The Return of Laura Marks
After being attacked by a student, Laura Marks isn't quite the same teacher she once was.
Rays of sunlight shoot through the windows of the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, illuminating specks of dust swirling in the spacious, high-ceilinged office of Laura Marks. The 51-year-old teacher of health and physical education fishes two photographs from her handbag and lays them on her desk. One shows a swollen bruise near the base of her spine. The other reveals five fingernail scratches carved into her neck.
The wounds—inflicted by a troubled teenager—have healed; the chronic insomnia that kept Marks up until 4 in the morning has subsided; and she is no longer afraid to leave home. Marks is teaching again, and she's happy to be back.
At this moment in June, she sits upright, smiling, enjoying a break after a morning of proctoring final exams. Playbills are tacked on a wall behind her, advertising Broadway shows such as "Riverdance," "Ragtime," and "Titanic"— mementos she collects to decorate her office. But as she begins to recall the day of the assault, her 5-foot-9-inch frame droops, and the smile fades into a frown. She pauses. Maybe she's hearing the teenager's angry screams. Or her own inner voice warning her not to strike back. Or maybe she's feeling those fingers rip at her hair.
Her lower lip quivers, and tears roll from her hazel eyes. Her voice rocks upward, filling with indignation. "I was embarrassed by it—I was embarrassed by having been beaten up by a student," she says in her distinctive Bronx accent. "I felt betrayed."
Marks was not stabbed, shot, or beaten with a baseball bat—the unfortunate experiences of some teachers. She was not hospitalized; nor did she suffer injuries that left her disabled. But she was viciously attacked. The perpetrator, who had failed one of Marks' classes, was told she wouldn't be permitted to graduate. So on graduation day 2000, she hunted Marks down.
Laura Marks outside
LaGuardia High School in Manhattan, where she teaches health and
Violence is not something usually associated with LaGuardia High. The 2,500- student magnet school attracts kids from across New York City whose priorities are art, music, and theater. On any given day, a visitor might see teenagers bounding across a hardwood floor in ballet class. Or playing violins. Or sculpting. The school is a virtual melting pot of racial and ethnic backgrounds, a mix that Marks counts as one of its strengths. One social studies teacher says that when he first started working at LaGuardia, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven.
The odds are that most of the nation's teachers will never know what it's like to be assaulted by a student. But the reality is, such incidents do occur, even at exceptional schools. Between 1995 and 1999, an estimated 634,700 violent crimes were committed against faculty members at public and private schools. That translates into 29 violent crimes for every 1,000 teachers per year, according to "Indicators of School Crime and Safety 2001," a report released last month by the U.S. departments of Justice and Education. Union officials suggest the numbers are much higher because most assaults go unreported.
Whatever the exact statistics, little, if any, research has been done to examine the psychological effects an assault has on a teacher. Some experts say such incidents spark a confusing blur of emotions, even feelings of guilt: Why me? What did I do to cause this behavior? Others liken these attacks to a child assaulting a parent, a violent betrayal of authority, the ultimate show of disrespect.
Some teachers have filed lawsuits against their attackers. Others have left the profession. Many, like Marks, return after an extended leave. But they, too, wrestle with thoughts of quitting. "It really chips away at the core of a teacher's identity," says Angela Carr, the coordinator of clinical counseling services for the New York- based United Federation of Teachers' victim-support program. "As they heal physically, you hope they won't be so afraid that they don't come back to teaching."
Unfortunately, many who do return are never themselves again, says Carr, who counseled Marks. The more severe the assault and injury, she adds, the more serious the emotional aftershocks. Teachers who are stabbed or shot, for example, are much more likely to leave the job and suffer chronic psychological problems than those whose physical injuries don't demand extensive medical care. Yet even victims who aren't hospitalized face great uncertainty.
"It's a major traumatic experience for a teacher," says Ken Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm based in Cleveland. "The question is, how do you deal with it?"
For Marks, the comeback has been a struggle—one that, initially, kept her holed up in her house.
But time, the support of friends and family, and a foray into the legal system gradually enabled her to work her way back, in January of 2001, to the classroom. What she didn't know then, and couldn't have guessed, was that her state of mind would be severely tested several months later, on a day when the world would turn its attention toward both New York City and Washington.
On the day Marks was assaulted—June 27, 2000— students wearing light-gray caps and gowns formed lines in the elegant second- floor lobby of Avery Fisher Hall in the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which is only a short walk from LaGuardia High. The sounds of Barry Manilow singing live in a nearby courtyard—a crew happened to be taping him for a network TV show—drifted through the walls that morning.
