Can a teacher refuse work if faced with a violent student?

The student had to have both an education assistant and an early childhood educator present while in class.
The student had to have both an education assistant and an early childhood educator present while in class. iStock.

Picture this: you’re a teacher and have a student that is known to be physically violent.

Should you be able to refuse work in such a situation?

That is exactly what the Ontario Labour Relations Board tribunal was trying to determine in a February 2016 hearing in Toronto, which involved a student who had a “history of violent behaviour.”

The student in question had to have both an education assistant and an early childhood educator present while in class due to safety reasons.

See: When can an employee refuse work?

On January 16, 2015 the assistant was away and the student started hitting and pushing students and staff. The teacher made the decision to evacuate the students while the student remained in the classroom with the substitution educational assistant. Through a window in the door, the teacher also saw the student hitting the substitute and throwing objects at the door.

The teacher then told the principal she was refusing unsafe work and continued that refusal into the next school day.

The teacher’s refusal was based on the Occupational Health and Safety Act which states that: “a worker may refuse to work or do particular work where he or she has reason to believe that. . .workplace violence is likely to endanger himself or herself. . .”

However, an Ontario Ministry of Labour inspector got involved in the case and didn’t believe the teacher should have been able to refuse the work. The inspector issued an order not accepting the teacher’s refusal. The teacher’s union objected to the inspector’s order and brought the issue before the tribunal.

During the hearing, the inspector relied on an OHSA regulation which says that if students are in “imminent jeopardy” then a teacher cannot refuse work.

If the violent student is allowed to remain in the classroom, why should the teacher be required to put herself in the path of his violence?

In the end, the tribunal got stuck on the question whether there was indeed an “imminent danger” to the other students and ordered a full hearing, which is upcoming, to determine whether the teacher’s refusal was valid.

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