Employment issues arising out of assaults/stress/bullying and harassment

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Employment issues arising out of assaults/stress/bullying and harassment.

This article will look at how Principals and Boards of Management should deal with claim of stress/bullying/harassment from a staff member. It may very well arise from a teacher having to deal with difficult pupils but can arise in the context of bullying among staff members.

As an employer you are obliged to:

  • Manage the level of pressure on employees
  • Monitor employees to ensure they can cope
  • Ensure everything reasonable is done to prevent ‘inability to cope’ turning into ‘serious illness’.

A number of leading cases have laid down guidelines in these cases, and the main points are:

  • Occupational stress is not an illness. In order to recover damages, a person must suffer a recognised medical condition/psychiatric injury. It must be clinical depression/a mental breakdown.
  • If there is such an injury, it must be as a result of the incidents that occurred in the workplace.
  • The harm suffered must have been foreseeable in the circumstances.

Violence

During the course of your work, your staff may be at risk from violence. This can take the form of:

  • Physical assaults
  • Verbal abuse
  • Threats and intimidation

These threats can come from:

  • Pupils
  • Parents/guardians
  • Other members of staff
  • Intruder

Principals and Boards of Management have a duty to provide a safe place of work for employees. To do so you must have a Safety Statement. The Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act came into force in 1989 and this requires employers to draw up Safety statement which must:

  • Identify hazards
  • Assess the risk involved
  • Put appropriate safeguards in place to minimise the risk

Violence against teachers and other staff members should be considered a potential hazard and assessed accordingly.

When drawing up a Safety Statement you should consult with those at risk about what measures should be taken. Once it is in place you should ensure that all staff members are familiar with it (particularly on the steps that need to be taken to protect employees and prevent incidents).

  • Preventative Measures : This can be broken down into two sections
  • External: for example, contact and communication with parents.
  • Internal: When the violence is caused by a pupil or another member of staff.

External

When dealing with parents and visitors to the school, it is important that you have a policy and more importantly that you adhere to it.

Therefore if a parent wishes to meet a teacher to discuss their child, this should be appointment only, if at all possible. The appointment should be made through the school Secretary/Principal and parents should be discouraged from approaching classrooms directly during teaching time.

In urgent cases where it is pre-arranged appointments is not possible, parents should be encouraged to first report to the school Secretary/Principal.

Formal arrangements should be put in place for parent teacher meetings.

Internal

All staff members should be familiar with the internal procedures to prevent incidents in the school involving pupils. If you know of a situation where there is an increased risk from a young offender, training should be provided to teachers/staff members to:

  • Identify potential situations
  • Calm potentially violent situations

The Safety Statement should also address situations where staff are:

  • Working alone in the school premises
  • Working in an isolated part of the school
  • Working with pupils with behavioural difficulties
  • Engaged in home visiting

What to do when there is an assault

As a Board you should have a clearly defined procedure to be implemented when an employee is assaulted. The policy should include a clear commitment by the Board to support the staff member.

  • The incident should be reported immediately to the Principal/a teacher/another colleague. Details should be recorded in the Incident Book kept for this purpose in the workplace. Incidents are not just physical assaults – they also include threats or intimidation.
  • If necessary, medical attention should be sought.
  • If it is appropriate, report the incident to the Gardaí look forward to hearing from you – this should be done by the employee assaulted.
  • The Board of Management should be notified of the incident and, if necessary, an emergency meeting should take place.
  • The Board of Management should:
    • Notify its legal advisors
    • Notify its insurance company
  • If a pupil is involved, the Code of Behaviour should be involved.
  • If the assault was committed by a parent, the parent should be notified not to make any direct contact with staff member pending full consideration of the matter by the Board. The Board should then write to the parent stating:
  • That the Board considers assault unacceptable
  • What action it intends to take
  • What pre-conditions should be met before access to the school is restored.
  • Where an employee’s property is damaged, compensation should be paid through the extended school protection policy.

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