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Violence Against Teachers Is on the Rise.

Private schools that allowed in-person learning during the pandemic were at a distinct advantage. Lock kids at home behind computer screens for an extended period of time leads to depression, anti-social behavior, and long-term learning impacts.

States like Florida, which embraced getting kids back in a social learning environment reaped massive benefits. Progressive states that didn't are dealing with the fallout.

‘There Were Fists Everywhere.’ Violence Against Teachers Is on the Rise.

Assaults ratchet up since return to in-person learning, adding to broader concerns about safety in schools

By Scott Calvert, WSJ

June 4, 2023 12:01 am ET

SPARKS, Nev.—When English teacher Lauren Forbus saw three students at her middle school sneak in through an exit-only door, she stood in the hall with outstretched arms and told them to turn around. Instead, she said, they cursed at her and told her to move.

Then came a push that spun her around, she later told school police. Her face smacked into a set of blue lockers. Dazed, she found herself lying on the carpeted floor, tasting blood, as her colleagues called for help and Dilworth Middle School went into lockdown. Her right eye later turned black and blue.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” she recalled. “I just knew I was in pain.”

The incident on Dec. 15 jolted the 61,000-pupil Washoe County School District and injected fresh urgency into its efforts to better protect staff amid growing concerns about student violence.

So far this school year, students in the district have committed more than three dozen acts of criminal battery against staff, according to school police. District officials call both the frequency and nature of the incidents alarming.

“Most minutes of the school day everything is fine, but then there are these flashpoints of violence,” Washoe County school board president Beth Smith said.

Across the U.S., violence against teachers has ratcheted up since the widespread return to in-person learning in 2021, and in some areas the problem is worse than it was prepandemic. The data are limited, because many states don’t specifically track teacher assaults, or use the same methodology to make the data comparable.

From September through May of the current school year, the number of assault-related workers’ compensation claims filed at some 2,000 schools in different regions of the U.S. topped 1,350, a five-year high, according to claims and risk-management services firm Gallagher Bassett.

The average cost of those claims has increased 26% to around $6,700 compared with the same period in 2018-19.

“We are witnessing the highest levels of frequency, severity and complexity for these kinds of assault claims when compared to the last four complete school calendar years,” said Greg McKenna, public-sector practice leader at Gallagher Bassett.

Several high-profile attacks on educators have made national headlines, such as in Newport News, Va., where authorities said a 6-year-old boy wounded teacher Abigail Zwerner in January by intentionally shooting her in the hand and chest with a gun he brought from home. The boy’s family has said he has an acute disability. His mother faces criminal charges of child neglect and for leaving the gun in reach of the child. She hasn’t entered a plea, her lawyer said. In March, two administrators at Denver’s East High School were shot and wounded by a 17-year-old student who fled and was later found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot.

In a nationwide American Psychological Association survey of nearly 15,000 teachers and staff from July 2020 to June 2021, 14% of teachers reported physical violence from students, and 49% of teachers said they wanted to quit or switch schools. While teachers are frequently hurt intervening in fights, some are targeted. The incidents go along with more attention on violence in schools more broadly, including fighting and bullying among students.

“Across the board, we continue to see significant mental and behavioral health challenges with youth, some of which are manifesting in violence and aggression to fellow students and staff,” said Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of School Psychologists. She said greater access to school psychologists, counselors and social workers is needed, along with increased involvement of students’ families.

Many educators cite unmet mental-health needs and social disruption during the pandemic as causes. Others partly blame a shift to disciplinary practices they say create a sense of impunity among students by de-emphasizing traditional punishment for misconduct.

Teacher safety concerns—largely tied to student fights—are a front-burner issue in northern Nevada’s vast Washoe County. The district is taking a multitrack approach, officials said, working to toughen penalties for misbehavior and to make it easier for teachers to summon help, while expanding students’ access to mental-health care.

In the first 110 days of the school year, the district recorded 7,418 violent events, a category that includes fighting and bullying. That is the most in five years and an 8% increase from 2018-19, officials said.

Also up are the number of incidents in which students strike school staff, said Paul LaMarca, a social psychologist who oversees behavior issues as the district’s chief strategies officer. “It seems like it’s been a bit more extreme, a little bit more frequent this school year than it has in the past,” he said.

A subset of more-serious incidents classified as criminal battery by school police, who are armed law enforcement, are down compared with 2018-19, but have edged higher since the start of the pandemic. School district officials said the data aren’t complete because teachers don’t always report incidents, but administrators, teachers and school board members say they feel the problem has gotten worse.

‘Freaking out on the inside’

Dilworth Middle is a cream-colored, one-story school in the city of Sparks just east of Reno, and its roughly 630 students mostly come from low-income households. It shares one school police officer with several other schools.

Veteran math teacher Jennifer Malaterre, 38, said she has broken up more than 20 fights this school year at Dilworth, the latest in mid-May. One day in February, she said, she felt the familiar surge of adrenaline after hearing commotion in the hall. Racing out, she saw three girls brawling, she recalled, and waded into the chaos.

