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Student violence drives teachers out of Nunavik school

Puvirnituq teacher: “I’m tired of seeing co-workers with bruises.”


This big sculpture by Peter Boy Ittukallak, which stands by the entrance Puvirnituq’s Iguarsivik school, provides an idealistic representation of education in the Nunavik region. The reality is that unrestrained student violence, including the sexual harassment of female teachers, is driving teachers away from the school and the region. (FILE PHOTO)

This big sculpture by Peter Boy Ittukallak, which stands by the entrance Puvirnituq’s Iguarsivik school, provides an idealistic representation of education in the Nunavik region. The reality is that unrestrained student violence, including the sexual harassment of female teachers, is driving teachers away from the school and the region. (FILE PHOTO)

Some bruised and battered teachers at Puvirnituq’s Iguarsivik school say they’re fed up with being punched, hit, and threatened with violence by students while treated with a lack of respect by the Kativik School Board and school administrators.

After getting punched in the stomach April 19 by two students, Iguarsivik teacher Pierre-Luc Bélisle was surprised to see the students back in school two days later, as if nothing had happened.

Bélisle was told there would be an investigation into his allegations.

“I thought there would be some consequence. I didn’t invent a story about a student. I am there to protect them, for their security, it’s my job,” said Bélisle, who felt his credibility as a teacher was put in doubt. “I think that’s unacceptable.”

After learning nothing had been done, Bélisle, who had already filed a police report on the incident, went to a doctor who put him on a two-week leave.

Bélisle then contacted his union, the Northern Quebec Teaching Association, as well as newspaper reporters, in a last-ditch attempt to improve conditions in the school.

Bélisle ended up telling his story to the Journal de Montréal newspaper and to CBC Montreal.

Since then, the students have been suspended, Bélisle said in a telephone interview this past weekend.

“I’m tired of seeing co-workers with bruises. I can’t accept that. That’s why contacted the Journal de Montréal for them and for the students. I can’t close my eyes against this. To return another year and continue to endure this? No,” said Bélisle, 32, who arrived last August to teach Grade 7 in this Hudson Bay community and plans to leave in June.

Bélise, a teacher with several years of experience, said he has no problems with his own students.

But often teachers are hit or punched if they try to deal with violence between students in the hallways or schoolyard, he said.

“I have no violence in my class. I never put anyone out of class. I love my students. I can teach without any problems. How can I succeed with 16 students if, when I leave my class, it’s a free-for-all?”

Examples of violence around the school include an incident involving a student who first punched a teacher who had broken up a fight outside, and then hit a second teacher in the face.

Bélisle said teachers must try to discipline and not simply stand by when they see something like that happen: “As a teacher I am supposed to guide them, to educate them that violence is unacceptable. I want to give people hope and for these youth to improve their lives.”

The problem, said Bélisle, is if there’s a code of conduct, it hasn’t been applied consistently, and doesn’t deal appropriately with the problems, he said.

“We need leadership, direction. That ‘we’re going to do this and here are the resources to do it,’” he said.

Of the 21 teachers at the school, which has about 260 students from Grade 4 to Secondary 5, 15 are non-Inuit. Eleven of the new teachers arrived in 2009 — a turnover of near 75 per cent among the non-Inuit teachers.

Since the beginning of this academic year, at least five of the 15 non-Inuit teachers have taken leave at some point to deal with injuries and trauma.

A female teacher who did not wish to be identified in this story said that, since she started teaching at the school, she’s seen numerous instances of violence, ranging from verbal harassment like “fuck you, shut up” to sexual harassment, including threats of touching.

A female co-worker who was the subject of continual sexual harassment from students was told to put a photo of a strong looking man in her classroom to show the students that she has a boyfriend: “that was the response of the administration,” she said.

Incidents are dealt with case-by-case, she said, citing the examples of a student who broke a window and received seven days of suspension, while another one who hit a teachers received a shorter period of suspension.

There is no student counselor at the school. An anti-bullying program, introduced last year, was never implemented. This would help, the teachers say, because often students who attack teachers also bully their peers.

A letter sent to the KSB by Iguarsivik teachers earlier this year, which contained a plea for help, went unanswered, she said.

“We feel alone in this,” she said. “The people who are losing out are the students. If we can’t help them, if there’s no follow-up by the administration, no program in the school against violence, how can we help educate the future citizens of Puvirnituq?”

The Kativik School Board was unable to respond to a request for more information from the Nunatsiaq News on Monday, because its director general was in transit, spokesperson Debbie Astroff said.

But the KSB did provide comments to the Journal de Montréal for a story published May 8.

The KSB said violence isn’t tolerated, and that the board intervenes “rapidly” when a teacher is hit by a student.

Consequences may include suspension or a report to police, the school board told the newspaper.

“But when it’s impossible to determine who (the student or the teacher) was in error, the sanctions for the student are not as strict,” the KSB said, noting that a suspension may take place inside the school where another staff member will deal with the problem.

“Those who have more than five years of experience feel secure in their classes,” the KSB said.

Patrick d’Astous, president of the Northern Quebec Teaching Association, said, judging from these comments, the school board appears to be in denial about the violence in its schools.

“The school board doesn’t support its teachers. It says, because you’ve just gotten here, you’ll be hit in the face for five years. Then it’ll be fine. If I was a teacher with the school board, I’d feel a profound lack of respect. This isn’t an employer worth working for,” D’Astous said in an interview from Waswanipi.

In 2007, the union asked the KSB to embrace an anti-violence program, which has been instituted in the James Bay Cree region.

But so far, d’Astous said he hasn’t gotten an answer from the Kativik School Board.

His union also says schools in Nunavik need more resources to deal with students who need special help, particularly when they move from first language instruction during the first three years of school to instruction in a second language, which is either English or French.

The result can be frustration and an increase in violence, according to d’Astous, who said that more resources for teacher and students are the only way the situation can improve.

In recent years, Nunavik has experienced growing violence in its schools and against its students and teachers.

Countless episodes of vandalism, harassment and bullying in school classrooms and playgrounds have gone largely unreported.

The most horrific episodes include the shooting of a female teacher in Salluit in 2005 and the severe beating of a school principal in Kangiqsujuaq that same year.

Since then school board has adopted a “peace and responsive school” code and upped security within its schools through video surveillance, security entrance cards for use by staff after hours and hallway monitors.

Over the years, Iguarsivik has faced other waves of violence. In 1993 the school and community were wracked by a series of violent incidents, which saw one teacher assaulted and several teachers’ homes vandalized.

Then, in 2006, student vandals ransacked the school, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.

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