Psychologists and social workers are on standby on phones to help schools respond to crises including bushfires, burglaries, death or an attack in the schoolyard.
The relatively unknown Incident Support and Operations Centre, located near Spring Street, opened in November as part of a $8.9 million state government package to tackle to aggression and violence in Victorian schools.
Data shows that each Victorian state school reports, on average, between one to two violent incidents per year.
Last year, approximately 2100 violent and aggressive incidents were recorded, with 200 of those leading to police involvement.
While this is up from 1800 incidents the year before, the department attributes this increase to new reporting requirements. It points out that such incidents are relatively rare when the size of Victoria’s 600,000-strong state school population is taken into account.
Education Minister James Merlino said the department was working with police, child protection and welfare agencies to stabilise incidents and address the underlying causes of challenging behaviour.
He said this behaviour often stemmed from family violence and mental health issues.
“We want to ensure that principals and teachers receive support as they handle situations arising at their school – from student welfare issues to natural disasters,” he said.
During emergencies such as the recent Gippsland bushfires and the Campbellfield factory blaze, a crisis team quickly gathered in the incident management room.
Team members slung “planning”, “operations” and “logistics” bibs around their necks and worked out which schools needed to close, liaised with police and firefighters and helped schools communicate with parents.
As well as funding the new centre, the $8.9 million package has been used to train staff to respond to violent incidents and financed a 12-month taskforce that has provided expert advice on how to curb aggression in schools.
The taskforce’s final report warns against relying on suspension to discipline students who have engaged in violent behaviour.
“There is a growing body of research showing that, used on their own, disciplinary approaches can worsen behaviour and have other unintended consequences,” it states.
“For example, Australian-led longitudinal research has shown that a student suspended from school is 70 per cent more likely to engage in violent behaviour at their 12-month follow-up.”
The minister is considering the taskforce’s recommendations, which include rolling out more training for teachers and improving funding arrangements for students with a disability and those with complex needs who are at risk of expulsion.
Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals president Sue Bell, who was among the eight experts on the taskforce, said the new centre provided a “terrific service”.
“You only need to call once to tell your story” she said. “They then pass it onto the relevant person such as a psychologist and then the support kicks in.”
She said schools had previously had to deal with many of these issues by themselves, or found themselves phoning numerous department divisions for help.
Ms Bell said schools had previously received conflicting advice from emergency services and the department about how to respond to an emergency.
In one case, a fire-affected school received contrary advice about whether to continue running the school bus.
“There is nothing like it in any other state,” she said of the new initiative. “We are proud of it. It protects our back.”
Education Editor at The Age