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Ottawa educators offered padded shirts, arm and shin guards to protect themselves from violent students

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Educators at Ottawa’s English school boards can wear shin and forearm guards, foam-padded jackets and reinforced gloves to protect themselves from students who bite, kick, scratch and punch.

The “personal protective equipment” is employed as a last resort, say spokespeople for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board.

Currently, about 45 educators in the English public board use the equipment, mainly educational assistants, says spokesperson Sharlene Hunter. Educational assistants help children with special needs and behaviour problems.

The Catholic board maintains a “wide inventory” of protective equipment, says spokesperson Mardi de Kemp. It’s usually employed on a temporary basis or for a specific period of time, she says. Board officials did not have information on how many staff are currently using protective equipment.

The use of personal protective equipment at schools has been steadily increasing across Ontario, says Laura Walton, president of a union that represents 55,000 educational assistants and other educators in the province’s four school systems. “We’ve had it for a long time, but It’s just becoming more and more prevalent.”

Violence among school children appears to be on the rise, says Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions. Her assessment, based on anecdotal evidence, is shared by Martha Hradowy, an executive with another major union that represents educational assistants and early childhood educators as well as high school teachers.

An educator at a school in southwestern Ontario who wears a padded vest and face protection to protect her from violent students. photo supplied by the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation / jpg

School boards are also reacting to changes in Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, made to ensure employers protect staff from violence in the workplace, Hradowy says.

The union representing elementary teachers has also raised the alarm about aggressive children, saying it has become a key issue for their members.

At the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, the number of violent incidents educators reported experiencing personally has increased dramatically over the past three years, from 1,909 incidents in 2015-16 to 3,746 incidents in 2017-18.

In the first seven months of this school year, 4,223 incidents were reported. That may be due partly to more reporting after the board switched to an electronic system this school year.

StealthWear Protective Clothing, a Toronto company specializing in equipment for educators, now sells its products to most school boards in the province, says president Aaron Wood.

The black jacket has sewn-in foam inserts in the arms and chest, as well as pockets for inserting extra foam pieces into the abdomen and back. Stealthwear Clothing / jpg

His company supplies the Ottawa Catholic School Board and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

StealthWear looks more like sports garb than riot gear.

That’s deliberate. It’s designed to look as much like ordinary clothing as possible, says Wood.

He started the company in 2011 because there were virtually no protective products designed for educators, he said.

The equipment is not made with Kevlar, the super-strong fibre often used in bullet-proof vests and combat helmets.

StealthWear uses breathable, high-impact foam encased in plastic, which “provides excellent resistance to pinches, bites, scratches and hits,” says the website.

The $174.95 StealthWear black jacket has foam inserts sewn into the places educators said they are most likely to be attacked: the upper arms and chest. Pockets in the jacket allow inserts to be added in the abdomen, back and underarms.

The company also sells shin guards, forearm protectors and two types of gloves: a thermo-plastic rubber model that resists blunt force and an abrasion-resistant glove for protection from scratches and nail gouging.

Wood says the garments use technology common in sportswear brands, such as moisture-wicking CoolMax fabric.

These StealthWear reinforced gloves are touch-screen sensitive. Rick Katigbak rick@rkphoto.ca +1 514 889-7132 / jpg

StealthWear equipment is an improvement, says Walton, who remembers in the past educators improvising with soccer shin guards and protective gear for BMX bikers.

Everyone wants protective clothing that doesn’t stand out, so children don’t feel threatened or intimidated. “I don’t think schools want us to walk around looking like a linebacker,” says Walton.

However, protective gear can be hot, especially in the summer, she says. Some schools have installed portable air conditioners or provided extra breaks to educators who must wear it. “In May and June when the schools are hot, there aren’t a lot of people wanting to put on a black jacket.”

And while protective jackets “are good if you have a biter, when it comes to strikes or blows or punches, the padding doesn’t always absorb the shock,” says Walton.

The gear can also make educators a target, since some students with sensory issues like the feeling of punching or pinching the foam, she says.

The armguards by StealthWear are padded with foam encased in plastic. Credit: StealthWear Protective Clothing. Rick Katigbak rick@rkphoto.ca +1 514 889-7132 / jpg

An educational assistant at the Ottawa Catholic School Board says she was offered forearm protectors after being attacked by a high school student.

This newspaper is not revealing the woman’s name because she does not want the student to be identified.

