Fighting Back

Teachers who have been assaulted by students increasingly are taking their assailants to court

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Teacher Deborah Sanville walked into a Fairfax County, Va., courthouse in May searching for something she said her school had denied her: justice.

When 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 instead, the school’s principal gave the student a five-day suspension, which the teacher felt wasn’t tough enough given his action. School officials said such a punishment was appropriate for a first-time offense.

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

By taking the youngster to court, Sanville joins a growing number of teachers nationwide who have made the decision to fight back. If their schools and district won’t provide relief, they say, maybe the courts will.

In Sanville’s case, the student who attacked her was charged with assault. After pleading guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct, he was ordered to enroll in an anger-control program and pay a $100 fine. “I’m very happy that justice was served,” Sanville says.

There are no national statistics on how many teachers press criminal charges against students or 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. But teachers’ unions, which often represent educators in school-assault cases, say this kind of litigation is absorbing an increasing percentage of their legal resources.

Larry Samuel, a lawyer for the United Teachers of New Orleans, says the union’s annual teacher-assault caseload has doubled from about 20 three years ago to roughly 40. “There’s been a drastic increase,” he says. “Almost every one of the teachers assaulted this year filed criminal charges.” Samuel is currently helping a local prosecutor in a case against a student who shot a high school teacher—apparently over a new seat assignment. He is also representing the teacher in a civil suit against the district, claiming it failed to provide a safe work environment.

The Boston Teachers’ Union retains a lawyer specifically to litigate teacher-assault cases, most of which 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 assault against teachers. Over the past five years, such cases have consistently consumed one-eighth of the union’s legal budget.

The majority of teachers who take legal action 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 and exact monetary damages.

In Utah, civil suits against students have quadrupled in the past few years. According to Michael McCoy, a lawyer with the Utah Education Association, this is partly because violent incidents on school grounds have multiplied but also because school employees are increasingly aware of their legal rights. In one current case, mathematics teacher Rebecca Rocque 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,” says Rocque, who has been on medical leave since the incident in December 1994.

While teaching remains a relatively safe profession—it’s comparable to accounting in terms of workplace fatalities—schools have become increasingly hazardous places to work. In a 1993 Metropolitan Life survey, 11 percent of the responding teachers reported being assaulted at school that year, and 95 percent of the perpetrators in those incidents were students. That same year, 29 teachers died on the job—six as the result of assault, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.

Guy Tuscano, a program manager for the department’s bureau of labor statistics, says schools seem to be reflecting what is happening societally. From 1983 to 1992, there was a 23 percent increase in homicides nationwide and a 73 percent increase in aggravated assaults. That increase in violence, Tuscano says, is “spilling over into the workplace.”

Union officials contend that many assaults against teachers go unreported by school administrators concerned about their institutions’ reputations. In the most extreme cases, some teachers have been threatened with losing their jobs if they go to court, says 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,” Lose says. “But they’re not being treated as seriously in the schools, so teachers are forced to deal with it outside the school system.”

Officials from organizations that represent administrators reject such characterizations. School administrators, they argue, are vigilant in protecting their employees.

Most systems—urban, rural, and suburban—have some kind of discipline policy. Roughly a quarter of the country’s urban school districts have adopted policies that require administrators to expel students who bring weapons to school. And a number of state legislatures have recently adopted measures designed to strengthen schools’ ability to curb violence, such as stiffening penalties for juveniles who assault educators. Under a new Texas law, teachers have the right to turn away any student who has previously assaulted them. Several other states are considering similar measures.

“No one wants to see anyone injured at school,” says Gary Marx of the American Association of School Administrators. But even the best discipline policies and the most modern security systems, he adds, cannot deter every potential criminal. “If people intend to commit violent acts,” he points out, “it’s very difficult to have a system that’s fail-safe.”

Teachers who have taken their assailants to court say they hope their actions will help bring an end to violence in schools by letting students and parents know that there are consequences for inappropriate behavior. “If teachers don’t file lawsuits after they’ve been attacked, they are walked on in the classroom,” Lose of the AFT explains. “A lawsuit is a strong message that teachers mean business.”

Says Sanville of Fairfax County: “The district wasn’t doing its job, so I had to do it for them.”

Vol. 07, Issue 01, Pages 16-17

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