When a teacher finds it necessary to use force with a pupil it is essential that they are clear on how to use that force — and how much to use — as well as how to deal with the recording and reporting of the incident afterwards

Deciding how to use force

Passive intervention
If attempts to avoid the use of force or avert a difficult situation have failed, then the teacher or staff member may wish to attempt a passive intervention. For example, if two younger pupils are fighting, it may be that simply stepping between them will be enough to bring the situation to a halt.

Similarly, if a child is trying to leave the school premises when s/he ought not to, the teacher may choose as a first step to block the exit until the child calms down and listens to him or her.

If passive intervention does not work then more active physical steps may be required. In all cases the staff member should try to use the minimum amount of force possible, for as short a time as possible.

If a child is refusing to leave a classroom but is not showing signs of violence, the teacher may simply place a hand on the child’s back and steer, or usher, him or her out of the room.

Restrictive holds
In more extreme cases it may become necessary to use restrictive holds to prevent a pupil from harming him or herself, others or property.

Wherever possible the staff member should seek help from another staff member before attempting this type of physical intervention. This is essential where a teacher is dealing with a large number of disruptive pupils or with an older pupil who may have significant physical strength.

Avoiding harm

It is important not to lose sight of the fact that the teacher should be mindful of his or her own safety, and of that of other pupils affected by the disruptive conduct.

If the teacher does not feel confident that s/he can safely use force or restraint in an extreme situation, the focus should shift to removing other pupils and the teacher from harm.

For example, if a pupil is carrying a knife and is an older, stronger pupil in an aggressive state of mind, then attempting to forcibly remove the weapon may create a greater risk of harm than stepping away and calling the police.

A last resort

The use of physical restraint or force should be a last resort, to be used where there is a very clear risk of a pupil coming to serious harm if the conduct is not stopped. This doesn’t just mean violent situations. If a smaller child on a school trip is misbehaving near a road the teacher would be justified in grabbing the child to prevent him or her from running in front of a vehicle.

Safe techniques

A further factor to take into account is that wherever possible the staff member using force or restraint should try to avoid harming the pupil who is being restrained.

The best way to reduce risk of harm to the pupil is to provide training in safe techniques, and to design strategies for dealing with disruptive children in advance.

In the most extreme situations harming the pupil may be unavoidable, but every effort should be made to keep harm to the minimum.

Case study 1: The knife

Pupil X, who is sometimes disruptive in class, but not known for aggressive behaviour, is overheard bragging to another pupil that he has started to carry a knife. X responds well to his science teacher, Mr A. They have had some constructive discussions about X’s behaviour.

An appropriate course of action in this case could be to take X aside with Mr A and another teacher, possibly the head. X could be asked in a quiet, calm environment if there is any truth to his claim that he is carrying a knife. His record shows no indication that he will be violent when confronted.

If the discussion discloses that X has brought a knife to school, the knife should be removed from him and a report made to the parents and the police.

During the initial discussion with X, both teachers should watch for any signs that X is becoming agitated. They should have decided before the meeting upon a strategy to deal with such behaviour.

The strategy should involve agreement on the point at which they will use force to search X if he will not hand over the knife or if he appears agitated. The plan may simply be to bring the meeting to an end and involve the police to avoid the risk of injury to the teachers.

Recording and reporting

It is vital to record the details of all significance incidents involving the use of force or restraint. The school’s policy should contain a clear statement as to when and how incidents should be recorded.

  • It would be appropriate to record an incident if the use of force or restraint caused injury or distress to a pupil or member of staff.
  • It would also be appropriate to record an incident where the need for physical intervention resulted in the use of restrictive holds or contact beyond simply ushering the child.
  • If an outside agency such as the Police has been involved, the incident should be recorded.

A learning opportunity

Recording of significant incidents provides a number of positive benefits. Analysis of the records provides the school with information about any trends in pupil behaviour that may help with the development of policies and strategies to prevent recurrence.

There will be also be an opportunity to learn from each incident. Using the records to discuss whether or not use of force was justified in any given situation allows staff to learn from experience.

Finally, having a full record of what happened is important to help with the defence of any claim that a pupil may make at a later stage.

What should be in the record?
The record should state:

  • who was involved in an incident
  • where it happened
  • how the situation came about
  • what was done to avoid the need to use force
  • how the amount of force required was minimised
  • what force was used
  • what the outcome was

The report should note any injuries to pupils or teachers, or damage to property.

Whom should we report to?

In some cases the incident will have to be reported to outside agencies. For example, an injury to an employee of the school causing an absence of over three days would have to be reported to the Health and Safety Executive.

It may be necessary to inform the parents that force or restraint has been used. Having a full record of what happened will help the head teacher to discuss the incident with parents. The report will also help the head to decide what, if any, support is required after the event for the teacher, pupil or parents.

In cases of physical violence the school may want to report the matter to the police. A pupil causing deliberate injury to another pupil or a teacher has probably committed the criminal offence of assault.

After the incident

Any incident where force or restraint has been necessary is distressing. Pupils or staff may have been injured. In the aftermath, the priority will always be to provide first aid or call for emergency medical help for anybody who has been hurt.

Once the dust has settled, it is important that the school provide the necessary emotional support. The pupil’s parents may be concerned about the school’s actions. A face-to-face meeting to discuss what has happened and to involve parents in decisions about how to support the pupil is best practice.

If this is the first time that the pupil has behaved in such an extreme manner, then the meeting will also be a good opportunity to discuss with parents a strategy to prevent, or deal with, any recurrence.

The school should decide whether it needs to discuss the pupil’s behaviour with any outside agency. This could mean social workers or a local youth offending team as appropriate.

The pupils’s behaviour may also give rise to disciplinary issues. The physical intervention should never be a punishment but the child should be held to account for his or her behaviour. In some extreme cases the only appropriate response may be to to exclude.

Case study 2: the record

After the meeting with Pupil X (see case study, above) it turns out that he has not been carrying a knife. His claim was entirely made up. Unfortunately, during the meeting X failed to admit this — so the head teacher and Mr A carried out a search. Pupil X is very upset by this, as are his parents.

This situation will require careful handling. The schools should make a full record of the circumstances leading to the search. This should note all the information available that formed the basis of the teachers’ decision to act upon the suspicion that X had a weapon. This should include a note of the answers X gave when questioned about the allegation. 

A meeting with X and his parents to discuss the events will be essential — and given X’s conduct, it would be appropriate to discuss disciplinary action to avoid any repetition.

The possibility of a complaint by the parents should not interfere with the teachers’ decision about disciplining Pupil X, given the very serious nature of his conduct.

Complaints and allegations

The school should make clear to parents and pupils that they have a right to complain about the teacher or staff member’s actions where force or restraint has been used.

The head teacher is likely to be the first to respond to a complaint. The pupil may take an allegation to an outside agency, even the police. Schools should have a procedure for dealing with a complaint that is made in this way.

A tough call

The DCSF guidance aims to clarify the situations in which school staff can use force. Deciding whether or not to use force, and to what extent, remains fraught with difficulty and calls for a very difficult judgement.

The best way to protect your teachers, pupils and school is to be prepared. Analyse the risks and prepare a detailed policy document. Design strategies and train your staff to ensure that they are equipped to make these decisions.

Claire Anderson is an associate in the litigation division of Morton Fraser

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