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When Teachers Fear for Their Safety

As if public-school teachers don't already have enough to worry about in today's accountability era, there's one more thing to keep them awake at nights. I'm referring now to their physical safety ("Why Discipline is Out of Control in St. Paul Public Schools," Better Ed, Dec. 18). Public-school teachers in St. Paul, Minn., say they have been left completely helpless as a result of the district's policy that forbids them from ever touching a student under any circumstances.

Instead of expelling students who attack teachers or other students, the district urges teachers to resolve the problem and keep the offenders in their classes. I've supported restorative justice programs, but only when the physical safety of teachers is not in jeopardy. Students who pose a clear and present danger to others have forfeited their right to remain in regular classes. Moreover, I question if the district's policy about not touching students under any circumstances would hold up in court. There is such a thing as self-defense. As the expression goes: It's better to be judged by 12 than carried by six. 

During the last year of my teaching career, a fight broke out between two students between classes near my classroom bungalow. Fortunately, another teacher jumped in to break up the altercation before I had to. But I wonder what I would have done if one of the students had attacked me. The reality is that some students shouldn't be in a regular classroom once they physically assault anyone. Yet administrators are more concerned with how they will look if they initiate action to expel a student.

Less serious but no less troubling are students who shout obscenities at teachers. The Los Angeles Unified School District calls such behavior "willful defiance." It was the first district in California to ban suspensions for such action. Teachers rightly complain that the policy sends the unmistakable message to students that there are no consequences for how they comport themselves. I'd add that allowing obscenities falls under the umbrella of the broken-windows theory of crime: Ignoring small acts leads to large acts.

The causes of the deterioration of classrooms are a subject that has been written about often. But I think the best explanation remains the student-rights revolution of the 1960s. Prior to that time, teachers acted in loco parentis. However, in 1965, big-name lawyers began suing schools for depriving students of their rights by disciplining them. The intrusion of lawyers guaranteed that teachers and schools would have to walk on eggshells in what for centuries had been their duty. 

I'm glad I'm not teaching in today's climate. I don't care how much salaries have risen since I retired. Nothing could ever make the classroom feel the same to me under the new rules. I salute teachers who have to put up with the disrespect they too often are shown and still manage to be effective.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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