“There were fists everywhere. One girl was on the ground. It was all three of them against each other. They were all mad at each other, going crazy,” she said.

Though teachers aren’t required to intervene or trained to quell fights, she and colleagues said they do so reflexively. She said she uses her body as a buffer and tries not to touch students. In the February incident, she said, she grabbed one girl’s backpack to get her out of the scrum and immediately felt a twinge of pain in her wrist.

Her co-teacher Jamie Lindsey, 28, spent her birthday in 2021 at the hospital after a girl who was fighting jerked her head back, striking Lindsey’s face hard enough to bloody her nose. Since then, Lindsey has mostly let co-workers like Malaterre lead the response to altercations. She has worked with a counselor to process the anxiety she feels whenever she hears a hallway ruckus.

“I’m freaking out on the inside, but on the outside I can’t show that to the students. I can’t. I have to come back in and do my job,” she said on a spring morning as students filed into the brightly painted classroom she and Malaterre share. “I signed up as a teacher, not as a police officer.”

In February, the school board approved a contract with Care Solace, a company that uses an online portal and phone line to link students, parents and staff to in-person mental-health care, which is paid for by the families or insurance or Medicaid. Officials said schools will be safer if students can get help to resolve their personal problems.

Strobach, the director of policy and advocacy at the National Association of School Psychologists, said mental-health coordination programs such as Care Solace aren’t as good as having people in a school building who can provide on-the-spot help to de-escalate a situation and get students back to class. She said that while Nevada is trying to improve, it has “one of the worst shortages of school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers in the country.”

A spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Education declined to comment.

Jason Trevino, chief of the school district police, said in his opinion more students today show “brazenness for the disregard of adult authority” that he pegged to anti-police protests in recent years.

A fight at Washoe’s Spanish Springs High in February erupted despite the presence of at least two adults, one of whom fell to the floor after being hit by a student, a video posted online shows. One student pulled free of two staff members and kept fighting, as students whooped.

District officials said privacy laws bar them from commenting on specific consequences for students. Typically, students in middle and high school face one-to-three day suspensions for fighting. Students who injure staff can be temporarily transferred to an alternative school that emphasizes social-emotional learning and behavior support, and they can be prosecuted through the juvenile court system.

Over the past decade, many U.S. school districts have begun relying less on out-of-school suspensions in favor of so-called restorative practices, which can include group-based social-skills training sessions and conferences where those affected by an incident jointly discuss how to resolve the situation, said Anne Gregory, a professor in Rutgers University’s school psychology program.

Out-of-school suspensions raise a student’s odds of dropping out and being arrested, she said, and disproportionately affect Black students. She said her research has found evidence that restorative practices can reduce chances a previously suspended student will be suspended again.

In Nevada in 2019, the legislature passed a restorative-practices law that tried to rein in the use of suspensions and some other punishments. But last week, Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo, who campaigned on school safety as a candidate in 2022, signed legislation rolling back that law amid bipartisan criticism that the pendulum had swung too far toward lenience.

Teacher shortage

Susan Enfield, superintendent of the Washoe school district, said she hears from counterparts around the U.S. who are similarly grappling with school safety issues. She described students today as quicker to turn to physical force compared with prior years. “What might have started with name-calling and maybe a shove,” she said, “sort of starts with a punch in the face.”

Enfield said she thinks lingering effects of pandemic-related disruptions and trauma are contributing to student violence.

There is a practical need to make progress, she said: Work conditions rank second only to pay in retaining staff, and Washoe, like many districts, already has a teacher shortage.

Jennifer Flores, the mother of a Dilworth sixth-grader who saw Forbus lying on the floor, said she feels bad for teachers and worries about her daughter. “Being kind of an innocent bystander and getting pushed or thrown into something, that’s definitely a worry,” she said.

In March, the district signed a five-year deal with Atlanta-based Centegix for a panic-alarm system, using $4.6 million in federal Covid-relief funding. Users can summon aid by pressing a button on a badge worn around their neck.

Centegix said the platform pushes out a range of campuswide alerts, including via intercom, desktop computer and strobe lights. Certain notifications can launch schoolwide or classroom-specific lockdowns, and the system guides responders to a specific room, hallway area or outdoor location, according to the company, which said it helps protect three of the 10 largest U.S. school districts.

Trevino, the school district police chief, said the system will come in handy when a teacher sees a fight brewing. “If I can press this and get more staff members there quickly, maybe we de-escalate this before it becomes physical, before I have to try and separate them,” he said.

Some teachers question the system’s value given how quickly fights arise. And Malaterre, the Dilworth teacher, wonders who will respond, citing the one shared school police officer who could be at another school miles away. “We don’t have people in the hallways. We don’t have adults monitoring this behavior,” she said.

