When Educators Are Assaulted
What NEA affiliates are doing to protect members from violent and disruptive students.
Michael D. Simpson, NEA Office of General Counsel
It’s come to this: six Carson City, Nevada, middle school students were arrested in January for posting a Facebook invitation for students to take part in “Attack a Teacher Day” at two local middle schools. Before a parent alerted authorities, 18 students had already signed up to join in the mass assault.
The same day that the six girls were arrested in Nevada, 17-year-old student Robert Butler walked into Millard South High School in Omaha, Nebraska, and shot his principal and assistant principal. Butler later committed suicide, and the assistant principal, Vicki Kaspar, died of her wounds.
The stories about assaults on school employees are particularly distressing because they are so numbingly repetitious:
- The 12-year-old from Surprise, Arizona, who smashed teachers with a computer keyboard and kicked and punched until a police officer could restrain him;
- The Manchester, New Hampshire, eighth-grade teacher “body slammed” by a student, which left her on crutches;
- The substitute teacher from Pittsburgh who lost hearing in one ear and suffered blurred vision after students tossed an M-80 explosive into his classroom where he was reading alone;
- The fourth-grade teacher from St. Louis who collapsed and died of a heart attack after a physical altercation with a nine-year-old.
Statistics don’t lie: According the U.S. Department of Education, 127,120 (4 percent) public school teachers (K-12) were physically attacked at school—hit, kicked, bitten, slapped, stabbed or shot—during the 2007-08 school year. Another 222,460 teachers (7 percent) were threatened by students with acts of violence.
This tragic crisis is not going away anytime soon. Part of the problem lies with school officials, many of whom lack the backbone to expel chronic offenders, or at least transfer them to more secure schools.
But what can school employees do to protect themselves from violent and threatening students? Several NEA affiliates have crafted some creative solutions.
Wisconsin: Taking Civil Action
Madison Teacher’s Inc. (MTI) will institute a civil action against any student who threatens or hits an employee. An MTI attorney prepares a Motion for a Restraining Order and Injunction based on Wisconsin’s stalking/harassment statute. That law makes it a crime for a person to assault another or to say something “that would cause a reasonable person...to fear bodily injury.”
Typically, the court will immediately issue a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) requiring the student to stay at least 50 feet away from the employee. The TRO is served on the student by a deputy sheriff. A week later, the student has an opportunity to defend him or herself at a hearing. If the victim’s testimony is substantiated, the court usually issues a permanent injunction, and the student often is ordered not to enter the school where the employee works.
After the hearing, MTI sends a copy of the injunction to the employee and instructs him or her to call 911 if the student comes near her. MTI also sends a copy to the principal to ensure that the official does not inadvertently violate the order.
Some of the recent successful cases brought by MTI include a student (and gang member) who threatened a teacher with the words, “What if I gun you down”; a student who kicked and punched a teacher and threatened to kill him; and a student who yelled at a teacher “I’m going to burn your house down and come to your funeral.”
MTI has been providing this service for some 20 years, and handles 12 or so cases a year. The program has been “very successful,” according to MTI Executive Director John Matthews.
Massachusetts: Using Criminal Statutes
The Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) utilizes criminal statutes to achieve the same end. When a member is threatened or beaten in that state, MTA attorneys assist the member in filing a criminal complaint against the student. Under Massachusetts law, the assault and battery of a “public official,” which includes school employees, is a felony. Also, it is a crime to interrupt a public school class.
If the student is still a minor, the case is handled in juvenile court, where the student can be adjudicated a “delinquent,” and removed from the teacher’s class or school, ordered to avoid any contact with the victim, or sent to reform school.
Charles Healey, an attorney who has handled scores of these cases for MTA members, recounts that several teachers have sworn out criminal complaints against parents who have threatened or hit them or disrupted class. Sadly, Healey adds that a few of his clients were so scared, demoralized, and just plain fed-up that they quit their jobs and left teaching soon after being attacked by a student.
Michigan: Suing for Protection
The Michigan Education Association (MEA) has taken a different approach. A 1999 state law requires school districts to expel any student grade 6 and above who physically assaults a school employee.
When the Lansing Board of Education ignored the law and refused to expel four students for throwing chairs at an employee, slapping a teacher, and punching another in the face, MEA joined with the Lansing Schools Education Association and four teachers who had been victims of assaults in suing the Board. Among other things, they requested an injunction requiring the Board to comply with the law.
The lower courts threw out the case, ruling that the teachers and their union lacked “standing.” In an important ruling last July, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed and held that the plaintiffs had shown that they were “injured” by the Board’s failure to live up to its obligations. The statute, the court said, was enacted “specifically [to] protect teachers from assault and to assist them in more effectively performing their jobs.”
There are other remedies for school employees who are assaulted on the job. They are entitled to collect workers’ compensation for damages, medical expenses, and lost pay, but most WC laws also preclude employees from suing their employers.
But employees usually can sue the student (and his parents).
The Indiana State Teachers Association, for example, funded a lawsuit by three teachers who were targeted by a student’s website entitled “tyme-2-dye,” which identified the teachers as “satan worshipping demons.” The student and his mother settled by paying the teachers $5,000.
In a similar Pennsylvania case, teacher Kathleen Fulmer recovered $500,000 from a student and his parents for a website where the student threatened to kill Fulmer, solicited donations “to help pay for the hitman,” and posted an image of her decapitated body.
And an Ohio court allowed a teacher to sue the parents of an autistic student who viciously attacked her because the parents knew about the student’s violent tendencies, but failed to warn the teacher.
What Local Associations Can Do
One part of the solution to school violence is for local associations to bargain language in their collective agreements recognizing the employees’ right to a safe working environment, including the right to be free from threats of violence from students.
If the building principal or superintendent fails to take action to remove the threat, e.g., by returning the student to class, then the association could file a grievance and perhaps take it to arbitration.
It also is important for the local association to lobby the school district to adopt policies and a protocol giving staff specific guidance for dealing with disruptive and violent students. Employees should receive regular in-service training about implementing these policies.
Finally, NEA’s Health Information Network has created a Safe Schools program, which contains a wealth of useful information, including videos dealing with hate and bias and tips for school staff dealing with violence-related stress.
February 2011 Contents
Assessing the Threat
Are we doing enough to reduce the risk of violence against educators?
The harrowing tale of how one NEA member’s investigation of student sexting led to his own prosecution on child pornography charges.
First Amendment Protections for Teachers
A Supreme Court ruling reduces First Amendment protections.
The Whole World (Wide Web) is Watching
Cautionary tales from the 'what-were-you-thinking' department.