Students' assaults on teachers hit high in 2006

Attacks in county schools steadily rising

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Nightmares and pain keep reminding Arthur Becker of his last job as a substitute teacher.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Substitute teacher Arthur Becker was injured in December when students at Shaler Area Intermediate School threw an M-80 firecracker into his classroom. Becker continues to suffer hearing loss and vision problems.
Click photo for larger image.

It was Dec. 15, at Shaler Area Intermediate School. He was alone in a classroom sitting at his desk. The room was quiet and he was reading when suddenly there was a loud bang.

His right ear went deaf. His eyesight blurred. He staggered from his chair and collapsed on a nearby table, holding his head, bearing the pain and wondering what had hit him. Students had tossed an M-80 explosive into the room and it blew up next to Mr. Becker's desk.

"This took something out of me I'll never get back," he said.

Two boys, ages 14 and 15, were arrested, expelled and sent to alternative schools. Mr. Becker has been unable to work since then, and doctors tell him the hearing loss and eye damage he suffered could be permanent.

Mr. Becker, 60, is among 179 teachers in Allegheny County schools who were physically assaulted by students while doing their jobs last year.

Juvenile probation records show the number of teachers assaulted by students in Allegheny County schools is steadily rising.

From 2002 to 2006, there were 621 cases of students assaulting teachers on school campuses. The 179 teacher assaults recorded in 2006 were the highest in Allegheny County history although the school population has been declining, according to the Allegheny County Juvenile Probation Department.

In December, a female paraprofessional at Arsenal Middle School in Lawrenceville was kicked in the head by an eighth-grade boy.

  

All students had been asked to leave the school building during a fire drill that day, but the student said it was too cold for him and refused to go outside. He also was wearing a brand-new pair of Jordans and had put plastic over them to keep them from getting dirty. He fell to the floor, refusing to go outside. But when the teacher walked over and bent down to talk to him, the boy kicked her in the head.

"She had a great relationship with him. I don't know why he did that," said Mark Johnson, a probation officer assigned to Arsenal. "He was handcuffed and taken to the security office. He was apologetic after the fact. But to him, if he didn't want to go, he felt he didn't have to go, so he exploded."

Hardly a week goes by when at least one teacher is not assaulted in this county.

In recent months, court records show a male student at Carrick High School shoved a female teacher with his elbow hard enough for her to lose her balance. Another student at Carrick punched his teacher in the arm and shoved her out of the way to re-enter a classroom.

A student at Brashear High School slapped a teacher in the face. A student at McNaugher Education Center on the North Side hit and spat at several teachers during a fierce temper tantrum, and eventually bit one teacher on the arm, requiring that teacher to receive a tetanus shot and be tested for Hepatitis B and C.

Many assaults don't even get reported because teachers refuse to press charges.

"It's completely up to the victim," said Jim Rieland, director of Allegheny County juvenile probation. "The important thing to me is they do it as an informed decision. If the kid is already under our supervision, we can handle it as a violation of probation."

Some injuries have led to substantial medical bills and lost wages.

Pittsburgh Public Schools has three open worker's compensation claims as a result of teacher assaults which occurred in 1997, 2005 and 2006. Those claims have cost taxpayers $386,854 so far.

The 1997 injury occurred when a student threw an unidentified object that struck a teacher in the neck. The 2005 claim involved a confrontation on the stairs between a teacher and a student. The teacher's back and shoulder were injured when the teacher grabbed a rail to avoid falling down the stairs. The 2006 claim stems from a neck injury a teacher received trying to break up a fight.

Members of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers are entitled to 20 extra days of sick leave each year for injuries related to assaults, but districts have set stringent rules to qualify for the benefit.

For the first three days, teachers must use their own sick days. They must file a police report against the student and get a doctor's excuse, and school administrators must agree that an assault has occurred.

Although Mr. Becker had worked for 12 years as a day-to-day substitute for Shaler Area School District, he's not a union member and has not yet been able to collect any worker's compensation benefits.

