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A Student-Violence Epidemic


The cell phone video of a student's violent attack on Baltimore art teacher Jolita Berry has stunned viewers nationwide. But teachers in Baltimore say the incident was by no means unusual. “Believe me, this is not news to those of us who have worked in the schools,” said Ronda Cooperstein, a former teacher at Reginald F. Lewis High, the school where Berry was assaulted. “It’s a day-to-day problem, and if it doesn’t happen to me today, it might happen to you tomorrow.”

That’s apparently no exaggeration. In Baltimore this year, according to the Baltimore Sun, 50 students have been arrested and 112 have been expelled for assaulting staff members. State records, meanwhile, show that there have been 515 suspensions in Baltimore this year for student attacks on school staff.

The media coverage of the attack on Berry has at least heightened attention on addressing the problem. Among other things, the district plans to expand mental health and mentoring services for students and to make available additional funds for schools to implement anti-violence initiatives, such as mediation programs.

Some experts also say that teachers and school leaders need more intensive training in dealing with confrontations and defusing potentially violent situations. "Teachers need to sharpen their observation skills to notice when trouble is brewing," said Rick Phillips, executive director of Community Matters, a California organization. "They need to know how to intervene effectively."

Yet some emphasize that schools can’t fix the problem alone: "These issues are well beyond the school per se,” noted Anne-Marie Bond, a social work and community-outreach specialist at the University of Maryland Baltimore. “They reflect other layers in the community and experiences students have. It is hard for the school to address this without a more community-wide or city-wide approach."


Teachers are not responsible for security, principals are.

"Teachers are not responsible for security, principals are."

And I'm wondering what version of what bible this comes from? Principals may have a key role in leadership that creates security, but anyone who thinks they don't have a responsibility sure ain't been living in my neighborhood (or any others I have experienced).

Why should teachers OR principals be responsible. These students need to be arrested for assault and dealt with as the criminals they are. (Pretty harsh, but, to continue the Bible metaphor, "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.") It's time for some consequences ....

There have been thousands of articles and discussions about violence in our schools yet there has been little or no information about what teachers are to do when confronted with an attack on a student or themselves. I was involved in hundreds of assaults in my career and I paid for training to deal with the physical aspects of violence. I am in the process of dealing with the NEA on teacher training to deal with assaults. This court recognized training is critical to all educators in an increasingly violent atmosphere in our schools. Don't expect school boards or administrators to do anything for teachers because of fear of litigation. Teachers and our unions need to draw the line in the sand and prepare educators to deal with the dysfunctional atmosphere in schools. Do you feel confident that you can control a violent situation? I do. I welcome questions and comments.

It's east to sit here and think you have the solution from the safety if your home, but truth be told you don't know what you would do or how to handle the situation until you're faced with it.

A few points:

1) The time to deal with assaults on teachers (or students, bus drivers, parents or anyone else on the property for that matter) is long before they happen. When the situation has devolved to that level the options are limited.

2) Teachers and principals should be responsible because they are adults. The throw 'em all in jail school of thought is both reactionary and ineffective. It is irresponsible to deny any role in determining school climate and culture, and then jail students for what happens.

3) Alucis--all my knowledge of what I would do is assuredly based on my own prior experience, both in schools and "on the street." I can honestly say that my experience has been that to the extent that we deny responsibility for any condition we are doomed to allow the decisions of others to carry the day.

4) Even in this specific, which was an already inflamed situation before the teacher acted, the teacher had choices of actions that could escalate or de-escalate the situation.

