School principals increasingly exposed to stress and violence, national survey finds.

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By Penny Timms

The level of stress and violence Australian principals are exposed to is continuing to grow, according to a national survey of the heads of independent and state-run schools.

Increased workloads, threats of violence from parents, and a lack of support staff have prompted warnings that without proper intervention, the industry could see principals leave.

Phil Seymour, the principal of Hayes Park Public School near Wollongong, said while he was thankful he had never been physically attacked on the job, he had still witnessed some worrying incidents.

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“We did have one tough one, years ago, when FACS (Department of Family and Community Services) came into withdraw children from their parents, on the school site,” Mr Seymour said.

“The father found out about it and was there and we had to call the police in the end — it was really not something you’d like to go through every day.”

Mr Seymour, who has been teaching for four decades — half of that as a principal — said a constantly increasing workload meant he was spending more time filling out paperwork, which was leading to stress.

“The stress related to mental health issues have certainly grown in the time I’ve been a principal, or in teaching,” he said.

Threats from parents on the rise.

Mr Seymour’s experience fits with the findings of the annual Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey, released today.

The survey, now in its sixth year and completed by two thirds of school principals, found the number of participants reporting being threatened was up 6 per cent from 38 per cent in 2011.

Dennis Yarrington, president of the Australian Primary Principals Association, said many threats came from the parents of students.

“We’ve seen, and certainly I have seen, where people become angry and just revert to violence or threats of violence,” Mr Yarrington said.

“People are starting to use social media to bully or intimidate principals because either a decision hasn’t gone their way or something has happened and they’re not happy.”

According to Mr Yarrington, without better support services principals will leave the industry or worse.

“Initially you are certainly emotionally upset, but at the same time you put on a brave face because a school wants to see their principal is able to deal with these things,” he said.

“What happens is principals will go home and if they’ve got a supportive family or network they’re able to debrief and express some of that frustration and anger out in appropriate ways.

“It can be very draining on your emotional state — we’ve seen an increase in those red flags of people either retiring, leaving the service, or unfortunately taking an ultimate step to end their life.”

In December 2014, a well-respected Melbourne principal, Mark Thompson, had been dealing with a parent complaint shortly before he took his own life.

An investigation concluded work-related stress contributed to his death.

Mental health concerns for school principals.

The survey’s author, Associate Professor Philip Riley, said mental health concerns and other personal problems were on the rise.

“Sleeping problems [are at a rate] 2.2 times the general population, depression’s at nearly double, burn-out’s nearly double, stress, traumatic stress — all of the sort of indicators that somebody’s not coping very well, they’re alive and well in principals,” he said.

He said part of the problem was trust in the education system was being eroded, and showed little sign of easing without intervention.

“The big thing I think we need to do is probably have some kind of national summit on just looking at these figures and saying ‘This is nobody’s fault, we’ve kind of got here by mistake, but how do we get ourselves out of this?’

“We need a lot of wise heads around the table and try to de-politicise it and talk about the real issues that are there.”

This post originally appeared on ABC News.


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