Hamilton education assistants describe shocking daily workplace violence in schools

Jennifer Timmins says she often comes home from work with bruises, cuts or scratches that are hard to explain to her three children.

Timmins works as an educational assistant (EA) at a public school in inner-city Hamilton, a job that goes beyond helping students with their work. She says she often finds herself breaking up fights and managing students with aggressive behaviour, subjecting herself to violence that nearly any other worker would find unconscionable – and she wants it to stop.

“Every day I go in thinking, ‘What is my student going to do today? Are they going to give me a concussion or leave bruises all over?” says Timmins, who says she is hit, slapped, bit, head-butted and kicked routinely. She says one student “loves to kick you right in your stomach, your private area, wherever he can manage to get hands on… Holding your hair, ripping your glasses off.”

She has worked as an EA since 2015, and says the situation in schools has become much worse in the last four years, and says many of her colleagues are trying to get out. She wears Kevlar protective clothing to work, as do all the other EAs at her school.

Timmins believes accepting violence has become an expectation of EAs, even though violence against other school workers is still taken seriously.

“If your principal was getting kicked in the privates, or if it was a teacher,” there would be consequences, says Timmins, recalling a time that she and a teacher both got punched while breaking up a fight. The teacher was sent home immediately, while Timmins was expected to keep working. “EAs take the brunt of everything… I feel like the dirt on the bottom of their feet.”

Upper end of salary band is $26.10 an hour; many have second jobs

Timmins’ union, Local 527 of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees, says a “lack of provincial funding, critical staffing shortages, and limited access to mental health supports are all contributing to the crisis in our schools.” It released a public statement last month that urged parents to ask their children what kind of violence they have seen at school, saying most would be shocked.

The release described “classrooms being evacuated, students sitting soiled in their own feces, staff unable to work due to injury, principals at their wits end, and a government who chooses to blame parents.”

The union shared photos and anecdotes from multiple EAs, who described the violence they have experienced at work, including being punched, kicked and headbutted.

Union local president Susan Lucek, who worked as an EA until 2019, told CBC Hamilton last month that an “unprecedented” 59 education assistants from the union resigned this year, a staffing situation made worse by a lack of new recruits taking up the career. This spring, Mohawk College announced it was shutting down its educational assistant program, saying applications had declined dramatically in recent years.

Lucek said the upper end of the salary band for EAs in her union is $26.10 hourly, adding that is being increased by $1 per hour for each of the next four years.

“By the time I retire I may be at $30,” she said, adding she understands why young people might not want to take on student debt for a job where they know the wages are low and they might face violence. “A lot of our members work three jobs to make ends meet.”

‘I don’t know what happened to our kids’

Lucek says members have launched work stoppages for unsafe conditions at least twice this year at Hamilton public schools. A recent union survey found 50 per cent of members experience more than one violent incident a day, and that one in five have been discouraged from filing an incident report after such an incident. 

Hamilton EA Keira Major says there are few consequences for students who assault her colleagues.

“They are sent to the principal’s office and they… return with stickers or suckers or other tangible things with no disciplinary action,” she said. “When questioned about this, we are told that they apologized and said they wouldn’t do it again or better yet, because of their learning profile we can not discipline.”

CBC Hamilton reached out to the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, requesting an interview to discuss these concerns and its expectations and standards around safety for EAs. Communications officer Kim Zarzuela declined, saying in an email that the board couldn’t comment because it is currently negotiating with Local 527 of the Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE), which represents the board’s EAs: “As such, we are not able to provide an interview at this time.”

When CBC Hamilton asked Premier Doug Ford about the issue, during a Hamilton press conference in July, he put the responsibility for curbing violence on the school boards.

Doug Ford stands behind a podium that says "building Ontario" in English and French.
During a shipbuilding announcement at the Hamilton harbour on July 13, Ontario premier Doug Ford said school boards are responsible for managing school violence. (Saira Peesker/CBC)

“We’ve hired thousands of new school assistants and educators so we’re going to continue to invest in education,” he said. “The school boards need to address some of the violence in certain areas.”

Major is so concerned by what she’s seen working in Hamilton high schools that she’s moving her family to a small town in Southern Ontario. She has children with learning differences, and feels that in Hamilton schools, they’ll “get eaten alive” in a system that is seeing increased antisocial behaviour without increases in discipline and support.

“I don’t know what happened to our kids, but their minds have snapped,” she said. 

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