The woman says she declined the protection, partly because she feared that if she started wearing the equipment it would be required permanently.

In addition, a behaviour specialist called in after the attack told her the student would probably just aim his punch higher on her arm if she wore a forearm protector, she says.

The student is high-needs and can be violent. He is integrated into a regular classroom, but has two educational assistants with him at all times, she says.

“He’s a very challenging student. Throwing chairs, flipping desks, hitting, kicking … ”

Sometimes when he becomes aggressive the classroom is evacuated, with the other students leaving for their own safety, she says.

There is also a “quiet room,” where he can stay on his own, sometimes while staff hold the door shut. The student will often walk there himself, but if he becomes violent staff have locked down the school, preventing other students from entering the hallways as he is escorted to the quiet room, she says.

She says he attacked her one day after she opened the door to the quiet room. The student jumped on her, grabbing her arm so tightly she was left with multiple bruises and swelling. “I had to pry him off … it was almost like a wrestling match.” She was able to fend him off long enough to radio for help.

The woman said when she began her job as an educational assistant more than a decade ago, she would often help students with academics as well as their medical needs and behaviour.

Now her job is primarily dealing with behaviour problems. “There is more hitting, kicking, punching — and I don’t know the reason why.”

“I still love it,” she says. “I still see successes and I’m excited for some of the kids … But it’s draining, every day.”

Protective equipment is a last resort, say local school board officials.

The Catholic board develops a behaviour plan for aggressive students, and intervention without specialized equipment is “preferred and often has the best result,” De Kemp said in a statement.

At the public board, protective equipment is used in “limited circumstances where it is required after other reasonable measures have been considered and implemented,” Hunter said in a statement.

That would usually include developing a “safety plan” for a student that identifies triggers for aggressive behaviour and develops strategies for staff to both prevent and respond to incidents; training staff in behaviour management and non-violent crisis intervention; and making sure staff have communications devices to call for help, says the statement.

A spokesperson for the French-language Catholic schools in Ottawa says the board does not use protective equipment. At the French-language public school board, a spokesperson said officials are “doing a pilot project with various types of equipment.”

Across the province, Walton says educators are facing increasingly diverse classrooms that incorporate children with special needs.

More support is required, but it’s not always available, she says.

Some school boards offer protective equipment as a “quick fix” after an educator is injured rather than spending the time and resources required to figure out the problem and provide more support to the child, she says.

“If you come and say that a student bit you, and you have to go to the hospital and get a tetanus shot, that’s a WSIB (Workplace Safety and Insurance Board) claim against the board.

“It’s so much easier for (the board) to assign you an armguard than it is to really do a deep dive and understand … Are you providing sufficient programming? Are you meeting the needs of the student? In the majority of cases, the violence has been an outcome of an unaddressed need.”

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Virtual farmer’s market comes to Ottawa

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Ottawa first-ever virtual farmer’s market has begun delivering food from local farms straight to people’s homes.

Farm to Hand is making it easier for people who cannot access their local farmer’s markets to find local, fresh organic food by bringing ordered food right to their doors. 

“The difference between us and the farmers market is really just the convenience and the on-demandness,” Sean Mallia, the co-founder of the business, told CBC Radio’s In Town and Out.

“[Often times a] person wants to make the purchase but they don’t have the time on Saturdays to go to the farmers market. Everyone wants to eat local … so when it’s easy for them to do it, it just happens.” In Town and Out No time to drive to the farmer’s market but really want to eat local?

Connecting farmers with people 

The online platform allows farmers to list all their own products, and buyers can have the goods delivered. 

“What we really are trying to do is build that connection between farmer and consumer,” Mallia said. “When people fill up a cart … they’re not just filling a cart full of food, they’re filling a cart full of farmers and farms and their stories.”

Mallia said the aim is to connect people to the “vibrant food ecosystem” around them, and to local support farmers.

The virtual market is currently limited to the Ottawa area as a pilot project, but Mallia, 21, said the company is looking to expand.

“[We chose Ottawa because] Ottawa really cares. Ottawa really thinks about local [food] and thinks about sustainability,” he said. “It just made sense to come out of Ottawa.”

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Denley: Stonebridge and Mattamy show compromise is possible over development in Ottawa

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In Ottawa, development proposals too often end up in acrimony and trips to the provincial planning tribunal. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see Mattamy Homes and residents of the south Nepean suburb of Stonebridge work together to resolve a dispute in a way that’s likely to lead to a victory for both sides.

