By Jennifer Lewington
Photography: Anya Chibis; Illustration: Katy Lemay/Anna Goodson
In early September, before setting foot in the Grade 9 science lab at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary School in St. Catharines, Hannah and her classmates must pass a new online safety test. For one question, Hannah and lab partner Jordan examine a picture of a lab with unsafe goings-on: a student stands on an unsteady stool, flames shoot from an unattended Bunsen burner and a shattered test tube lies on a counter.
The students get it. “Sometimes you are using dangerous chemicals or substances so you need to make sure you are safe and hazard-free,” Hannah says. Adds Jordan: “We have to know how to work with all of this stuff so we don’t have an accident.”
The online safety test is one of several initiatives introduced this fall by the District School Board of Niagara to sharpen its focus on a cornerstone responsibility for all schools: the health and safety of students and staff.
Though not alone, the board is seen as a leader in pushing for greater consistency and vigilance when it comes to managing potentially high-risk activities in technology classes, science labs, athletics and the sports field. In fact, the board was recognized last year for “outstanding achievement” on safety by the School Boards’ Co-operative Inc., a not-for-profit organization that advises 60 Ontario school boards on workers’ compensation.
“We are moving toward that culture of safety-mindedness,” says Frank Kelly, OCT, executive director of the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, a partner in the Ontario Ministry of Education’s year-old Student Injury Prevention Initiative. “That is our goal, but we are not there.”
Recent incidents have raised the profile of health and safety as hot-button issues. In 2011, Eric Leighton, a Grade 12 student in the Ottawa Catholic School Board, was killed in a shop class explosion when he used a grinder to cut open a barrel to make a barbecue. Earlier this year, a coroner’s inquest issued sweeping recommendations directed at Ontario government ministries, school boards and others, with responses due in April 2015.
In September, the Ontario Education Ministry announced a health and safety working group to act on the jury’s 22 recommendations. “It’s a signal that we are ready and know we are needed to step in to facilitate an approach that is going to bring more safety-mindedness to the 5,000 schools across the province,” says a senior Ministry official.
Meanwhile, with a growing body of research on youth brain trauma, the Ministry of Education earlier this year directed school boards to implement concussion prevention strategies by January 30, 2015.
“This is no longer a sport problem or a doctor’s problem; this is a public health problem,” says Dr. Paul Echlin, a sports physician, concussion expert and a Ministry adviser on concussions. “It is not just about the children who play hockey; it is about who gets injured on the playground.”
In 2011, sports-related concussions accounted for 59 per cent of incidents reported by schools to the Ontario School Boards’ Insurance Exchange (OSBIE), a member-owned and operated non-profit that provides insurance coverage and risk prevention training. The second-most frequent injury was slips and falls, which sometimes result in fractures, accounting for 21 per cent of all incidents.
Despite almost 96,000 school safety incidents reported to OSBIE in 2013 — 95 per cent involving students — school fatalities are rare. In the past 34 years, the Office of the Ontario Coroner has conducted only four school-related inquests, often to “shine the light” on deficiencies, says Dr. William Lucas, interim deputy chief coroner for inquests.
Fatal incidents, when they occur, can shake the education system to its core. The inquiry into Leighton’s death, says Dr. Lucas, was “an opportunity not only for Ottawa Catholic to learn but for all other school boards across Ontario and the country to say ‘maybe it’s time we re-examined and re-evaluated our approach.’”
The coroner’s jury heard that no one at the school understood the risks of the heat generated by grinding on a closed container or the dangers of a cleaner used to remove peppermint oil from the barrel. The jury urged adoption of board-approved lists of student projects, annual inspections, enhanced safety guidelines, teacher training and a possible ban on the kind of hot work project that killed Leighton.
Ottawa Catholic director of education Julian Hanlon, OCT, says the student’s death “has had a huge impact” in raising awareness about safety. “I know in talking to my fellow directors it is on the top of everyone’s agenda.” His board responded with tighter safety guidelines, revised manuals, added training and a new permit system for hot work projects.
Responding to the death, the Ontario Ministry of Labour carried out school inspections that revealed widespread deficiencies. In 2011–12, the ministry toured senior elementary and high school shop classes and science labs at more than 900 locations, issuing 6,658 citations that included 283 “stop work” orders for missing or damaged guards on equipment and unsafe ladders and lifting devices. A follow-up blitz of more than 380 schools last year generated 1,739 citations, of which 60 were stop-work orders.
In its Student Injury Prevention Initiative, the Ontario Ministry of Education provided $9 million last year and $6 million this year for schools to address deficiencies, update equipment and expand training.
