Danger: School Zone

May 01, 1990 16 min read

But the 3rd graders at the Glen Park Elementary School in Fort Worth, Tex., never got to meet their new teacher, who was only in her second year of teaching. Last August, a few days before school started, Jana Simpson was found stabbed to death in a portable classroom where she had been working alone. A 12-year-old student confessed to the crime; charges against him were later dropped because of lack of evidence.

The community was shaken. Although Glen Park is in the relatively poor southeast side of Fort Worth, one of Texas’s newest boom towns, murder is still rare enough to be rattling. “This is supposed to happen in New York, Chicago, or L.A. It’s not supposed to happen in Fort Worth. But it did,’' says Martha Barrett, president of the Fort Worth Classroom Teachers’ Association. “We’ve all had to wake up to the realization that this can happen to anybody, anywhere.’'

Although large urban districts rack up some of the more disturbing statistics (in New York alone, 678 teachers and other staff members were attacked and injured at school in 1988), school violence knows no geography. It happens in smaller numbers--but sometimes with greater drama and impact--in the hinterlands, as in Florida’s sunny Pinellas County, where, in February 1988, an assistant high school principal was killed and another admin-istrator and a teacher injured by students armed with stolen .38 caliber revolvers. And in suburban Goddard, Kan., three years before, a 14-yearold boy with an automatic rifle gunned down two teachers and a junior high school principal. The list is horrifyingly long.

No one really knows the number of teachers who are victims of violence nationwide. Relatively few districts report campus crime; of those that do, say some sources, underreporting or camouflaging school violence is not uncommon. High crime figures make for bad public relations. The last nationwide study, done 12 years ago, found that one in 20 teachers had been attacked on the job.

Most other statistics don’t distinguish between student and teacher victims. But they illustrate clearly that, in many areas, schools are no longer any safer than the streets. When the U.S. Bureau of the Census undertook its 1987 National Crime Survey, for instance, it found that nearly 184,000 people were injured as a result of school crime in one year. This figure includes staff, students, and visitors.

One thing is certain: Many teachers are afraid. When the American Federation of Teachers surveyed its leaders two years ago, almost all said they were very concerned about teenage violence and that it was a bigger problem now than in the past, largely because of drug trafficking and easier access to weapons. Seven out of 10 said they knew local union members who had been victims.

After last year’s highly publicized schoolyard sniper shootings in Stockton, Calif.--ironically, the only state in which safe schools are a constitutional right--many districts quickly scrambled to pull together school safety plans that would prevent or help them manage a similar crisis. But some teachers believe such plans ignore the more common enemy within.

“Most schools have a safety plan,’' says Frances Haywood, vice president of the 24,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles. “But a safety plan has nothing to do with a kid who stabs a teacher in her classroom.’'

The majority of attacks on teachers don’t make the evening news, and bruises are more common than gunshot wounds. With the epidemic of teen violence and the drug trade, many teachers are injured attempting to either break up student fights or halt robberies. Other attacks are provoked by student-teacher disagreements, as in Abilene, Tex., where last year a high school teacher was shot in the head by a student who apparently was unhappy over a grade. Still others involve family members retaliating for an aggrieved student.

Not all teacher injuries are caused by students. Many are attacked by intruders “who see elementary schools as buildings with little or no security, populated by women and children,’' explains New York City’s Ed Muir, who works full time as a school safety representative for the United Federation of Teachers and is considered a national expert on school violence. The number of intruder-related crimes in New York, Muir says, is on the rise.

Rape, for some reason, doesn’t seem to be rampant in the schools. Of the 678 assaults on teachers in New York City two years ago, for instance, only 10 to 12 were sex crimes.

Statistics are telling, but they rarely pick up intimidation and verbal abuse--what might be called “psychic violence.’' A kindergarten teacher in Los Angeles, which leads the nation in youth gang violence, recalls a 5-year-old student telling her angrily, “My brother’s in the Crips [a powerful street gang], and he’s going to get you.’'

“The assaults against a teacher’s psyche are unspeakable,’' says Harriet Perl, one of the founders of the Counseling Victims of Violence Program in the Los Angeles school district. The program is an 11-year-old project of the local teachers’ union and the board of education. “Long after the wounds have healed, the teacher inside is a mess,’' Perl says. “To have your student--someone you care about, who cares about you--turn on you is not something they teach you about in Education 370.’' The counselor admits that it was the constant barrage of verbal abuse that made her cut short her own career as an English teacher. “I knew I had to retire early when a kid I had never seen before opened up the door to my classroom and bellowed [racist obscenities].’'

In Los Angeles, teachers who have been victims of on-campus crime can take advantage of a generous plan that pays for their retraining in another occupation if they can’t come back to the classroom. But few apply.

Although some teachers do quit after they have been victimized, most come back to school--even physical education teacher Gary Smith, who was attacked from behind in a South Bronx schoolyard by a 17-year-old neighborhood youth wielding a baseball bat. “He never said why he did it,’' notes a bewildered Smith, who, as a result of the 1988 attack, lost an eye and partial hearing in his right ear. Smith returned nine months after his nearly fatal beating “because I’m a good teacher, and I don’t think my students deserve to lose someone who’s a good teacher.’'

