Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Public servants must be safe from violence

Last year, there were 432 assaults, 156 of them physical, against ambulance staff. And the figures for this year already are alarming, with 130 assaults, 46 of them physical (Peter Byrne/ PA)
Last year, there were 432 assaults, 156 of them physical, against ambulance staff. And the figures for this year already are alarming, with 130 assaults, 46 of them physical (Peter Byrne/ PA)

Editor's Viewpoint

Two of the most important groups of public servants are school teachers and paramedics. The former prepare their pupils for life, the latter often save people's lives.

Yet both, instead of receiving unqualified gratitude for the job they do, frequently face abuse, both physical and verbal. The statistics are absolutely shocking.

Last year, there were 432 assaults, 156 of them physical, against ambulance staff. And the figures for this year already are alarming, with 130 assaults, 46 of them physical.

The situation in the classrooms is even more worrying, with one in three education workers being physically attacked each year and 83% verbally abused.

But statistics, no matter how high, do not impact as greatly as the individual stories of some of those who have been assaulted. A female Tyrone paramedic was repeatedly punched by a patient who had been transported to hospital and as a result has been forced to take leave.

She was saved from further harm when colleagues came to her rescue. This was a truly terrifying experience for the woman concerned.

And a female teacher was told she would be 'stabbed in her pregnant belly' - incredibly the offender was a seven-year-old child.

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In another case, an experienced teacher was pinned to the wall by a P7 pupil.

No one should have to go to work each day wondering if they will be physically or verbally abused. That constant worry must affect the mental health of those who experience it.

But what can be done to help those in the front line? Suspension for the most unruly children might appear to be one answer but in 2016/17, 4,084 pupils, 286 of them of primary school age, were suspended and yet the level of attacks is sustained.

The Ulster Teachers Union, which is holding its annual conference today, says it intends to work closely with the PSNI to curb the epidemic of assaults before there is a real tragedy. That, unfortunately, does not appear to be fearmongering.

A similar approach with a zero tolerance policy needs to be applied throughout the health service. Paramedics often have to go into challenging situations and must be assured that if they suffer any abuse the offenders will be dealt with severely.

Society cannot allow its teachers and health workers to be at the mercy of thuggish behaviour.

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