School Climate & Safety

Districts Take Action to Stem Violence Aimed at Teachers

By Vaishali Honawar — May 06, 2008 7 min read
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In Elgin, Ill., a former student stabbed a teacher in the head, neck, and upper body, blinding her in one eye. In Cleveland, a teacher sustained a spinal injury when students assaulted him as he tried to break up a fight. In Lincoln, Ark., a student set fire to a teacher’s car during school hours as retribution after being thrown out of class.

Those are just three among dozens of cases of student violence against teachers reported in the news media this school year.

Experts caution that reliable and up-to-date statistics on the problem can be hard to acquire. National and district data, however, show a drop in such violence over the past decade. The National Center for Education Statistics’ 2007 school crime and safety report, the only known source for such data nationwide, says the proportion of public school teachers physically attacked by students dropped from 3.9 percent in the 1999-2000 school year to 3.4 percent in the 2003-04 school year.

School districts say their own, more recent figures mirror that nationwide decline. “We do see [violence against teachers] trending down,” said Elayna Konstan, the chief executive officer of the office of school and youth development in the New York City Department of Education. The nation’s largest district has seen an 8 percent drop in reported violence against teachers from 2005 to 2008, she added.

School districts cite a variety of steps they have taken, including training teachers to better handle angry students, adding security in schools, and improving the reporting of violent attacks.

Still, given the stakes for schools that report high numbers of student violence under federal law, some safety experts voice skepticism about the downward trend.

“Are the numbers going down, or is reporting going down? There’s a huge difference between the two,” said Kenneth S. Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting group based in Cleveland.

There has been “a history and culture in education of downplaying, denying, and deflecting when it comes to publicly acknowledging any school crime,” he said.

Preventive Measures

Mr. Trump argues that the No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement that allows parents to transfer children out of schools labeled “persistently dangerous” further discourages the reporting of school crimes. If students leave, state and federal dollars do as well.

“It’s really a Catch-22 situation,” said Kathy Buzad, an assistant director in the education issues department of the American Federation of Teachers. She hopes for changes to the “persistently dangerous” provision of the federal law as Congress debates its renewal.

Most districts incorporate language against violence, including against teachers, in their student-discipline codes. But some districts, after repeatedly making headlines for student assaults against teachers, have taken additional steps to curb such incidents.

Forum on Teacher Violence

Stabbings, classroom assaults, arson—Incidents of student violence against teachers have been widely reported by the news media this year. Do you think physical attacks on teachers have increased recently? Join our forum discussion, and have your say.

In Cleveland, for instance, after two teachers and two students were shot by a student at SuccessTech Academy in October, the 53,000-student district began putting metal detectors in every school and hiring more security officers, social workers, nurses, and psychologists.

Last year, after a number of violent attacks against teachers, Philadelphia set up a telephone hotline that teachers could call anytime to report instances of violence and established more-stringent penalties against offenders.

James Golden, the chief safety officer for the 167,000-student Philadelphia schools, said that since his district instituted the hotline, incidents of violent attacks against teachers have decreased by 45 percent.

The district, he said, has also deployed school police and security officers, surveillance cameras, and police patrols of schools, among other measures, to curb violence in schools.

Experts on school safety say that taking steps to stop violence before it erupts is crucial.

“We ought to talk about prevention,” Mr. Trump said.

“One thing we do very poorly is how we train or don’t train our teachers to manage aggressive students,” he said. Training teachers in verbal de-escalation skills and on not getting drawn emotionally into a fight is necessary, he added.

Such efforts are under way in Philadelphia, according to Mr. Golden. For instance, a pilot project at 40 schools, including 12 identified as persistently dangerous under the NCLB law, brings staff members and students at individual schools together to work toward creating a safe climate. School leaders devise a strategy that sets the tone and norms for behavior in the school, he said.

In the 1.1 million-student New York City district, teachers can choose to get training in de-escalation techniques that would help, for example, in calming students in danger of hurting themselves or others. Schools with challenges, particularly those on the persistently dangerous list, get focused intervention, including increased funding and guidance on building programs that improve school climate, Ms. Konstan noted.

Under a peer-mediation program, specially trained students work with their peers to resolve conflict.

“One of the reasons why school crime is down, serious incidents are down, and assaults on school personnel are down is because we are taking a look at the climate and culture of the schools and … creating a climate that’s supportive,” Ms. Konstan said.

Need for Data

Some teachers’ unions have chosen to take the initiative to protect their members.

In the 9,500-student Pawtucket, R.I., school system, for instance, professional-development training for teachers offered by the local union includes lessons on helping them recognize violent behaviors among students early on and how best to minimize them, said Charleen Christy, a guidance counselor and the president of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate.

“We teach how best to interact with students in defusing violent behaviors, … and work with [students] in a proactive manner before [the behaviors] get full-blown,” she said.

Researchers who study school safety trends express frustration, meanwhile, with the lack of fresh data on school violence—a gap that makes it harder, they say, for schools to be prepared.

For instance, the NCES’ Indicators of School Crime and Safety includes in its latest report data only up through the 2003-04 school year.

Dennis White, a research and policy analyst with the Hamilton Fish Institute, a Washington-based research and support group on school safety, agrees there is a need for more up-to-date information. What’s more, he said, the data need to come from teacher surveys rather than administrators.

Self-reporting surveys of students, for instance, have found that students, when asked anonymously about violence in their schools, report a higher incidence than is reflected in reports from officials, according to Mr. White.

“The level of violence in a school will not impact an individual student’s status, but it will affect a principal’s status,” Mr. White said. Anonymous teacher self-reports would similarly be more informative, he said, “because [teachers] don’t have an incentive or disincentive for reporting anything other than their experiences.”

Captured on Video

Rapidly changing technology has also contributed to the impact of student violence against teachers, observers say.

An “element we don’t have a good understanding of yet is cyberbullying,” said Mr. White.

Students’ use of social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, the online video-sharing site YouTube, and the video cameras now common in cellphones can exacerbate the effect on teacher victims of assault or harassment by students. There is a “culture of voyeurism” that is extremely troubling, the AFT’s Ms. Buzad said.

Last month, Jolita Berry, an art teacher at a Baltimore school, was beaten up by a student as the rest of the class watched and cheered. A cellphone video of the beating landed on MySpace.

Ms. Berry has since quit her job at Reginald F. Lewis High School, where, she told a television interviewer, such beatings are not uncommon, and she is afraid to go back. The student was suspended.

Marietta English, the president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said the beating was the 10th such incident she has heard of at the school this school year alone. Each week, she added, she hears of at least three or four instances of attacks on teachers in the city’s public schools.

The assaults, she contended, have made it difficult for the district to find and retain teachers because teachers who are attacked usually end up getting blamed by administrators for the assaults. “Why would you want to stay in a school when teachers are attacked by students and don’t get support from the administration?” Ms. English said.

Officials from the 82,000-student Baltimore district did not respond to several requests for an interview.

Teachers who have been through the experience say it is not easy to predict when violence can erupt.

James Cappetto, a teacher in Cleveland, said it was “a typical day” at work in South High School in January when he heard a commotion in the hallway and saw about 20 teens fighting.

As he tried to break up the fight, which involved four groups of students, he was beaten up.

Mr. Cappetto ended up in a hospital with three broken vertebrae and a skull fracture. And he’s yet to return to work.

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