Classrooms in crisis: Violence plagues schools

Elizabeth Behrman
| Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, 12:24 a.m.

New Kensington-Arnold Middle School teacher Diane Swigart retired early on disability after she was injured twice in a year in altercations with students, one of which put her out of work for a month.

A Philadelphia high school teacher was hospitalized in December when two students beat him in a dispute over a cellphone.

Scores of teachers in Western Pennsylvania are the targets of assaults by students each year, according to state data.

Education experts said teachers face varying degrees of violence almost daily. Some, like Swigart, get injured while trying to break up fights. Others contend with name-calling, verbal abuse, physical assaults, property damage and intimidation.

“We need to recognize teaching is a hazardous occupation,” said Dorothy Espelage, a professor of counseling and educational psychology at the University of Illinois Champaign.

Espelage chaired a task force appointed by the American Psychological Association in 2008 to study the issue of violence against teachers. In their report, the researchers dubbed it a “national crisis” that needs to be addressed primarily by providing teachers with more training and resources to deal with children who are physically aggressive.

Not only does the aggressive behavior threaten teacher safety, but their performance — and therefore student performance — can be affected, Espelage said. Proficient teachers sometimes choose to leave the school or the profession.

In Swigart's case, injury came when fighting students retaliated as she tried to intervene.

In February 2012, she saw a student throw another boy against a locker and begin beating him on the floor. She crouched down behind the 14-year-old and told him to stop.

“I knew the kid. I had him in class, and I knew when he gets emotionally upset, he gets physical,” said Swigart, who was a seventh-grade math teacher. “He reached up and grabbed me by the neck and flipped me over his shoulder, and I wound up on the floor between them.”

Swigart, who was 51 at the time, suffered a concussion and a shoulder injury. She was out of school about four weeks while she recovered.

“I know a lot of teachers who won't step in to break up a fight, and that's a personal choice,” Swigart said. “I don't blame them.”

Swigart said she was hurt again a year later as she tried to break up another fight in the school cafeteria. She decided to retire early on disability.

Aggressive behavior in schools isn't unusual. Students who bring weapons to school make headlines. Videos of students assaulting teachers are easy to find on YouTube.

Allegheny County school districts reported 31 aggravated assaults and 140 simple assaults against teachers in the 2014-15 school year, state records show. They reported 203 incidents of threats directed at students or school staff. Districts in Westmoreland County reported five assaults, 82 fights and 41 threats. Those numbers have been steady over the past three years.

The reasons students act out vary, Espelage said. Some might experience violence at home or have disengaged parents. Some have special needs or undiagnosed behavioral problems. In some cases, it could be that the teacher doesn't have control of the class or the respect of students.

In November, teachers in the Woodland Hills School District filed a complaint with the union about a group of kindergarten and second-grade students who were biting, scratching and hitting them. In response, the district added teachers to reduce class sizes and set aside a vacant classroom as a space where troubled students could go to calm down.

Superintendent Alan Johnson said he is struggling to understand the “explosion” in aggression among younger children. Woodland Hills created an alternative education program in 2012, and Johnson said he realized afterward that the district needed to expand it to elementary school students with behavior issues.

He believes economic challenges and a lack of parent engagement cause certain children to be socially unprepared for a school setting. Children also witness violence, vulgarity and obscenity on television and in the video games they play, Johnson said.

“We can't just segregate them from school,” Johnson said. “We have to find a way to work with them. We have to find a way to engage them.”

Domenic Colangelo, a veteran eighth-grade math teacher and president of the Franklin Regional Education Association, said the topic of assaults on teachers is complex: Children with serious behavior issues have a right to be educated in the least restrictive environment, and teachers have a right to a safe workplace.

Colangelo said he respects the laws that protect the rights of students with disabilities that might cause them to strike out.

“But the negative underbelly of that is by being more compassionate, we may be putting more people at risk,” he said.

John Pallone, New Kensington-Arnold's superintendent, said he does not classify Swigart's experience as an assault on a teacher.

Fights in schools have been a “fact of life” for decades, he said. The only thing teachers can do is intervene when they can, dole out the appropriate punishments or call police.

“We are dealing with a society of young men and young women who have a completely different set of values than those of us who were raised in the '60s, '70s and the '80s, and I don't know how you change that,” he said.

Students used to fight each other after school and afterward make peace; this generation's fights just seem to grow worse, Pallone said.

As an elementary school principal, Carolyn Kotts-Hankinson encouraged her teachers to stand at their classroom doors to reassure and welcome students. She also wanted her staff to work together to recognize which students could have a problem and figure out a way to stop it from becoming physical.

“There are a lot of trigger points for students,” Kotts-Hankinson said. “The best course to deal with and address those trigger points are a faculty and administration that work in harmony.”

She retired in 2011 as principal of University Park Elementary School after more than 35 years in the education field. She was a special education teacher at the middle- and high-school levels before working as an administrator at the Woodland Hills and Gateway school districts.

Teachers at all levels and in all districts experience students who lash out physically, Kotts-Hankinson said.

She said she was surprised by how many of her new and veteran teachers would come to her and admit that they had never been taught what to do in a situation in which a student grows violent.

“That is definitely an area that universities have neglected, based on my personal observation,” Kotts-Hankinson said.

Espelage observed the same thing in her research.

“It really does come down to the training and how we teach,” she said. “We teach theory in classroom management.”

The issue of violence toward teachers is understudied and under-reported, she said.

Districts self-report the data used in the Pennsylvania School Safety report, and it may not always reflect the magnitude of what happens inside the classroom.

In April 2014, Alex Hribal, a student at Franklin Regional High School injured 20 students and a school security guard after he went on a stabbing spree before first period. Franklin Regional School District's annual school safety report for that year listed one aggravated assault against a teacher, one aggravated assault against a student, two threats against a student or staff member and one incident of attempted murder.

Hribal is charged with 21 counts each of aggravated assault and attempted murder.

“I think there's just a fear that if we talk ab out it, it will expose it,” Espelage said. “I think ethically, we need to tend to this.”

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. Reach her at 412-320-7886 or lbehrman@tribweb.com. Staff writers Tom Yerace and Debra Erdley contributed.

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