The teachers were dressed for the occasion. Marks was wearing a long tunic and pants flowing with bright blues and purples, an outfit she'd bought before a trip to Morocco. Some of the adults chatted with students. In just a few minutes, they would all enter the hall to the cheers of parents and friends.
Marks shows the
scratches left by the student who attacked her before graduation
ceremonies. Marks had flatly refused to change her failing grade,
which meant the girl could not graduate with her class.
One rookie chemistry teacher, Antonietta Pace, remembers offering tips to kids on how to survive college. Like others, she was caught up in the excitement of the event—that is, until she caught a glimpse of Marks, who was about 15 feet away. She was talking to Tiffany Packer, an attractive 18-year-old who's almost half a foot shorter than Marks. Wearing a floral sundress, Packer appeared to be dressed for the occasion. But, in fact, she'd failed Marks' health class and, therefore, had been denied the privilege of graduating. Packer was convinced that Marks was to blame.
"I had already met with her and explained to her the consequences," Marks recalls one year later. "When it comes to grading, you think long and hard before you fail a senior. You don't just fail a senior. But Tiffany was not even close. She failed exams; she didn't turn in much work; she was absent 50 percent of the time. There was no question she failed."
As it turns out, Packer, who did not return calls for this article, almost flunked three courses, according to Marks. But the student had persuaded one teacher to change her grade from an F to a D. And Marks believes that an administrator (she's not sure who) told Packer that if the health teacher changed her grade, she would be allowed to pass the other class, too.
Paul Saronson, LaGuardia High's principal, would not comment on the incident and its aftermath. But Jeffrey Knorr, a social studies teacher and the school's UFT representative, says: "It seems obvious to me that this kid was told, 'If you can get this teacher to change your grade, you graduate.' With Tiffany, at least one other teacher did change a grade, so that only increased her hostility toward Laura."
In the Lincoln Center lobby, Packer continued to pester Marks. Would she change the grade? "I told her no," Marks says. "But she kept asking. I was starting to get a little nervous. . . . No matter where I went, she dogged me. She was right at my heels. I was looking for a security guard. I smelled trouble coming."
But first, Marks turned to Packer and, one more time, said, "No." Then she began to walk away. That's when the teenager exploded. As she lunged at Marks, Packer screamed, "You bitch, you ruined my life!" recalls Pace, who witnessed the incident.
Packer, she says, grabbed Marks' hair, which was shoulder-length at the time, and yanked the teacher's head forward. Bent over, Marks eyed her purple crystal necklace, which had fallen to the floor. The teenager then punched Marks repeatedly in the back of the neck and head as she continued to clutch the teacher's hair with her other hand. Soon, fingernails were digging into Marks' neck. "I was holding on to my hair with my right hand because I thought she would rip it out of my head," Marks says.
As she tried, in vain, to grab the hand that was punching her, Marks did not consider defending herself. The instinct to protect her students, not hurt them, held her back and left her helpless. "I remember saying over and over in my head: Don't hit her. Don't hit her. Don't hit her," Marks says.
That's when Pace jumped into the fray. "At first, I looked around to see if any male teachers were around to help," she says. "One male teacher saw what was happening and turned his back and walked away. When I see him now, it makes my stomach turn."
The 25-year-old chemistry teacher, who is much smaller than Marks, remembers wedging herself between the two women. Seconds later, a male colleague grabbed Packer from behind. But Marks' hair was still wrapped tightly around the teenager's hand. So Pace had to pry Packer's fingers, one by one, from Marks' hair. She then quickly led her colleague to the opposite end of the hallway to await assistance.
In the confusion, Packer managed to slip free. She wandered into the men's room, came back out, and attempted to enter the graduation hall. "During the whole thing," Pace says, "Tiffany's friends kept telling her, 'This isn't the way to deal with this.' " Finally, security guards escorted the teenager out of the building.
A dazed Marks was eventually taken to one of the Lincoln Center offices, where a police officer asked if she wanted Packer arrested. Marks said, "No." Did she need an ambulance? "No." When another officer started asking questions, Marks, upset and confused, told him, "I have no interest in ruining her life."
A short time later, an assistant principal walked Marks to her car. As she drove to her doctor's office alone, a lump on her head swelled up and a black-and-blue circle fattened near her neck. "I felt physically and psychologically numb," Marks remembers.