Even before the Leighton incident, some boards had centralized rules on health and safety in place. That trend accelerated with one-time ministry funding and a proliferation of new safety guidelines, recommended classroom projects, online training and other material from the Council of Ontario Directors of Education, the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association and other subject-specific organizations.
Still, concerns remain about sustainable funding for repairs, training and inconsistent board practices. “We are much further ahead than we were back in 2011,” says John Bryden, director of health and safety services for School Boards’ Co-operative Inc. But he warns: “The safety culture within the school board system can be improved.”
As part of its mandate, OSBIE conducts on-site risk management audits of members to measure their performance against best practices. Since introduction of OSBIE’s Human Element Loss Prevention Program in the late 1990s, school boards have steadily raised their safety scores, with a provincewide compliance rate of 89 per cent out of 100 per cent in 2014.
“This [improved record] demonstrates the ongoing commitment to good risk management practices because risk management is good business management,” says David Beal, director of risk management for OSBIE, though he acknowledges there is still room for improvement.
Ultimately, responsibility for a safe school environment lies with the principal.
“That is a constant,” says Karen Dalton, OCT, associate director of learning support services for the Thames Valley District School Board. “What has changed is a more concentrated, systematic, co-ordinated effort to be more proactive and consistent as to how we manage [safety] from site to site.”
Last year, her board introduced an online tool for teachers of technology, science and family studies to inspect the safety of their classrooms. Science teachers now have a common guide on storage and labelling of chemicals. “Everything is consistent,” says Dalton. “That was not the case a year and a half ago.”
Tighter safety practices on a wide range of issues — bullying, student allergies, fractures and concussions, workplace violence, handling of hazardous chemicals and lockdown procedures — are the new reality for school officials.
“There is so much more on our plate. It’s overwhelming with all the paperwork,” observes Tilbury Area Public School principal Kenneth Gregory, OCT, a school administrator with the Lambton Kent District School Board for the past 26 years. “The focus has to be on being proactive and creating a school climate that is [safe] and where children can learn. At the same time you have to be prepared and know what to do [in case of an incident].”
He estimates that his current school of 420 students from kindergarten to Grade 8 experiences between six and 12 incidents of concussion or fractures in a year on the playground, sports field or due to bad weather conditions. Playground equipment, for example, is inspected annually by the board.
Technology has become a key tool, says Gregory, in managing safety legislation and regulations. (For a list of these, please see the “Requirements and Training” sidebar below.) For example, Lambton Kent school staff receives online training, with electronic records kept by the board to assist principals in managing their safety obligations.
For elementary principals, the presence of preschool and kindergarten children in some schools pose special challenges: for example, ensuring compliance with provincial legislation such as Sabrina’s Law. The law, which took effect in 2006, calls for school board prevention policies on anaphylactic shock, a life-threatening allergic reaction from peanuts, bee stings and other sources.
“I might have three-year-olds walking into my building and their ability to manage [severe allergies] is very different from a high school student who has been living with them for many years,” says Peter Creer, OCT, principal of Williamsburg Public School in Whitby. He says 38 of the school’s 720 students (kindergarten to Grade 8) are diagnosed with severe allergies, requiring them to carry epinephrine auto injectors.
In addition to regular staff training, the school office is a central repository for detailed information — including a photograph — about each child, the diagnosed allergy and required medication.
“We have to make sure we have the most accurate information when it comes to every student,” says Creer. With full-day kindergarten now in place at his school, along with pre- and post-school programs by child care operators, Creer says there is an even greater imperative to be “synchronized” on safety procedures. “I hope the [safety practices] we put in place will flow no matter which person is responsible for them,” he says. “If it is our lunchroom supervisors, they need to know our procedures. If it is the daycare [operators] they need to know too.”
Pressure for increased consistency is part of a “whole mindset” change for school officials, says veteran administrator and former tech class teacher Roch Gallien, OCT, director of the Conseil scolaire public de district du Nord-Est de l’Ontario. “Where things were a little more haphazard and loose, now we are making sure the mindset is about safety,” he says.
For his board — geographically vast with a scattered population of 2,070 francophone students — the challenge is to provide adequate French-language resources and access to training. With other French-language boards, Nord-Est has developed online videos on safety procedures and best practices.
At the Niagara board, a commitment to consistency to reduce injuries and lawsuits took hold three years ago. “Instead of taking a heavy hand with administrators, we needed to have things in place to support them,” says health and safety officer Michael Langlois, responsible for staff and student safety issues.
This fall, the board released teacher-drafted safety manuals for all science and technology courses, with a checklist of emergency procedures and approved practices for storage and the handling of chemicals and other potential hazards. In addition, all science and tech students must pass new online proficiency tests and, with their parents, sign contracts committing to safety-mindedness.