I work in an alternative night high school in an urban area. I think most of our teachers are excellent in defusing situations and in trying to keep all students safe. Our principal works very hard to deal with problems in advance. However, in our society, it is becoming more acceptable to resort to violence when you don't get your way -- witness what is happening in children's sports and in "road rage." This is a sign of deeper problems overall. So you can be an excellent teacher and still end up in the middle of two fighting teenagers or have a student threaten you verbally because you are enforcing a school rule. In fact, if you are trying to provide a structured, safe environment where students succeed (often involving requiring students to wear IDs and use hall passes, etc.)there will be some students who resent authority of any type and who will react. So yes, principals and teachers do share responsibility for school security, but students have a responsibility to control themselves as well. By high school, they should have learned it is not acceptable to hit anyone. We are trying to prepare them for the adult world where they will live and work. In the real world, the people they interact with will not have had "training" in defusing situations, so we are trying to raise students who have self-control so they will behave in an adult manner -- no matter who they encounter.
And as an end note, it is true that unless you have worked in a classroom today, you don't understand how difficult it is to handle an emotionally-disturbed student while you are also trying to teach and keep up with all the paperwork and they myriad of other tasks you must perform. If attacks on teachers become commonplace, I think people will find other professions that are safer and less wearing emotionally. Security is becoming more and more a concern for me. I want to know what kind of training Mr. Calgaro (in an earler post) received.

In regards to Cheryl Wells question, I received training in two protocols called Disruptive Student Management and Spontaneous Knife Defense. I am certified to train educators in courses designed specifically for teachers. This training deals with many of the situations I encountered on the job. You may email me at [email protected] for more information.

I am a 4 foot 11 middle-aged woman. Even with defensive training, if a 6 foot 4 student is determined to assault me, there is little that I can do to effectively defend myself other than hunker down in the fetal position and pray. I have to rely on the administration to put in place strategies for dealing with violent students and then depend on them to follow through.

This morning a student intent on fighting another girl assaulted the teacher next door and it took over a minute before help arrived. This is not a job for the faint of heart. The only professional development I have had on this topic in 23 years is that I should not get between students fighting and that I have the legal responsibility to say STOP. Other than that, I'm pretty much on my own. Now I read that the art teacher in Baltimore was criticized for telling the student she would defend herself?!

There is not just a concern about attacks by students. More and more, their parents are leading the assault. Year before last, a group of 40 parents and other relatives were arrested at another school in our district after they arrived with the intent of going after the students and teachers they perceived were doing their child wrong. Societal norms have changed and schools must play catchup before more people get hurt.


I don't know how much the norms have changed. There was an important Supreme Court case around the turn of the century (that would be the 20th, not the 21st). The issue to be decided was whether or not teachers had a right to assign homework (and punish non-compliant students). It seems that a teacher had made such an assignment and levied a punishment on a non-compliant student (I believe it was corporal). The student hacked the teacher to death with a hatchet. The court ruled that teachers do have the right to assign homework.

I am also middle aged and short. It was always amusing (and very annoying) when my son's elementary school called me in because "nobody could handle" him.

I don't know how it is in your district/state--but in mine the teachers are highly protective of their right to select their own professional development. I am guessing that in 23 years there has been some element of choice in not attending any PD pertinent to de-escalating, preventing or responding to student violence. There are better strategies than curling up in the fetal position. I understand the thinking about not stepping between fighting parties, but I have done it before and likely will again. My choice.

I don't know who is providing your legal advice--but you might want to get a second opinion on the limits of your responsibility. Perhaps from someone outside the union. I have seen local union advice that really tended towards doing as little as possible. But then, poor working conditions are a good organizing strategy.


I have also heard about saying "STOP" in the case of a fight legal advice. But, I have never used it. Then again, I am 6'0 and about 210 lbs. Students are pretty big and a 4'11 middle aged woman could get really hurt if she gets punched hard by a male student, by accident or intentional.

If a student gets hurt the judge would consider what the "typical" teacher would do in your case. You wouldn't be held liable, if big monsters were fighting. But, if the students are smaller than you, why not step in?

In general, I think all of you are right. The students should be arrested, families should be more involved, principals are responsible for the security, but teachers are obligated to help protect the students in the school, etc. The thing is, all of this is being done and has been done. So, what else can be done?