A little over a year ago, Mattamy created an uproar in the golf course community when it announced a plan to build 158 new homes on golf course lands and alter the Stonebridge course to make it shorter and less attractive to golfers. To residents, it looked like the first step in a plan to turn most, or all, of the course into housing.

It’s easy to see why residents were upset. When people pay a premium for a lot backing onto a golf course, there is certainly an implication that the lot will continue to back onto a golf course, but without a legally binding guarantee, it’s no sure thing.

Mattamy’s situation was understandable, too. This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive, doubly so when the golf course is owned by a development company.

This is a tough time to be in the golf course business in Ottawa. There are too many courses and not enough golfers so it’s no surprise that golf course owners would find the idea of turning a course into a housing development to be attractive.

In the face of the local opposition, Mattamy withdrew its development application. When things cooled down, the company, the neighbours and the city started to work together on finding a solution that would satisfy everyone.

With the city-sponsored help of veteran planning consultant Jack Stirling, they came up with an unusual idea that will still let Mattamy develop its desired number of homes, in exchange for a promise to operate the course for at least 10 years and redesign it so that it remains attractive to golfers.

At the end of the 10 years, Mattamy can sell the course to the community for $6 million. To raise the money, the community working group is proposing a special levy to be paid by Stonebridge homeowners starting in 2021. The amount will range from $175 a year to $475 a year, depending on property values.

If the deal is approved by a majority of homeowners, Mattamy gets its development and a way out of the money-losing golf business. Homeowners get certainty about no future development. They can choose to keep the course going or retain the 198 acres as green space. It’s not a cheap solution, but it keeps their community as it is and preserves property values.

If a majority of homeowners backs the deal, both the levy and redevelopment will still need to be approved by the city, something scheduled for late this fall.

Stonebridge Community Association president Jay McLean was part of the working group that prepared the proposal and he’s pleased with the outcome. The community’s number one goal was preserving green space, and the deal will accomplish that, he says. Mattamy division president Kevin O’Shea says the deal “gives the community the certainty they are looking for.”

As useful as this deal could be for Stonebridge residents, it doesn’t provide a template to resolve a somewhat similar dispute in Kanata North, where the owner of the Kanata Lakes golf course wants to work with a group of local developers to replace the course with housing. In Kanata, a longstanding legal agreement saying the community has to have 40 per cent open space strengthens residents’ situation. In Stonebridge, there was no legal impediment to developing the whole course.

Golf course communities have become an anachronism in a city intent on intensifying within the urban boundary. Redeveloping those lands for housing is in sync with the city’s planning goals, but it’s not politically saleable to homeowners who thought they had a deal. If it goes ahead, the Stonebridge plan shows there is a reasonable middle ground.

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City eyes five big themes for Ottawa’s new official plan

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As Ottawa maps out its future for the next 25-plus years, city staff propose focusing on five major areas, including the places we live and the ways we move around the capital.

A staff report to the city’s planning committee lays out five themes for future public consultations, before city council finalizes the plan.

1. Growth Management: City staff say Ottawa should focus on building up, rather than out. Staff also suggest the city provide direction on the type of new housing developments, rather than focusing on the number of units in a development, to encourage a wider variety of housing types.

2. Mobility: Staff say the city should encourage active transportation — like walking and cycling — and transit use by better co-ordinating land use and transportation planning. The report also encourages designing streets to better accomodate pedestrians and cyclists, as well as improving connections to the O-Train and Transitway.

3.  Urban and Community Design: Because Ottawa is a major city and the nation’s capital, staff say the design of our city’s buildings and skyline should be a higher calibre to reflect that status. Staff also suggest the city provide high-level direction for better designed parks and public spaces.

4. Climate, Energy and Public Health: Staff say residents’ health must be foundational to the city’s new official plan, with policies contributing to creating more inclusive, walkable, and sustainable communities.

5. Economic Development: Because much of Ottawa’s employment is knowledge-based, the city suggests those employment spaces could be better integrated into neighbourhoods and along main streets and transit nodes, instead of being isolated in business parks. City staff also suggest the city encourage more business incubation and identify opportunities to increase local food production.

The city’s new official plan will map out the city’s growth to 2046. The five themes and the plan’s high-level policy direction will go before the city’s planning committee, next week.

Public consultation and fine-tuning is expected to happen before city council approves the final version of the new official plan in 2021.

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