Union backs using 'force' against high school students as Ombudsman pushes back

The union representing high school teachers is backing a proposed law change allowing teachers to use "force" to break up fighting students - but the Ombudsman and Children's Commissioner are not convinced.  

The Education and Training Bill introduced to Parliament in December would replace the terms "physically restrain" and "physical restraint" with "physical force" - and there are conflicting views on whether the term "force" is appropriate. 

The Post Primary Teachers' Association's deputy general secretary Yvonne Oldfield told lawmakers on Wednesday students can do "a lot of damage to themselves or others very quickly" and that teachers must be able to defend themselves with force.  

She told the Education and Workforce Committee physical altercations in schools are a "daily occurrence" for high school teachers and that some have spoken of head injuries and being pushed over when intervening in student fights. 

"We see members who are perhaps breaking up a fight between two students who are much bigger than them in a very rapidly evolving situation which makes it very difficult for them... they do need to be able to use physical force."

But Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier said he does not support use of the word "force" and suggested that "physical intervention" would be a better term. 

The Ombudsman said physical force is "too much too soon" and said it strikes him as "old fashion". He said more emphasis should be put on intervention rather than "force". 

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft.
Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft. Photo credit: Newshub

"I would've thought that if we are all best set up to respond to a situation which we can de-escalate and use less force as possible, it's just a more civilised, sophisticated environment in which we're working." 

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft has a similar view, telling Newshub the term force "gives the wrong impression entirely" and that the law already allows restraint. 

"This is a school with young children - it isn't a pub where there's a brawl going on for goodness sake - 'restraint' gets it right and 'force' just gives all the wrong messages."

Oldfield said the union "absolutely does not" support the use of force against students for punishment - only for teachers to break up fights and physical altercations, especially when other students' wellbeing is at risk. 

The Post Primary Teachers' Association's deputy general secretary Yvonne Oldfield.
The Post Primary Teachers' Association's deputy general secretary Yvonne Oldfield. Photo credit: Newshub

David Corner, self-advocacy advisor to the IHC, a New Zealand organisation providing support and care for people of all ages with intellectual disabilities, said he does not support teachers having the right to use force. 

"It's much better to explain things to students in a way they can understand instead of using force," he said, explaining to MPs how the use of force might be used disproportionately against disabled students. 

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman suggested school staff might need to receive more training in intervening in fights, and IHC director of advocacy Trish Grant agreed. She said it's often teacher aides that have to step in. 

Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier.
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. Photo credit: Newshub

Grant said the IHC's main concern is around teachers knowing how to intervene with disabled students and emphasised how schools need to be "safe places for all students" and that disabled students are "particularly vulnerable".

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