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Pittsburgh Public Schools reviews safety measures after teacher assaults

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, 6:09 p.m.
Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration offices in Oakland on Tuesday, June 7, 2016.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, at the Pittsburgh Public Schools administration offices in Oakland on Tuesday, June 7, 2016.
Daishonta Williams, assault suspect
Allegheny County Jail
Daishonta Williams, assault suspect
Assault victim Janice Watkins
WPXI
Assault victim Janice Watkins

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet is reaching out to teachers and staff at King PreK-8 school after two violent incidents involving teachers in the past week.

“I want to hear directly from faculty and staff some of the things that they might need,” Hamlet told the Tribune-Review. “They have my full support, and we're going to brainstorm ideas around things that we are going to do and how to have a more positive impact.”

Hamlet discussed safety challenges and concerns during a meeting Wednesday with Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. They arranged for the superintendent to meet with King's faculty and staff on Thursday, district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said.

“I'm really excited about the superintendent coming out to hear from the teachers,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “We all have to continue working together to make sure that school is a place where students want to learn and teachers want to teach.”

The first violent incident happened last Wednesday when a student's mother allegedly threw a brick through the open car window of teacher Janice Watkins while she was sitting in traffic near the West End Bridge, striking her in the face and knocking out a tooth.

Hamlet, who said he planned to phone Watkins on Wednesday night to see how she was doing, described the incident as “heinous, unfortunate and uncalled for.”

“That was a horrendous incident that I never hope occurs again,” said Esposito-Visgitis, who spoke with Watkins over the weekend and reported that the teacher is recovering. A substitute is teaching her class.

Police filed assault and other charges against parent Daishonta Williams, 29, of the North Side. Williams told police that she believed Watkins had tried to choke her daughter after the girl allegedly bit Watkins when the teacher tried to take the girl's cellphone, police said.

Pugh said officials are evaluating various accounts of the events. “All claims are being fully investigated,” she said.

On Tuesday, another teacher sought medical attention after an incident involving a student at the school, Trib news partner WPXI-TV reported.

“We're concerned about any incidents that involve the physical harm of students and teachers,” Pugh said. “The superintendent and the teachers union are discussing how to ensure that school is a peaceful, welcoming place where students and teachers feel comfortable.”

Esposito-Visgitis said several efforts are in the works to improve safety and discipline across the district, including restorative justice practices that prioritize learning from mistakes over punishment and a behavior modification program called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS. She urges every school to keep its discipline committee updated with safety problems.

“Every school handles things a little differently, depending on the supports that they have put in place and the supports that are available,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “Communication is key to any positive relationship and to getting things done.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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