Those most likely to give up are “teachers who are new to the system, who don’t have so much invested,’' says psychologist June Feder, a former New York City teacher who now counsels teacher victims as head of the UFT’s Victim Support Program. Others leave, she says, because they feel betrayed, particularly when the assailant is a student. Some teachers regard the attack as a sign of their own failure to maintain control. Feder recalls one junior high school teacher who was knocked unconscious when a student hit him with a chair. His injuries were not debilitating, yet he has been out of school for a year. “He had never encountered a violent incident, thought of himself as a good teacher, and is absolutely devastated,’' says Feder.

“Teachers, more so than other victims, tend to blame themselves,’' she adds. “They say, ‘I should have done something differently. I ought to have handled this. After all, he was my student.’ Even in cases where it was totally unprovoked, teachers feel responsible. I know a teacher who was assaulted and pressed charges against a student who, because he had a record, was remanded to Rikers Island. This teacher has had regrets about prosecuting because she was concerned that he might be attacked or assaulted [in prison].’'

The UFT began its victim-support program, now partially underwritten by the New York Board of Education, to help ease teachers through the traumatic aftershocks of on-the-job crime. Feder helps teachers over the psychological hurdles, including a notuncommon phenomenon she calls the “blame-thevictim’’ syndrome. “People tell me, ‘The principal ignored me. My colleagues didn’t phone me.’ Basically, what is happening is that the principal and the teacher’s co-workers are reacting to their own fear of contamination: ‘If it could happen to somebody I work with,’ they figure, ‘it could happen to me.’ So they find some way to blame the teacher for what happened. The teacher may already be blaming himself, and this just exacerbates it.’'

Another teacher with Feder’s support program helps victims deal with the often-callous police and court proceedings, which for some can seem--psychologically--like a second assault.

For the past 11 years, the school system has also offered staff members a course called “Peacemaking: The Management of Confrontation,’' taught by former graphic arts teacher Peter Martin Commanday. Using the 300 physical and psychological “survival tricks’’ he picked up on the job, Commanday teaches participants how to defuse a conflict in “four seconds to four minutes’’ without ending up either in a hospital or in court. So far, 700 district employees have graduated from the peacemaker program. (See page 60.)

Another New York City intervention program, Project SMART, trains students, parents, and school personnel to mediate disputes. The UFT’s Muir says the peermediation program “works beautifully’’ to short-circuit violence.

Of course, programs like these are only effective when teachers know about them, and New York’s are fairly high profile. That apparently is not the case in Los Angeles, where victim counselors have been around much longer. “The teachers we have gone to see, without exception, had not heard of us,’' complains Harriet Perl. In fact, a year ago Perl quit the job she had held for 11 years because “months would go by without a call’’ from the district department that dispatches the counselors. “We used to go out two and three times a week. Lately, it has been two or three times a semester,’' says Perl, whose story was confirmed by another counselor. “We have all become deeply suspicious. I can’t believe there is less violence in our schools than five years ago.’'

A spokesperson for Los Angeles’s Unified School District denied vehemently that the district is covering up on-campus crime, suggesting the charges might be the residue of last year’s acrimonious teachers’ strike, in which school safety was an issue.

Still, some experts believe that on-campus crime has become politicized, and that officials discourage reporting crimes or acting in highly visible ways to deal with them. It often takes a tragic, high-profile crime like Jana Simpson’s murder in Fort Worth to prompt districts and teachers to take action.

Where crime rates are glaring, districts often turn to both armed and unarmed security guards. At 2,200 strong, New York’s unarmed school police force is twice as large as the Miami police department. Armed guards patrol some of Los Angeles’s secondary schools and, in some districts, local police are stationed in school halls. In other places even parents help. At Bassett High School in La Puente, Calif., parents have been patrolling the grounds and cafeteria since 1981. Thanks to their diligence, the crime rate there has been halved.

To cut down on drugs and guns, officials at Bassett have removed lockers, where dangerous contraband could be easily concealed; other districts have banned baggy clothes, book bags, and the electronic beepers many drug pushers wear to stay in touch with waiting customers. Some districts’ security efforts have gone high-tech. In New York, where kids have been known to carry razor-sharp, retractable box cutters to school, and the youngest student to come to class armed was 5 years old, a special security force visits 15 schools on a rotating schedule, using hand-held metal detectors to search students for weapons. The tactic, while extreme, has been somewhat successful. During the first year of what was a multimillion-dollar pilot program, more guns were found abandoned in the bushes outside the schools than on the students themselves.

The searches, however, haven’t cut New York’s school crime rate, which is up 19 percent over last year’s. This statistic, compiled by the UFT, is at odds with a recent report by five New York police officers who spent seven months undercover in five of the city’s schools. They claim to have found little evidence of drug use, weapons, or gang activity, although one of the undercover officers was threatened by a knife-wielding student.

Muir is not surprised by the officers’ report. Crack is the current drug of choice, and “kids on crack never make it into the building,’' says Muir, who also notes that all but one of the schools the undercover officers attended, including one he calls “a pussycat school,’' were “not schools where we would expect to have problems’’ thanks to the increased security measures.

