Elkins Elementary teacher Kate Sannicks-Lerner said she has faced violence throughout her career. Most recently, she was kicked, slapped, and cursed out by a first-grader. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer) Violence Targets Teachers, Staff
In the last school year, 690 teachers were assaulted; in the last five years, 4,000 were.
By Susan Snyder, Kristen A. Graham, John Sullivan, and Dylan Purcell
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS
Veteran Philadelphia school teacher Lou Austin endured 40 minutes of terror as the 15-year-old ninth grader jabbed his index finger into Austin’s temple and threatened to kill him while swinging a pair of scissors menacingly.
Austin didn’t even know the youth, who ransacked his classroom – flipping desks and attempting to set fire to books – at Lincoln High School in Mayfair on Valentine’s Day. He’d merely asked him to step away from his classroom door and go to his own class when the youth exploded.
Austin’s experience illustrates the dangers and frustration that teachers in Philadelphia public schools face daily. During the 2009-10 school year, 690 teachers were assaulted. Over five years, from 2005-06 to 2009-10, more than 4,000 teacher assaults were reported, a yearlong Inquirer investigation has found.
And that doesn’t include incidents of threats, disruption, and utter disrespect.
“All I could do was to stand there with my hands behind my back, accept the abuse, and hope this did not infuriate him even more,” said Austin, a Philadelphia teacher for 15 years who graduated from Lincoln in 1984.
His story also illustrates how teachers must cope with violent, disturbed students with little backup from the district.
The assaults can turn decidedly dangerous.
Violence against school staff in Philadelphia gained national attention in 2007 when Germantown High School teacher Frank Burd was attacked by a special-education student with a history of disruptive behavior and emotional problems.
The ninth grader was cutting class and roaming the halls when another student pushed Burd, knocking him into the special-ed student. The teen reacted by punching Burd – a man he didn’t even know – three times in the face. Burd fell and broke his neck. He never returned to teaching.
The case prompted a district crackdown on violence against teachers, including the establishment of a teacher-safety hotline and more stringent penalties for offenders. City police promised to respond to all calls of assaults at schools and to make arrests if the victim approved.
But four years later, teachers continue to be used as punching bags by wayward students, much to the chagrin of their union.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, met with School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman in November after two teachers in one week suffered concussions when they were assaulted by students.
“It’s been a very challenging first semester,” Jordan said later. “We’ve been getting reports from our members about the kinds of assaults that are taking place in schools and the lack of follow-though on discipline.
“There has to be follow-through to be sure teachers are able to teach and kids are able to learn.”
His meeting with Ackerman led to a joint memo on Nov. 8 to the School District staff, reminding them to take a hard line on bullying and assaults.
“Some students have decided to be a disruptive force in our schools,” the memo said, adding that the School District “will not tolerate this behavior and is reemphasizing its zero-tolerance policy in two major areas: Acts of student violence against adults and bullying.”
The memo said that an assault on staff would result in a 10-day suspension, transfer to an alternative school, and possible formal expulsion and criminal charges.
But, The Inquirer found, that’s clearly not an iron-clad rule, especially in cases involving special-education students.
Under state and federal law, school officials must take a student’s disability into consideration when deciding on punishment and consequences. In most cases, they must look at the appropriateness of the student’s special-education program and whether the behavior was a manifestation of his or her disability, which can include learning, emotional or physical problems.
If the school was not giving the student adequate help, then a change in the child’s program or education services may be the right consequence, according to special-education experts.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a student can’t be disciplined.
Most special-education students can be suspended for as many as 15 school days each academic year – and longer if the district gets a parent’s permission or takes it to a hearing. Students also can be transferred to disciplinary schools in some cases.
But the regulations are not easily interpreted.
“Special-education law is complex and confusing, and that’s why many people mistakenly believe that schools are unable or prohibited from dealing with behavior problems involving kids with disabilities,” said Len Rieser, executive director of the Education Law Center, a nonprofit in Philadelphia. “In fact, schools have options, but school personnel are not always clear on what they are.”
An Inquirer investigation in the aftermath of the attack on Burd found that special-education students were responsible for an inordinate number of assaults on teachers and other school staff.
In 2007, special-education students accounted for just 14 percent of the city’s school enrollment, yet committed 43 percent of the 7,547 assaults on staff during the previous five-year period. The numbers haven’t changed much. From September through February of this school year, 1,628 assaults have been reported in the district, and about 39 percent included at least one special-education student as an offender, School District spokeswoman Shana Kemp said. About 14 percent of the student body is in special education, excluding gifted students.
The 2007 investigation also found that the district routinely failed to provide services to special-education students, and therefore felt it could not follow through with discipline if the students assaulted a staff member.
In the case of the Lincoln student, Kemp said a suspension would not have been appropriate.
And she said that even though the youth faces a criminal charge, he could end up back at Lincoln – his neighborhood school – because of his status as a special-needs student. The district would make a decision along with other behavioral and mental health agencies after his case was adjudicated, she said.
“The young man had emotional disturbances. We can’t refuse a student entry into a school based upon that situation,” she said.
Austin learned that the teen had been allowed to enroll at Lincoln in January without teachers’ knowing his history. He was perplexed.
Kemp said the district – by law – can’t release medical details about the student to staff.
In the Lincoln incident, the teen initially was charged with aggravated assault, criminal mischief, possessing an instrument of crime, terroristic threats, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person.
On Feb. 25, he made an admission to simple assault and terroristic threats charges, both misdemeanors. Disposition of his case is pending.
A right to defend
Under the teachers’ contract approved in January 2010, teachers were granted the authority to use force to defend themselves.
The contract says a teacher “may use reasonable force to protect himself/herself or others from attack or injury or to quell a disturbance which threatens physical injury to a teacher or others.”
Reasonable force is defined as the same level of “physical control” a parent could legally use to deal with a child.
Teachers gave union leaders a standing ovation when they announced the provision before the contract vote.
But even with this new provision, teachers remain cautious because of past experience.
Barry Strube, a physical education teacher at Olney High School East, spent two months in a disciplinary room – dubbed the “rubber room” or “teacher’s jail” – while his case was being decided after an incident in January 2010.
It started when a student in his health class refused to sit down. Strube said he put his hand on the student’s shoulder and the boy “burst up,” threatened to kill him, cursed him out, and tried to hit him, he said.
“I grabbed him by his book bag, spun him away from me, and took him across the hall to the discipline room,” said Strube, who has taught at the school for 16 years.
The student complained to the administration that Strube had hit him. The student later admitted he had lied, Strube said.
Ellwood teacher Glynnis Gradwell
“There is no real answer”
Strube was allowed to return to teaching, but said he was suspended for three days, and told he should have somehow called for help. The school also tried to take away his football coaching position, but the union filed a grievance and won, he said.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous that they’re accusing me of doing anything,” Strube said. “I don’t know what else I could have done. I was doing what I thought was a good thing – getting him out of the room as quickly as possible.”
Kemp, the district spokeswoman, said Strube “was provided due process” but declined to elaborate, saying it was a personnel matter.
Jordan, the PFT president, says too often teachers are blamed when violence occurs.
“Incidents are reported and, instead of following up, teachers are questioned as to what is it they did in order to cause the behavior to occur, which is really the wrong approach,” Jordan said.
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