“Now we have the ability to electronically keep tabs on every single student and, at the same time, we also have consistency on what is being delivered to the students,” says Langlois.
Veteran teacher Julie Bédard, OCT, the science program leader at Sir Winston Churchill, notes the vast improvement in safety when it comes to the storage of chemicals and other hazardous materials today compared to 20 years ago. Now all schools must keep an inventory of chemicals under lock and key, outside the classroom, and follow common procedures on hazardous materials. At Sir Winston Churchill, where science classrooms were recently updated for safety, each room has an eye-wash stand for students accidently splashed with a chemical.
Last summer, Bédard and other teachers drafted a proposed manual for Grade 9 and 10 science labs, with one planned for Grade 11 and 12 next summer. The Grade 9–10 manual, piloted this fall at Sir Winston Churchill and several other schools, lists approved experiments, quantities of chemical solutions and other guidelines for teachers. “We are trying to make the labs fun, exciting and engaging but at the same time keeping safety in mind,” she says.
Sometimes that’s a challenge. For example, the proposed board manual bans a popular whoosh bottle demonstration of the combustion reaction when alcohol and air ignite inside a plastic bottle. Performed incorrectly, the showy experiment has caused student injuries in several jurisdictions.
“It is a huge tug-of-war,” says Sir Winston Churchill science teacher Tisha Barnes, OCT, of the tension between safety and learning. “Often times it is the wow factor that falls away because you can’t come up with a way to do it safely.” She says teachers have to muster their professional ingenuity, using less dramatic experiments to capture student interest. “The wow factor is not worth a fatality.”
Unlike health and safety, concussion prevention is new phenomenon for schools.
“There’s been a breakthrough in terms of awareness,” says Thames Valley District School Board trustee Peter Jaffe, a professor at Western University’s faculty of education who teaches a course on school safety. “People never really focused on concussions the way they do now because of the emerging research, concerns about students’ health and well-being, and a growing sense about potential board liability in this area.”
Recent fatalities have raised awareness about the risk of youth head traumas.
In May 2013, 17-year-old Ottawa-Carleton District School Board student Rowan Stringer died from a head injury — apparently her second in a week — suffered in a school rugby game.
After reviewing its practices, the board introduced a concussion procedure this fall to guide schools on a student’s medically approved return to class and sports. “We are removing the option of having teachers make judgment calls on the sports field as to whether students are ready to return or not,” says associate director Walter Piovesan, OCT. The board is also testing a device for coaches to monitor hits suffered by players of high-impact sports.
An early adopter of a systemic approach to concussion prevention is the Halton District School Board, which introduced its protocol in 2009. This fall, the board incorporated the topic as a mandatory component of the Grade 9 physical education curriculum, with a rollout planned for Grade 3 and 6.
The Halton Student Concussion Education Program, developed in co-operation with Dr. Echlin, the concussion expert, includes an online learning module used in the classroom.
In a second-floor classroom at Dr. Frank J. Hayden Secondary School in Burlington, Grade 9 teacher Krista Caron, OCT, organizes her all-girl class in teams to work on the module’s multiple-choice questions that separate fact from fiction on concussion. At the end of the activity, the teams share what they have learned through a skit, poem or speech.
Chantel, a 14-year-old student at the school, suffered a concussion two years ago playing rugby. She says the module taught her to speak up if friends brush off a head injury, which can be less obvious than a fracture. “Now I know a lot more about what the side effects could be,” she says.
Caron, program leader for Healthy Active Living at Hayden, helped pilot the module last year and sees it as a tool to change attitudes about brain trauma. “The biggest impact is when students learn something new and they talk about it with their parents,” she says. “They also change their actions.”
Halton offers the module free to other boards, says Patricia Jo-Anne Walsh, OCT, the board’s former instructional program leader for health and physical education who co-led its development. She hopes the module will boost teacher confidence in providing concussion education to their students.
Back at Sir Winston Churchill, his safety test completed, Spencer, a Grade 10 technology student, looks on as tech teacher Roberto Busca, OCT, demonstrates the safe operation of a belt sander to the class.
“You have to go over the safety rules every year no matter how much you know,” he says. “You need to pay attention to the rules.” With files from Annik Chalifour.
School teachers and administrators are governed by a variety of laws and regulations on health and safety in schools:
Sources: Ontario College of Teachers, Ontario Ministry of Education, Ontario Ministry of Labour, school board officials.
In April 2013, the Ontario College of Teachers published a professional advisory on student safety. “Safety in Learning Environments: A Shared Responsibility” serves as a reminder to OCTs that they are responsible for ensuring safe learning environments for their students. Consult the advisory, which can be found at bit.ly/112QPE4, for information about safety legislation, your professional responsibilities and how to minimize safety risks.