‘We have 1,000 schools in our system and they attended only five,’' he points out. “That would be like me saying, ‘I walk down the streets of New York every day and nothing happens to me, so there must be no crime here.’ The fact of the matter is we still have a gun incident in the schools every other day.’'

Efficacy aside, security measures carry high price tags. Most districts can’t afford oncampus police or metal detectors. Some poorer districts struggle just to keep locks on school doors. Money is certainly an object in Fort Worth, where the murder of Jana Simpson led the teachers’ union to demand that the district make campuses safer. A burgeoning school population and a state law mandating no more than 22 students per class has forced the district to handle overflow in portable classrooms, like the one in which Simpson was killed. Because of fire codes, the portables can’t be locked and, until her death, there was no way for teachers to contact the main school buildings in case of an emergency. “You feel like you’re shut off from the whole world,’' says Martha Barrett, the local union president.

Today, she says, the district is experimenting with walkie-talkies and a buzzer system (“I’ve already gotten two calls this morning that they’re not working’’), and it is investigating the cost of push-bar locks, which are easily opened from inside. But they’re expensive, and Fort Worth, though booming, is still a largely blue-collar city. So the district is turning to thriftier measures, such as encouraging teachers to use the buddy system while at school and organizing neighborhood watch programs in the communities surrounding their schools. “It’s a start,’' concedes Barrett.

One of the cheapest places for districts to begin their safety planning is the National School Safety Center, a federally funded research and resource center in Encino, Calif., which is affiliated with Pepperdine University. For $12, teachers or districts can buy NSSC’s 219-page School Safety Check Book, which lists hundreds of ways to make school campuses safer. For about $3, they can also buy a resource paper highlighting the advice of educators from schools where dramatic violent events have occurred in recent years, such as Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton and Hubbard Woods Elementary School in Winnetka, Ill.

While all of the measures districts take work to some degree, most experts seem to agree that the ultimate security system won’t be locks or walls or even victim counselors. What’s needed, says Muir, are the kinds of high-priced intervention programs aimed at turning around kids most likely to commit crime. “From what I see, an awful lot of this violence against teachers is ‘acting out,’ coming from nonachieving students,’' he says. “You’re not in the hallway selling crack, ripping off people, or beating up teachers because you’re a potential National Merit Scholar. We need to make a heavy investment in getting these kids achieving and successful at the earliest time possible in their school life, so they don’t turn to violence.’'

That message has been heard in Albuquerque, N.M., where the school board, despite harsh financial straits, recently set aside $1 million to develop a comprehensive program to help students who are at risk of dropping out or turning to crime, drugs, or violence. Although the violence problem in Albuquerque has been small and “sporadic,’' says Don Whately, president of the teachers’ union, the city is among the fastest-growing in the nation. “We never had any ‘inner city’ problems, but now we’ve got an inner city,’' he says. “We even have a crack house across from one of our schools. We don’t want our problem to get any bigger.’'

There are other long-term remedies. Some experts give equal weight to discipline policies with muscle, a willingness on the part of districts and teachers to prosecute student assailants, and the open sharing of information with classroom teachers about disruptive students. The latter became an issue in Los Angeles last year when a teacher was stabbed by a student recently transferred from another school where he had been in trouble. The student had been given a so-called “opportunity transfer’'--in essence, a chance at a fresh start in a new school--but his new teachers were not informed of his record, says UTLA’s Frances Haywood.

The philosophy behind keeping a student’s previous wrongdoings confidential is arguably a good one: It prevents him or her from being labeled--and treated--as a troublemaker at a “second chance’’ school. But many teachers feel that when their personal safety is at stake, fair warning of a student’s past is not too much to ask.

In some districts where discipline is lax or teachers have been discouraged from pressing charges against students, teachers’ unions have been effective at prodding consciences. For example, the teachers’ union in Kansas City, Mo., has for the last 19 years offered members who have been assaulted $100 to prosecute attackers. Norm Hudson, the union’s tough-talking president for those 19 years, says the union turned to the monetary incentive “because of the tremendous reluctance of the administration to prosecute anyone who assaulted teachers. They didn’t want the school’s record blemished because someone beat a teacher up with a ball-peen hammer.’' The incentive works, says Hudson, who estimates the union has paid out more than $5,000 since 1971. “It has changed the policy of the district,’' he says. “They’re very supportive now.’'

Unfortunately, the conflicts between what’s best for teachers and what’s best for districts more often delay action on a problem that most experts agree begs for willing cooperation. “After all,’' says Muir, “if we make the schools safe for teachers, they’ll be safe for everybody.’' In fact, it is students, not teachers, who are the most frequent victims of on-campus crime.

And delay can be critical. School, like society, shows no sign of becoming a kinder, gentler place. Despite an overall decline in the school population, the number of violent crimes committed in schools has remained stubbornly high.

“When kids assault teachers and not too much is done, they’re learning an important lesson: that you don’t have to respect people in authority,’' Muir says. “We’ve all seen where that can lead. The person who shoots a cop today may have been beating up on his teacher five years ago.’'

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Danger: School Zone