and yet there is little targeted support in primary and intermediate schools for them. Trained student counsellors are not provided in the primary and intermediate schools as they are at secondary and there is a significant void in meeting the wellbeing needs of students in crisis.
In the absence of this support, teachers and principals do their best to cope with a rising tide of antisocial behaviour. We are not trained to provide therapeutic support nor are we able to provide the wrap-around resourcing many of these students require to genuinely change the trajectory of their lives. Instead we raise support where we can, often being forced to use a punitive measure such as suspension to protect others from the impact of young people in our schools who are violent or abusive.
There is, however, one bright light on the horizon.
Te Tupu Managed Moves is an initiative by a consortium of Napier schools and Communities of Learning to improve outcomes for primary aged children. Students at risk of disconnection from school because of suspension, expulsion and non-attendance can receive support to shift between schools or to spend time away from their school at a venue-based service.
Te Tupu Managed Moves is delivering appropriate support before crisis occurs. It provides a credible solution that holds students in education but recognises the need for a community of schools to partner together to meet the needs of complex young people. While only this one prototype currently exists, it is a matter of urgency to build such a model into our schooling system.
The Government should consider several other obvious responses to the challenge of violent and abusive behaviour. Residential schools around New Zealand report almost uniformly, an under-utilisation of their resource.
Many young people in crisis need the circuit breaker of being separated from negative influences on their lives. They need to experience living in a structured, orderly, and supportive environment where therapy can be provided. However, access to enrolment in these facilities is impossibly complex and the bar set so high that students requiring immediate and urgent support are often exited from school well before referrals can be actioned.
Young people are being failed by a system that is clunky and bureaucratic. Why is accessing these schools made to be so hard?
Primary and intermediate schools should have specialist staffing, as their secondary counterparts do, to deal with the wellbeing needs of students and the problems that lie at the heart of violence and abuse. Student counsellors should be funded by central government for primary and intermediate schools. That is an investment in our future.
This government, focused on wellbeing, has an opportunity to match rhetoric with delivery.
• Perry Rush is the president New Zealand Principals Federation.