Meanwhile, graduation went on as planned. But Pace was troubled. "That was my first year of teaching—I didn't expect that from this kind of school," she says. "I was shocked nobody else went in to help except me and another teacher. That was very upsetting." Indeed, some teachers advised her not to be Wonder Woman the next time something similar occurred. "They were mad at me for putting myself in danger to help," Pace says. "I've been thinking about that a lot. I felt I had no other choice. It was my moral duty as a human being."
The incident makes Pace uneasy for another reason. She has since tried to put herself in Marks' shoes. What if she were to fail a student who was already in danger of not graduating? "If I'm too tough and push the wrong button," Pace says, "this kid could come back and beat the crap out of me."
Arriving at her suburban home bruised and scratched, Marks told her 67-year-old husband, Michael, about the incident and her visit to the doctor. But she was still complaining about the pain, so he drove her back to the physician's office. Later that day, the Markses fielded calls from teachers wanting to check on Laura. Finally, that night, she fell into a deep sleep as the events of the day wormed into her subconsciousness. At 3 a.m., she awoke suddenly; her hands trembled, and knots of fear twisted in her stomach. She'd had a nightmare filled with images from the attack: Packer, her long fingernails, the punches.
Jeffrey Knorr, a
social studies teacher and union representative, says one teacher
did change the student's grade. Next to him is teacher Antonietta
Pace, who came to Marks' aid.
Over the next few months, Marks' life fell into a fitful rhythm. Sleep came in 15- to 30-minute increments. She was thinking too much, wondering if her life as a teacher had been an illusion. She questioned her sense of security in the classroom, her role as an authority figure, her belief that most students appreciate being held accountable. "I would wander the house in the middle of the night," Marks says. "I would lie in bed, staring at the ceiling. I would not relive the incident, but I would lie in bed praying to go to sleep, thinking of all the characters involved. That was my theme song: When am I going to be able to sleep? When is this going to go away?"
Carr, the UFT psychologist, says reactions to assaults vary. Some teachers quit, and others bounce back. But most, she says, experience "a roller coaster of emotions. At first, they're just numb. Then it sinks in—they think obsessively, 'Why did this happen to me?' Then [if they've considered quitting], they mourn the loss of what they were, a teacher." Eventually, most return to the classroom. But, Carr says, "when this happens to a brand-new teacher, it drives them right out of the profession."
Some school-safety experts say that the fear of violence alone is enough to keep prospective teachers away from classrooms. In a survey of 465 deans and career directors at colleges of education across the country, the American Association for Employment in Education reports that school- related violence—not low salaries or overcrowding—has the biggest negative influence on teacher supply.
Other student-behavior problems contribute to such fears. For instance, 12 percent of public school principals reported that verbal abuse of teachers was a moderate to serious problem in their schools, according to "Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996- 97," the most recent Department of Education report on the subject. That percentage may not seem alarming, and reports of verbal assaults remained relatively steady for most of the 1990s. But experts say verbal confrontations can easily escalate into physical attacks. And even after just one teacher is assaulted, the perception of a school's environment is altered.
"You feel safe in a neighborhood until you hear that a neighbor's house has been robbed," says Jerald Newberry, the executive director of the National Education Association's Health Information Network. "It's very similar for teachers in schools where there are no problems and not much anxiety [about being assaulted]. When something does happen, it shifts their feelings of security very quickly and irretrievably."
With the worst behind
her, Marks shares a happy moment with her students. She is
determined to stick with teaching. No student, she vows, will
drive her out of the profession.
Marks says that, after the assault, when she decided to take some time off, she never heard from her principal—a detail that still bothers her. At first, fellow teachers at LaGuardia High, as well as close friends, called regularly. But the calls tapered off after about two months. That got Marks to thinking: Maybe her friends had grown weary of hearing about the attack. Perhaps they were frustrated that it was taking her—a person one friend describes as "upbeat and positive"—so long to recover. Or maybe they didn't want to think about the possibility of the same kind of thing happening to them.
Meanwhile, Marks was a prisoner in her own house. She imagined dangers lurking in places she'd never worried about before. For example, she refused to take her dog, Max, a white terrier, for a walk in her sleepy suburban neighborhood in New Rochelle, N.Y., unless her husband accompanied her. So most of her days were spent inside. At night, her fears were like shadows—turning, twisting, stretching her troubled mind.
Twelve days after the assault, Marks began seeing a psychiatrist. During one session, after he'd suggested that the incident would make her a stronger person, the psychiatrist told her that someday she'd feel like writing a thank-you note to Packer. "At the time, I didn't know what he was talking about—but now," Marks says, "I know what he was getting at."
