While the number of principals reporting violence in the ACT has climbed by 74 per cent since the survey began in 2011, it has only risen by 5 per cent since the education directorate began rolling out occupational violence reforms in 2016 focussed on lifting reporting rates and awareness.
Lead researcher Philip Riley from the Australian Catholic University said the territory’s rates of violence had now overtaken the Northern Territory, which remained close behind at about 50 per cent of principals affected.
«This could be happening in more than 50 schools in Canberra, imagine the ripple effects of that,» he said.
«You would think it should be a lot lower, [the ACT] is better resourced, it has a population with high [socio-economic advantage], no one’s too far from head office, none of the usual indicators are there.»
While Dr Riley said shifts in numbers could look more dramatic in a small jurisdiction, the ACT had consistently recorded high rates of violence and intimidation.
«It’s out of control [in the ACT] and right around the country,» he said.
But while violence was up in ACT schools, bullying experienced by principals fell last year by 18 per cent, bringing it down to the third-lowest rate in the country alongside Western Australia, with Victoria and Queensland performing the best.
Nationally, principals were just as likely to be threatened by parents as students in 2018, though most violent incidents involved students. Women were more at risk of attack .
Of particular concern were the number of principals reporting difficulty sleeping, Dr Riley said. Education departments also ranked notably low as sources of support in all jurisdictions, while staffing and resource shortages loomed large as stressors.
Yet despite principals facing tougher demands at work than the general population, with a quarter working more than 61 hours a week, they also reported higher job satisfaction overall.
Dr Riley, who was a principal himself before moving into psychology, said both NSW and Victoria had recently put significant resources into tackling violence in schools. Victoria’s new wellbeing strategy appeared to be having some early success as the state’s violence rates dipped slightly for 2018.
While the ACT is rolling out NSW’s positive behaviour model, it squashed a recent call for an independent inquiry into school violence. The push by the opposition followed revelations in The Canberra Times that complaints about violence at one ACT school stretched back more than a year but incidents were escalating.
Compared to Australia, Dr Riley said the research team found significantly lower rates of violence against principals overseas in Ireland.
«We have a culture of violence here we don’t like admitting to,» he said.
«We see it with our nurses too. Responses aren’t moving fast enough.»
Canberra principal Brad Gaynor described the results as concerning, but said he had not heard many stories of violence from the ACT during his time as president of the Australian Catholic Primary Principals’ Association.
«You do get some cranky parents and the levels of children being aggressive I think has risen…there’s also more awareness now around things like anxiety and trauma,» he said.
Negative public perceptions and confusion around the role of schools often put pressure on principals, he said.
«But the workload itself is intense. You take things home with you, you worry about students and families.
«There are days where I really struggle…You have to be a counsellor, a negotiator, almost a lawyer now.»
At his own school Holy Spirit Primary in Canberra’s north, Mr Gaynor said a therapy dog named Rosie brought in to calm down students in the past six months had ended up providing welcome stress relief for staff too.
«I was sceptical at first, she looks like a hyena,» he laughed. «But she’s had a calming effect on the whole school, I’ve never seen anything like it.
«When a child is escalating, they’re not responding to the usual strategies, Rosie will walk in and it’s like a switch has gone off, sometimes just patting her, that rhythmic motion, can make all the difference.»
Atticus Donnelly in Year 4 said Rosie often helped calm him down and refocus at school.
«When I’m angry and no one understands, she understands. She listens too,» he said.
Sharon Harrison, the school’s wellbeing officer and Rosie’s owner, brings the loveable ex-working dog in almost every day to visit students and staff alike.
«Sometimes just that one pat is all they need, she’s like a talisman,» Ms Harrison said.
«Kids can throw the ball for her or she’ll come and put her head in their lap. She’s so patient, she just knows what they need. Staff call me over all the time too saying ‘I really need some Rosie time’.»
Senior teacher Julie Jenkins added: «When Rosie comes into the staff room, everyone’s blood pressure drops by about 20 points.»
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Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs