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Lack of specialist teachers leading to 'violent episodes' in Surrey classrooms, union says

A empty teacher's desk is pictured in an empty classroom is seen on Sept. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward A empty teacher's desk is pictured in an empty classroom is seen on Sept. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Pulling specialist teachers away from the vulnerable students who need their assistance has led to an increase in violent outbursts in Surrey classrooms, according to the local teachers' union.

The Surrey Teachers' Association said the district has been filling scheduling gaps by using specialist teachers to substitute for regular teachers, which means taking supports away from some of the most marginalized children in the city.

Those specialist teachers include educational assistants and integration support staff, whose job is to tailor the learning experience for students who might have issues sitting still for an entire class, or controlling their behaviour for extended periods of time.

"These kids with difficulties are acting out because their support is not there, and sometimes that leads to violent episodes," said Lizanne Foster, first-vice president of the union.

"There are stories we've got from our members talking about how you can have a desk thrown at you, you can have your arm bitten."

Those incidents disrupt learning for other students as well, Foster added, and over time can push teachers from their chosen careers.

"Teachers find themselves in classrooms like this with five children with no supports, who clearly need supports, and then they're phoning us and telling us they need to leave," she told CTV News. "That's a huge problem for all of us."

The union stressed that the students who rely on specialist teachers can thrive in classroom settings when their unique needs are met. Specialists also help students with vision or hearing challenges, Foster said.

"There's a range of obstacles that stand in the way of learning, so the specialists help with ameliorating that," she added.

The Surrey Teachers' Association called on the district and province to hire more staff so specialist supports are consistent, even when the teachers are called to fill in elsewhere or away for health reasons.

According to the union, in the "best-case scenario," some specialists are only backfilled after being absent for three days – and in other instances, they might not be backfilled for an entire school year.

In an email statement, the Surrey school district acknowledged that specialist teachers must sometimes be reassigned, citing an ongoing struggle keeping up with the "rapid pace" of the city's population growth.

"We track these occasions and re-invest teaching resources to make up for lost services, as per our agreement with the union. But we also recognize the impact this has on staff, and in particular, our speciality teachers who play a critical role in student learning and wellbeing," the statement said.

The district said absences among regular teachers are primarily filled using teachers on call, of which there are about 1,500 in the city's pool – though "the vast majority have varying availability, and are not able to cover full-time," according to the statement.

There are about 1,650 speciality teachers in the district, and officials said they are in the process of posting around 40 new positions.

"The challenge will be filling these roles in a timely manner as it has been difficult finding qualified candidates," the district's statement said.

Speaking to reporters in the B.C. legislature Tuesday, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said she was not aware of the Surrey Teachers' Association's concerns, but that she's hopeful the tentative agreement reached last week with the BC Teachers' Federation will help improve recruitment and retention in the province.

"The safety of everyone in our school environment, both staff and students, is our primary concern," she added.

If ratified by BCTF members this month, the deal would see teacher salaries increased from some of the lowest in Canada to among the highest. Top Stories

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