Teacher Says He Lost Job for Chronicling Violence
An Oakland, Calif., teacher who publicly criticized the way his school handles violence says he was forced out of his job for revealing too much.
The teacher, Antonio Strano, learned last month that his position as an art teacher at Westlake Junior High School was being eliminated.
Mr. Strano said he believes the move was intended to punish him for writing an opinion piece for The New York Times in April describing a violent incident that took place in his classroom earlier this year.
School officials, however, have vehemently denied Mr. Strano's claims, pointing out that he is expected to be offered a teaching post at another school in the city.
N.Z. Carol, a spokeswoman for Superintendent Richard P. Mesa, said last week that Mr. Strano's job was consolidated, along with many others in the 52,000-student Oakland district, because of a projected enrollment decline.
"I don't think one had anything to do with the other,'' Ms. Carol said, referring to Mr. Strano's assertion that the article he wrote precipitated his transfer out of the school.
Mr. Strano, who said his motivation for writing the piece was to get more protection for teachers, plans to write a book about his experiences in urban schools and is organizing a teachers' group to lobby for remedies to school violence.
"Every day, teachers all over the country, and especially in inner-city schools, face what I face,'' he said. "I opened my mouth and look what happened to me.''
Rising Tide of Violence
As incidents of violence in or near schools escalate nationally, more teachers are drawing attention to their need for protection and a safe environment for students.
New York City's United Federation of Teachers, for example, released a study this month that documented 2,300 reported cases of violence against its members over a six-month period last year. More than 900 of the crimes were assaults on teachers, the union said.
In the February incident in Mr. Strano's classroom, a student who had fought with a classmate apparently called two family members and a friend to come to the school as "reinforcements,'' the teacher said.
After intimidating administrators in the school office, two men appeared at Mr. Strano's door and announced that they were carrying a gun. Although the men left without harming anyone, Mr. Strano said he was angered by the way administrators handled the situation.
He said the principal gave him no warning that trespassers were on school property and headed for his classroom, despite the fact that his room was equipped with an emergency telephone.
But it was the recent escalation of campus violence--not this one incident--that prompted him to finally speak out, said Mr. Strano, who taught at Westlake Junior High for three years.
Mr. Strano said he had witnessed numerous other violent incidents, including one in which he had a tooth knocked out trying to break up a fight. In another incident, a female student pulled a 10-inch knife on a classmate who apparently was harassing her.
The city police department and the district's school force "simply don't have the manpower to provide protection'' at the schools, Mr. Strano said.
Ms. Carol, who said the district has a safety policy that includes using metal detectors at special events, countered that it is difficult for school officials to control visitor access on open campuses, which are common in the district.
Administrators at the school disputed many of Mr. Strano's charges, arguing that he has used the incident to gain publicity.
"To claim that we're not concerned about violence is absolute nonsense,'' Principal Delett Paul said. He said Mr. Strano "is milking this thing for all it's worth.''
"What happened in February is really unfortunate, and it happens much too frequently,'' he added.
Ms. Carol pointed out that the teacher could have filed a grievance over the handling of the situation but "has not used any of the normal procedures.''
Mr. Strano has been on disability leave since February because of a shoulder injury he got breaking up the fight that occurred before the gun threat. He added that he is suffering from severe stress.
Although he said he expects to return to teaching in the fall, he does not know where he will be working.
Some of his colleagues have also argued that school leaders have not done enough to reduce threats to teacher and student safety.
"The teachers have not been pleased with the administration's response'' to violence, said Toni Lajoie, a teacher at Westlake Junior High. "There's been absolutely no attempt to instill some kind of discipline.''
Vol. 13, Issue 39