That summer, in fact, Marks did write letters. She spent hours each day on the computer in the den of her white ranch house, crafting letters to witnesses, friends, school administrators, and other people connected to the incident—everyone except Packer. She'd often pause in the middle of a letter and peer through the windows behind the computer at two 100-year-old beech trees standing like giant sentries in her backyard. At first, she spewed frustration and anger into her letters. Then she toned them down. But she never sent any—and, eventually, she deleted them.
Oddly enough, one source of comfort at the time was an Internet chat room dedicated to movies and actors. Initially, Marks simply read the comments written by others. It was a diversion— some days, the chat room generated as many as 300 messages. Finally, she joined in. "[That] helped me a lot," she recalls. "It was a way to stay connected to the world without being, 'Oh, poor Laura who got attacked.' "
Meanwhile, Michael Marks did all the household chores: laundry, cooking, cleaning, walking the dog. "My husband was saintly," Marks says. "He was so incredibly patient. He never said, 'It's time to move on.' "
Michael, a retired New York City teacher with wavy gray hair and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, says: "I always felt she'd go back to work. She loved her job and the kids. She has a lot of friends there."
Eventually, Michael was right. On Sept. 5, 2000, Laura was evaluated by a psychiatrist for the New York City schools, who granted her line-of-duty pay through Oct. 20, a benefit extended to teachers injured on the job. That same month, she also resumed some of her chores. And with each week, she took on more responsibilities. She even told her husband she could walk Max on her own.
That October, Michael took Laura to Manhattan for the first time in more than three months. But she wasn't up to driving anywhere near LaGuardia High or Lincoln Center. In fact, Marks, who had been told after another psychological evaluation that she was ready to go back to work, was considering not returning to teaching. She'd even begun to draw from her bank of sick days.
"I would get hysterical at the thought of coming back, and I did go to a lawyer to investigate the possibility of seeking permanent disability," Marks says. "But I kept telling the lawyer just to wait. . . . I knew I had to go back."
As Marks recovered,
her husband, Michael, a retired New York City English teacher,
did all the household chores. "I always felt she'd go back to
work," he says.
By November of last year, she was sleeping better, and the bouts of crying had subsided. And during Christmas break, Marks felt much less fearful than she had only a couple of months earlier. So she decided, in early January, that she would return to LaGuardia High.
On her first day back—Jan. 23, 2001—Marks was jittery but made it through. The next morning, though, after parking her car in front of the school, she had a panic attack. Using her cellphone, she dialed a friend who is a counselor at LaGuardia High. The friend met Marks at the car and escorted her inside.
Seated in her office six months later, Marks says of those early days, "This is a terrific school, and that helped." To begin with, "kids would come over and hug me," she adds. "They were very concerned, very thoughtful." And a new assistant principal, who wasn't even on staff at the time of the attack, apologized for what had happened.
Outside of school, Marks was pursuing a case in court. Although she'd originally told police who questioned her at Lincoln Center that she didn't want Packer arrested, she changed her mind later that day after talking with law-enforcement officials and her husband. Packer was taken into custody and formally charged on July 27, 2000.
Marks is glad she pursued criminal charges because she wasn't happy with the school district's response to the assault. First of all, nobody at the New York City board of education's office seemed to know how to handle an incident that had taken place after the school year ended, she says. And the day a hearing was scheduled, the Markses, Antonietta Pace, and other witnesses waited in a board office for three hours—until they were told Packer's lawyer had somehow arranged a postponement. When the hearing finally took place later in the summer, Marks says Packer pleaded no contest to what amounted to a discipline infraction. By then, the teenager had already completed summer school and earned a high school diploma.
Marks had no desire to sue Packer, but she did want to teach her former student a lesson. In April of 2001, a little more than two months after returning to LaGuardia High, Marks finally got a taste of justice. Packer pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, according to Barbara Thompson, the director of public information for the New York County District Attorney's Office. In addition to the guilty plea, Packer was ordered to perform five days of community service and write a letter of apology to Marks.
Dated April 25, the letter reads:
Dear Ms. Marks:
Please accept this letter as an apology for my behavior on June 27, 2000. I realize that my conduct was unacceptable and that there is no excuse for it. I would like you to know that I never meant you any harm. I was very emotional and I'm sorry that this whole [incident] ever happened. I regret the pain and inconvenience this has caused to everyone involved and I sincerely apologize.
Asked about the letter, Marks rolls her eyes and questions the sincerity of the words. She also wonders why it took Packer so long to apologize.