Smith, the school board president, said a staffing shortage is an issue when it comes to responding to violence. The board last month voted to expand the 38-position school police department by eight officers, a lieutenant and a dispatcher. Middle schools would get more officers under the plan, which depends on an anticipated boost in state funding.

Smith attributed much of the violence problem to mental-health support needs that go beyond what the district can offer in a school day. She said she was surprised by teachers last fall reporting a rise in students swearing at teachers as well as increasing bursts of anger and disruption from students of all ages. “It was at a breaking point, it was absolutely hitting an apex,” she said.

“There’s constantly fights at our school,” said Emily Nobel, an eighth-grader at Dilworth. “I don’t feel that safe there, but I’ve gotten used to it.”

The problems extend to younger grades as well. Washoe kindergarten teacher Liz O’Neal said this is the first year in her more than two-decade career that any students have hit her. Two 5-year-olds on numerous occasions punched her, and one stabbed her with pencils. “I’m so scared every day when I go to school that it’s going to happen again,” she said. “I’m on such heightened alert.”

New discipline policies

District officials said they are working to strengthen some discipline policies.

Among other things, the legislation that recently passed the Democratic-led legislature will ease a law that makes it hard to suspend students under age 11. The district needs the flexibility to take that step, Smith said, because some “deeply trauma-impacted” young students have committed serious offenses and should be temporarily removed.

The rollback’s critics, including the nonprofit Children’s Advocacy Alliance of Nevada, which focuses on issues related to safety, education and health, have said it could put some children with inadequate home support on a path to the juvenile justice system.

Legislators also modified a provision of existing state law that effectively limits suspensions to 24 hours for students who are homeless or in foster care.

That rule came into play last fall when Dilworth Principal Joel Peixoto tried to separate two fighting boys and tumbled with them to the cafeteria floor, an incident that was documented in a video posted to Instagram. The principal, who describes the school as safe, said he wasn’t injured when he fell, or when one of the students inadvertently hit him.

At the time, the student who officials said instigated that fight could be removed for the maximum one day. “Understandably, people are like, why would that student be back one day later?” said LaMarca, the district’s chief of strategies.

LaMarca said the district wants to be able to suspend such students up to five days, as the newly approved legislation will allow, coupled with supportive services, as a way to restore order at a school. More severe consequences should work in tandem with programs that give students skills to help them control their behavior and repair fractured relationships, he said, because suspensions alone don’t improve behavior.

As safety concerns brewed last fall at Dilworth, LaMarca met Dec. 14 with school staff in the library, joined by Washoe teachers union president Calen Evans. Attendees described a strained meeting that yielded no clarity on short-term fixes.

Early the next morning, Forbus was injured while trying to stop students from sneaking into the school through a door that is locked from the outside and that another student had opened.

A day after Forbus was hurt, fed-up teachers at Dilworth called in sick en masse, forcing the school to close for the day.

“That was really deflating,” LaMarca said, of Forbus getting injured. “We knew that we already had a staff that was kind of on their heels and worried about student violence. And then we have this incident take place.”

The boy accused of pushing Forbus didn’t do it, his mother said. “He did not touch her or push past her,” she said. Her 13-year-old son was suspended and now attends school outside the district, she said.

Forbus said her bruises and cuts soon healed, though her fears persisted. She had hoped therapy would ease her anxiety about returning to Dilworth. Weeks after the incident, she quit her job and now works at a private school.

Stephanie Tietjen, 41, teaches the most volatile students at Dilworth, those with documented behavior problems in the Social Intervention Program. She said she fell to the floor breaking up a fight in her class last fall. During a phone interview in April, she related an assault by one of her students that day, one of several she said she has endured this school year.

“Luckily this kid isn’t very good at punching or else the day may have went a lot different. He did take a couple wild swings and got me a couple times,” she said. She said she calmed him down and didn’t send him home, since leaving school was his aim. She added: “Last year I filled out a police report where a student actually reared back and punched me in the chest.”

The district in recent months reassigned half of the 20 Social Intervention Program students to other schools. Dilworth typically has a cap of 13, and the larger than usual cohort contributed to campus disorder, Peixoto said.

The school also formed a behavior committee. At the behest of teachers, students now can’t use cellphones outside of social times like lunch, which reduces opportunities to fuel beefs on social media.

By mid-April, the tide seemed to have turned, said Malaterre, who praised her students, the tightknit staff and Peixoto’s leadership. Still, the fight she broke up a couple of weeks ago was a reminder that violence in school can flare anytime.

Her student, Emily Nobel, still vividly remembers the February incident that injured Malaterre’s wrist. Math class had just started when Malaterre ran into the hallway, Emily said, and students could hear loud voices and banging metal. Her teacher returned flashing what looked like a forced smile.

“She wiped her forehead, said ‘Phew,’ and got back to teaching,” Emily said.

Only later, Malaterre said, did she go to the school nurse’s office.

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