What else can be done? If that's not being said with your hands thrown up in the air in complete defeat, that's the perfect question to start with.

What works in one school system may not work everywhere. You've got to know the students in your building. Let me rephrase that...you've got to have a relationship with the children you are working with. Awareness of surroundings and the cast of characters is essential. Physical building security should be a set of procedures and plans that are put in place that the entire community of the school works together to enforce. The staff, teachers, administrators, and students. Anybody on campus should be comfortable telling someone if somebody is having an 'off day' or that there is a potential problem.

Somebody made the comment that people in the real world won't have had training on how to defuse situations. My response to that is...it has got to start somewhere. Why not with our students???

I have watched countless times when a teacher who is stressed out over something had a student make a disrespectful comment and it escalated into a much larger incident than it ever should have. We are human as adults. That's a lesson that children need to be taught as well. It's how we handle the humanity that is important. Apologies. Correcting mistakes. Demonstrating understanding. Using a sense of humor...by the way, that is the greatest weapon on a school campus in dealing with mugs, thugs, and hoodlums. There is not enough laughter.

So, what do we do? In elementary school, teach communication...NOT THE TEST! Actually use experiences when bullying happens. Stop the aggressor without being critical and point out how it made YOU feel to watch. Share a time when somebody picked on you. Get it off the kids involved. Open up and let yourself be seen as a person.

Violence tends to happen when there is a disconnect, or a disregard for life. When the students know you, even if they don't like the subject you teach (and you do not have to be their big buddy or their best friend or cross any boundaries that you aren't comfortable with), but just the smallest sharing of yourself...of time...it may be the only positive the kids get.

So, what do we do now? We DO something. I am most certainly not the typical educator. Somewhere between being hostage negotiator, counselor, career and curriculum guidance advisor, crisis intervention person, parent, older sibling, instructor, mentor, traffic director, lunchroom monitor, team leader, keeper of the zoo, mediator, finance specialist, travel agent, facilities coordinator, professional writer, composer, director, CFO, CEO, coverage for other people during my planning, hall monitor, potty patrol, grounds keeper, doctor, motivator, entertainer, and priest for confessions for teenage drama, I have managed to teach several thousand students in fine arts programs, and adults in continuing education courses.

There is no training for people handling that doesn't start with a genuine concern for impacting those who matter the most. I have been pepper sprayed helping the police when some idiots came on campus threatening a bus full of kids. I'm not sure what my legal responsiblity was, but those were 'my kids' I disarmed a student who brought a knife to school. He didn't want to hurt anybody, he was scared of being hurt. He came to me because he didn't want to get in trouble, he is now 15 years later a probation officer for teenagers.

Expose the students to real culture. Incorporate the arts into every subject area. Let them write critically and learn to express their opinions in respectful ways. That is taught and learned (and not much these days).

The most important thing of all is to make sure if you are at the point of not knowing what to do next...or are saying 'now what?' and don't have a support system someplace to get answers, that you have your personal affairs in order. Everybody who is a kid today who lives long enough will be an adult in 10-15 years. Then they'll be one of us. We can't afford not do something now.

I am an older, larger lady who was brought up as a proper southern lady. I teach in an innercity elementary school and have been assualted several times by students smaller, the same size and larger. I do my best to protect the children in my class, to teach, to encourage and motivate each one. However, we are getting more and more children who are never told "no" and who think the entire world revolves around them and what they want. We have a larger number to children who are diagnosed as asocial when referred for testing. I have been bruised, cut, had joints dislocated and a bone broken. I had threats against my life and a student bring a gun to school to shoot me. I have had police encort to and from school because of the threats against my life. I learned a long time ago that the only protections I have are the strength of my local AFT union and a good lawyer. I file grievances against the administration of my school and sue the parent/s of the assualting student which puts the responsibility for proper behavior at school on the student and his/her parent/s. Since I began this course of action, there are fewer students who threaten my life or hit me. This is not ideal but we do not live in an ideal world.

