The Target of Attacks, Teachers Turn to Courts for Relief

By Jessica Portner — July 12, 1995 6 min read
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Teacher Deborah Sanville walked into a Fairfax County, Va., courthouse last month searching for something she said her school had denied her: justice.

When Ms. Sanville, who teaches government at Hayfield High School in Alexandria, Va., was attacked by an 18-year-old student this spring, she expected that he would be severely punished.

But the school’s principal gave the student a five-day in-school suspension, which meant the senior was allowed to move about the school on his own. School officials said such a punishment was appropriate for a first-time offense.

But Ms. Sanville said she felt betrayed and frightened. “School is so dangerous. These are huge young men, and they think nothing of hitting us,” she said. The student who assaulted Ms. Sanville pinned her against a wall and tried to punch her, but another teacher intervened.

So Ms. Sanville decided to join a growing number of teachers nationwide who say they are frustrated at being targets for students and are turning to the courts for relief.

The student who attacked Ms. Sanville was charged with assault and last month was ordered to enroll in an anger-control program and pay a $100 fine after pleading guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct.

“I’m very happy that justice was served,” Ms. Sanville said after the trial. “The district wasn’t doing its job with disciplining this child, so I had to do it for them,” she said.

There are no national statistics on how many teachers press criminal charges against students and parents who threaten or assault them.

Nor are there national figures on the number of civil lawsuits teachers have filed against individual students or school districts seeking damages stemming from a discipline problem.

Toll on Unions

But teachers’ unions, whose lawyers often represent teachers in school-assault cases, say that such cases are absorbing an increasing percentage of their legal resources.

Larry Samuel, a lawyer for the United Teachers of New Orleans, said that union’s annual teacher-assault case load has doubled from about 20 three years ago to roughly 40.

“There’s been a drastic increase. Almost every one of the teachers assaulted this year filed criminal charges,” said Mr. Samuel, who currently is helping a local prosecutor in a criminal case against a student who shot a high school teacher--apparently over a new seat assignment.

Mr. Samuel also is representing the teacher in a civil suit against the district claiming that it failed to provide a safe work environment.

The Boston Teachers’ Union retains a lawyer specifically to litigate teacher-assault cases. Most of those cases involve criminal charges.

Over the past year, the union spent $30,000 of its $240,000 annual legal budget dealing with nearly 100 cases of assaults against teachers, union officials said. Over the past five years, such cases have consistently consumed one-eighth of the union’s legal budget.

The majority of teachers who take action on an assault in school file criminal charges against their assailants. But several states have laws on the books that make it easier for school employees to file civil lawsuits against assailants and exact monetary damages.

In Utah, civil suits against students have quadrupled in the past few years, partly because violent incidents on school grounds have increased and school employees are increasingly aware of their legal rights, according to Michael McCoy, a lawyer with the Utah Education Association.

In one current case, a mathematics teacher in American Fork, Utah, is suing a 15-year-old student who uncorked a tear-gas canister in her classroom.

“I had an allergic reaction to the tear gas and became deathly sick, and the student who did it wasn’t even suspended,” said Rebecca Rocque, who has been on medical leave since the incident in December 1994.

Violence Against Teachers Up

While teaching remains a relatively safe profession--comparable to accounting in terms of workplace fatalities--schools have become an increasingly hazardous place to work. And that, many school-safety experts say, has fueled an increase in litigation.

In a 1993 Metropolitan Life survey on violence against teachers, 11 percent of teachers responding nationwide reported being assaulted at school that year, and 95 percent of the perpetrators were students.

The same year, 29 teachers died on the job--six of those by assault, according to Guy Tuscano, a program manager for the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, which gathers data from death certificates and workers'-compensation reports.

The schools may be mirroring what is happening across the nation. From 1983 to 1992, there was a 23 percent increase in homicides nationwide and a 73 percent increase in aggravated assaults, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation reports.

And that increase in violence is “spilling over into the workplace,” Mr. Tuscano said.

But, short of murder, teachers’ unions say, incidents of assaults against teachers often are suppressed because school officials are concerned with tarnishing their institutions’ reputations.

In the most extreme cases, some teachers have been threatened with losing their jobs if they go to court, said Celia Lose, a spokeswoman for the 875,000-member American Federation of Teachers.

“Many of these incidents would be crimes if they happened in a house. But they’re not being treated as seriously in the schools, so teachers are forced to deal with it outside the school system,” Ms. Lose said.

Anne Johnson, an English teacher in New York City, said she was attacked recently by a parent who shouted obscenities and threw her against a door after a meeting.

Ms. Johnson said that when she called for an ambulance over the in-school communications system, the principal intercepted the call and canceled her request.

“He was embarrassed to have the police come to the school, and he didn’t want to make a scene,” said Ms. Johnson.

The teacher pressed charges against the parent, and that case goes to trial this month.

However, Principal Robert Anastasio of Intermediate School 238 said that he did not abort the emergency call and that when the teacher was attacked, he rushed to her assistance and removed the parent from the school.

“Our school provides a safe and secure environment for all its staff, and in this case we provided all of that and then some,” Mr. Anastasio said.

But Ms. Johnson, who said she suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder, disagreed. Late last month, she said she intended to take the school district to court as well, claiming it was negligent in protecting her from harm. Legal action could be avoided, she argued, if districts adopted strict discipline policies and enforced them.

Schools Defend Record

Administrators’ groups, however, say schools are vigilant in protecting their employees.

A quarter of the country’s urban school districts have adopted policies that require students who bring weapons to school to be expelled for a year. Most school systems--urban, rural, and suburban--have some kind of discipline policy. And many school districts offer seminars and literature to school officials to help them create safer school environments.

In the past few years, state legislatures have adopted measures designed to strengthen schools’ ability to curb violence, such as stiffening penalties for juveniles who assault school officials. Under a new Texas law, teachers have the right to refuse a student admittance to a class if the student previously assaulted them. Several other states are considering similar measures.

“No one wants to see anyone injured at school,” said Gary Marx, the senior associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. But, he added, even the best discipline policies and the most modern security systems cannot deter every potential criminal.

“If people intend to commit violent acts, it’s very difficult to have a system that’s fail-safe,” he said.

Many teachers say they hope that taking students and parents to court will help rein in some of the violence in their schools. Teachers who go to court say they hope to deter crime by sending a signal to students and their parents that there are consequences for violent actions.

“If teachers don’t file lawsuits after they’ve been attacked, they are walked on in the classroom,” Ms. Lose said. “A lawsuit is a strong message that teachers mean business.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 1995 edition of Education Week as The Target of Attacks, Teachers Turn to Courts for Relief

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