One in five teachers who were physically or verbally victimized at school did not tell their administrators, a new study finds.
The study, which included responses from 2,505 K-12 teachers across the country who had experienced an incident of violence at school, found that some teachers who were victimized also didn’t tell their family (24 percent) or their colleagues (14 percent). Only 12 percent received counseling.
Most of the teachers said they were victimized by a student, but some said they were victimized by a parent or a colleague.
In the 2015-16 school year, 5.8 percent of the nation’s 3.8 million teachers were physically attacked by a student, according to federal education data. Almost 10 percent were threatened with injury. Past research has found that these assaults can have negative consequences for teachers—ranging from performing poorly at their jobs to quitting the teaching profession.
“Violence against teachers isn’t talked about a lot,” said Eric Anderman, the lead author of the new study and a professor of educational psychology at The Ohio State University. He was surprised that thousands of respondents were so willing to be candid: “This is one of the only times in my career that people came flocking to us and said, ‘Yes, we want to tell our stories, we want to talk about this,’” he said.
The study was published in the journal Social Psychology of Education and was funded by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Psychology in Schools and Education. The two major teachers’ unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, assisted with the online survey, which was disseminated three times over a five-month period.
Researchers asked teachers to describe “the most upsetting incident” at school in which they were the target of students’ verbal or physical aggression or intimidation. One-quarter of the teachers reported actual physical abuse or assault, 20 percent reported threats of physical violence, and 37 percent described verbal insults, disrespectful language, or inappropriate sexual advances.
Physical abuse or assault was more likely to occur among elementary teachers, while more middle and high school teachers reported receiving threats of physical violence or verbal abuse.
Eight percent of teachers were most upset by a perceived lack of support from school leaders and colleagues—for example, when a student who threatened to harm a teacher received only a trivial punishment.
“That really surprised us,” Anderman said. “We didn’t see that coming.”
When he was a high school teacher, a student threatened him. “I went to the administration, and I was not supported,” Anderman said. “I was very bitter and angry.”
Past research has found that teachers who feel supported by their administrators and think that their colleagues enforce the rules consistently are less likely to be the victims of threats or attacks.
In this study, respondents were asked to describe how they felt after the incident. Teachers who reported feeling upset (scared or crying) were less likely to tell anyone else about the incident, but teachers who felt angry were more likely to tell their colleagues or their family. Anderman said he wasn’t sure why that is—possibly because teachers who felt upset were worried the incident would make them look weak or ineffective at their job.
When teachers blamed their own behavior—believing they could have avoided the incident had they did something different—they were much less likely to tell their colleagues, which Anderman attributed to probable feelings of embarrassment.
The study opened up many future research questions, he said—including about the long-term effects of violence against teachers and strategies teachers can use to avoid attacks.
“We need to pay more attention to [violence against teachers],” Anderman said. “We need to give teachers a place to talk about this.”
He and his colleagues are exploring setting up a national registry where teachers can report their experiences, even if they are anonymous.
Some state legislators across the country have introduced bills to increase punitive measures toward students who attack teachers. Those bills are typically controversial within the education community, with educators and researchers saying that more effective teacher training and administrative support would be better tactics.
Image: Teacher Michelle Andrews says she was assaulted by a student in 2015. She ended up pressing charges, was fired, and then settled with the school board for nearly $200,000. —Daryl Peveto for Education Week
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.