A seldom discussed remedy for student violence is the coping failures that are rampant among today's youth. Coping with one's emotional stress, upsets and disappointments is LEARNED, not innate. If we could innoculate all students with a vaccine of emotional resilience, students would have no need to strike out against teachers or peers (bullying). The problem is that everyday emotionally wounding experiences are being transformed into "reptilian brain" impulses that put primitive survival instincts in control of kids' (and adults') brains. A new Internet learning resource is now available free to teach brain-based coping skills to students as young as 9-yrs. old. The website, which teachers and parents can refer to their students, is: www.copingskills4kids.net.


I think that it is very important to be quite specific regarding assumptions. How do you know that your students "have never been told 'no'?"

And what exactly is a diagnosis of "asocial?"

There seem to be two "threads" to this discussion: what we ought to do to make violence against teachers LESS likely to occur and what to do after it occurs.

I think some of what prevents violence is due to the corporate culture(s) of the schools. I taught in HS for 38 years and never witnessed an act of violence against a teacher. Perhaps we were doing the right thing(s).

The other thread is what we should do AFTER an act of violence is perpetrated on a teacher. At that point, after an assault has been committed, the law should take over. Maybe I'm old enough to believe that when there are real and immediate negative consequences to actions, students will think twice before acting impulsively.

I know it worked when I was a kid ....

I am insulted that once again it seems to be the fault of teachers that the violence is occuring... "Teachers need to sharpen their observation skills to notice when trouble is brewing," said Rick Phillips, executive director of Community Matters, a California organization. "They need to know how to intervene effectively." I have to wonder if Mr. Phillips has ever been in a classroom in any capacity other than a student. I appears his last experience in a classroom was in the 1950s. Discipline is what is needed. We desperately need principals and district administration that are not afraid of the parents and students. I've worked in schools that had both good and bad discipline, and that is what I've found to be a definitive factor.

Do I have a right as a teacher to refuse service to a violent student who hits others and threatens me both physically and by saying things like your breath smells like pus--? What do I do If I get little or no support from administers? When can I stand up for the students who want to learn at what point do I consider their rights?

I'm a 63 year old elementary teacher and have recently begun to witness violent actions by students against teachers. Both the children in question were main-streamed with mental health issues. Why aren't these children in Behavior Intervention Classes? Why are they even IN a regular education setting? Why is my safety and the safety of my other students taking a backseat to the Special Education 'needs' of violent and agressive children? These children are 8 and 10 years old! The 'trained' teachers emerge from interventions with bleeding scratches, bruises all over and absolutely NO assistance from Central Office. I'm disgusted. These children threaten to kill us, and do in fact injure us. Is this really the 'Least Restrictive Environment' for these children? They need to be in a setting where they can be taught coping skills. The regular ed. setting is NOT appropriate. Period.

I was attacked in a school in San Diego by a student. Does anybody know of a good law firm that helps teachers? This was too years ago and I am still thinking about suing the school.
thank you much!

I am a second grade teacher in an urban setting. This year, I have a student who has hit me, destroyed parts of my classroom, threatened to stab a coworker, and hit the vice principle. After suspension and a team meeting it was determined that the child would be allowed to come back to school, and not by the team so much as by the school district. Is there any legal action that can be taken in a situation like this one? After reading the comments in this thread, it appears as though teachers are at the mercy of their students. What ever happened to consequences and absolutes within the school system? How can it be that board members are more concerned about their own backsides than the safety of their staff members? I am disgusted with how far the standards for public education have dropped, and can understand how teachers would consider leaving the profession, because I don't see any reason to stay under conditions like this. Those individuals who have made previous comments and have been under much worse conditions, I highly commend you- you deserve a congressional medal of honor for the work you are doing! Does anyone have any positive insight? I am very open to suggestions. Thanks!

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