"I've lost wages," he said. "And I had two things on me [right eye and right ear] that were working perfectly at 60 years old. What galls me is those kids had no regard for my well-being."

Mr. Becker has had some of his medical bills paid by School Claims Services and is continuing to pursue lost wages and other damages.

Nancy Addy, a drama teacher at Langley High School, said she and her colleagues have seen a growing number of youngsters who lack civility and seem to be more rude and abusive than ever.

"Teachers talk about the fact that teaching is harder than it used to be," said Ms. Addy, a 15-year veteran. "Things are different than they were when I was a student. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that children are raised differently.

"I don't believe kids are immoral. But they come from environments that are amoral, and these are the kids we are teaching," Ms. Addy said.

While most of the incidents do not result in serious injury, student assaults on teachers are taken seriously by the juvenile justice system. If a student touches a single hair on a teacher, the charge is automatically upgraded to aggravated assault, which is a felony.

"I don't believe we've had guns and knives, but certainly teachers have been hit with objects like loaded book bags," Mr. Rieland said. "Most of the assaults happen in classrooms. But also in the cafeteria and hallways where teachers might be trying to break up a fight.

"To me it's just a real breakdown in social norms, a real crossing of lines that just didn't happen before when a kid thinks it's OK to put their hands on a teacher in any form."

Some teachers are at greater risk than others of being attacked by a student, according to a 2006 study by the U.S. Department of Education. Male teachers are more than twice as likely to report an attack than female teaches and elementary school teachers were more likely than secondary school teachers to be attacked.

Public school teachers are more likely than private school teachers to be threatened with injury or physically attacked by students in school. And teachers in central city schools were more likely than their peers in suburban or rural schools to report being threatened with injury or physically attacked, according to the study.

"You'll find religious and independent schools are safer," said Joe McTighe, executive director of the Council for American Private Education in Germantown, Md. "Their environment is more orderly and disciplined and there is a lot less tolerance of behavior that victimizes others. The numbers speak for themselves."

School principals sometimes discourage teachers from filing charges or downplay confrontations with teachers and students so their schools won't be seen as unsafe, said Nina Esposito-Visgitis, a staff representative with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.

Any time a student assaults a teacher in Allegheny County that student is arrested and taken to the Shuman Juvenile Detention Center.

Within 72 hours they're scheduled to see a hearing officer, who decides if they are to be released or detained longer, depending on factors such as whether it was a first-time offense, if the child is a discipline problem with prior fights and suspensions and the extent of injuries to the teacher.

Chances are they won't go back to their old school. They'll be sent to an alternative school. Then they'll be monitored by the court system.

"Our goal is to work with the kid, their family and the school to ensure the kid will stay in school and achieve. Not just punish them," Mr. Rieland said. "The whole idea is to get them to move to the next grade and hopefully graduate."

John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers recently reached a tentative agreement with Pittsburgh Public Schools for a new alternative school run by a private firm, Community Education Partners, that will take 432 of the most persistently disruptive students in grades 6 through 12 out of the regular system and provide them a special school setting at Clayton School.

"We are serious about this," Mr. Tarka said. "The schools are having problems, and we need to get this under control. Certainly teachers expect and must be able to work without constant interruption, threats or any acts of violence."

Part of the problem with trying to punish some youthful offenders is they view probation and jail time as a status symbol.

Probation officer Jason Newhouse remembers one girl who was forced to wear a leg monitor after she continued to get in more and more trouble. Rather than be ashamed of the court-ordered bracelet, she came to school with her pants leg rolled up with decorations on it.

"A lot of times kids don't want to take responsibility. And when they are confronted by authority they take it as disrespect," Mr. Newhouse said. "They don't want to hear constructive criticism.

"Not to say I haven't been disrespected, but kids tend to show me more respect because I can send them back to court. Teachers can't sanction them like I can. Kids take advantage of that and it makes things more difficult for teachers."


Tim Grant can be reached at tgrant@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1591.


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