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Teacher killings bring profession's risks to light

| Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013, 9:54 p.m.
Columbia High School Principal John Sawchuk poses at the school on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, in East Greenbush, N.Y. In 2004 Sawchuk found himself wrestling a 16-year-old student for the loaded shotgun the boy used to wound a teacher in his East Greenbush, N.Y. school. 'That was the most terrifying moment of my life, something I will never forget,” Sawchuk said. “I kept thinking, if I let go, he's going to kill me.' A 2011 survey found that 80 percent of teachers reported being intimidated, harassed, assaulted or otherwise victimized at least once during the previous year. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

When a 16-year-old student slammed a metal trash can onto Philip Raimondo's head, it did more than break open the history teacher's scalp, knock him out and send him bleeding to the floor.

“It changed my whole world,” Raimondo said.

Experts say the phenomenon of student-on-teacher violence is too often ignored.

“There's some reluctance to think that the teaching profession can be unsafe,” said Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois.

The educational psychology professor recently headed a national task force on classroom violence directed at teachers. The group found that little has been done to try to understand or prevent such incidents despite the potential implications on teacher retention and student performance, among other things.

But the October deaths, one day apart, of Nevada middle school math teacher Michael Landsberry, who was shot on a basketball court by a suicidal 12-year-old, and Massachusetts high school math teacher Colleen Ritzer, who authorities said was attacked by a 14-year-old student inside a school bathroom, have brought the issue to the forefront.

About 4 percent of public school teachers reported they had been attacked physically during the 2007-08 school year, according to the Department of Education, citing a 2012 school safety report. Seven percent were threatened with injury by a student.

A 2011 survey found that 80 percent of teachers reported being intimidated, harassed, assaulted or otherwise victimized at least once during the previous year.

“The reality is it can happen anywhere,” said Columbia High School principal John Sawchuk, who in 2004 had to wrestle a 16-year-old student for a loaded shotgun the boy used to wound a teacher in his East Greenbush, N.Y., school.

“That was the most terrifying moment of my life, something I will never forget,” Sawchuk said. “I kept thinking, if I let go, he's going to kill me.

“You never really get over it. You try to learn from it,” said Sawchuk, who added security officers, stepped up emergency drills and has stressed heightened vigilance since the shooting.

“We don't leave a stone unturned anymore,” he said.

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