Still, she says: "The truth is, I'm not interested in ruining her life. I want her to learn how to deal with her anger. Maybe this will prevent her from doing something like this to someone else. To see her found not guilty would have killed me. After that day, as far as I was concerned, it was over and done with."
On a drizzly Monday afternoon in September, Michael Marks is seated at his kitchen table. He and Laura have invited a reporter to visit their home and observe the physical education teacher at the start of a new school year, which, for New York City, began a week before. Michael, a former English teacher at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, isn't convinced his wife will ever be the same person again, especially in school. He himself was never assaulted during his 33-year career.
"I suspect she's not going to let herself get as close to the kids as she was before," he says. "But I don't know what the long-term effects of this are going to be. What if a kid comes up to her in a threatening way? What's going to happen to her?"
His concerns are well-founded. What were once everyday exchanges between a teacher and a student may now appear potentially dangerous to someone who's been assaulted, according to the UFT's Carr. And Marks concedes that the incident has had an effect on her grading standards. "I didn't think it would," she says. "But I'm grading more leniently. Am I doing this because I'm afraid? I don't know."
Still, she's determined to stick with teaching. In fact, she's outright defiant in her attitude. No student, she feels, is ever going to determine when she'll end her career. After dinner, she tells Michael that tomorrow she plans to wear the blue-and-purple tunic and pants she wore the day she was assaulted. She likes the outfit. He rolls his eyes, questioning this symbolic gesture.
She asks, "Why not?"
As Marks drives through heavy traffic into Manhattan the next morning, sunshine glints off the Hudson River. Getting close to LaGuardia High, she pinches the threads of her outfit with two fingers and says: "If anything bad happens today, I'll burn this thing." It's Sept. 11.
The first signs of trouble emerge as Marks hustles through a security checkpoint inside the school. Uniformed guards say a plane has hit the World Trade Center. On her way to a physical education class, she stops to pick up mail. Teachers hurry in and out of the mailroom. Someone says that another plane has struck the other tower. There's speculation. Fears mount.
Soon, the school is awash in worry. Students lean against walls in the hallways and frantically tap numbers into their cellphones. But the calls don't go through. Tears stream down the cheeks of some students. Others cover their faces or simply look bewildered. Yet Marks, like many of her colleagues, copes with the tragic events by doing her job. She takes attendance and conducts vision screenings for the better part of the day. During one health class, she discusses the importance of donating blood, especially on a day like this.
As calm as Marks and the other teachers attempt to be, the fear at LaGuardia High is palpable. A muscular boy asks Marks, "What do you do if you only have one parent, and she works at the World Trade [Center]?" The boy begins to cry, and a girl comforts him. "That's going to haunt me until I know his mother is OK," Marks says quietly.
Later, a boy offers his phone to Marks so that she can call her husband. After she gets through to Michael, he tells her that their son, David, a student at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, called to see how she's doing. "Michael, we're OK," she says, her voice cracking. "I'll call you [later] if I can. I'm OK. Don't worry about me. I love you."
Between periods, Marks and a few other teachers venture up to the eighth floor to catch a glimpse of the towers. But they're gone. Plumes of smoke rise in the distance, just beyond the line of buildings on the horizon, casting an ominous silhouette against the clear blue sky.
By late afternoon, most of the school's students find ways to get home. Marks will not need to stay later to help supervise the teenagers. So she grabs her handbag and heads for an exit.
The drive out of the city along the Hudson River is eerie. Traffic is backed up going out. But hardly any cars are going in. Occasionally, a police cruiser packed with six or seven officers zooms toward the city. A Ford Explorer carrying eight firefighters pulling on their equipment slows at a police checkpoint. Tears fall down Marks' cheeks. "This is like a movie," she says.
Eventually, she arrives home and gives Michael a hug. He reports that some of the students at his former school, Stuyvesant, which is just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, saw people jumping from the towers.
School is canceled the next day, but Marks returns to LaGuardia High that Thursday. She's told that the boy who was worried about his mother found her in a hospital, recovering from injuries. But the stories of those who didn't survive, of the hijacked planes, of those buried in the rubble left by the terrorist assaults—it's almost too much to bear. She feels exhausted the rest of the week and wonders if working in Manhattan is more dangerous than she ever imagined.
Still, Marks keeps the blue-and-purple outfit. She doesn't burn it, because there is hope. Back in June, Marks said she realized why she'd returned to teaching "once I saw the kids." Today, she says that on Sept. 11, she felt that connection more deeply than ever before.
Vol. 21, Issue 11, Pages 28-33