Assessing the Threat
Are we doing enough to reduce the risk of violence against educators?
By Tim Walker
Lindley Middle School, according to many of its staff members, is not an easy place to work. The at-risk population is high, student violence is a problem, and the school struggles academically. Most teachers who come to Lindley, located in Mableton, Georgia, understand the challenges they'll face, but they also expect that concerns about their working conditions—namely their personal safety—will be a priority of the administration. Last year, many believed that a number of threats and attacks by students against teachers weren't being taken seriously.
In fact, in 2006–07, the principal reported a significant decrease in student discipline referrals. The notion that student discipline was improving at Lindley left many teachers incredulous.
What was really going on, says Tana Page of the Georgia Association of Educators, is that student violence and other extreme behavioral problems were being downplayed or ignored by the school administrators. Consequently, says Page, many teachers did not feel safe in their own classrooms.
Lack of administrative support is cited in many surveys as a primary reason—if not the main reason—why teachers leave the profession. Around the country, school personnel are often left to handle serious discipline problems on their own, even if they have been physically threatened or assaulted. This predicament is most common in schools that have no system-wide approach to discipline endorsed and upheld by teachers and administrators.
Inflaming teachers' frustrations is the notion that educators should learn to put up with menacing behavior from their pupils—it's "just part of the job"—or the suggestion that maybe the teacher was somehow at fault.
"I was told that I must have done something wrong," recalls Julie, a sixth-grade teacher in Ohio who in 2006 was assaulted by one of her students. "All I want is to feel safe when I walk into the classroom. I want to teach, but I want to teach without fear."
Stories about educators threatened or attacked by students turned up in local newspapers and news broadcasts across the country in 2007. A senior punched his football coach in Milwaukee; a teacher was threatened with a knife in Virginia; a student in Tennessee vowed to shoot her teacher if a grade wasn't changed; and a student assaulted a teacher in Philadelphia after his iPod was confiscated. Another student, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, was expelled for harassing and threatening a teacher and principal on a Web site.
Still, says Diana Browning Wright, an educational psychologist and behavioral analyst in California, there is "no epidemic of student violence against teachers."
National statistics support that conclusion. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a smaller percentage of teachers reported threats of violence from students in 2003–04
(7 percent) than in 1993–94 and 1999–00 (12 and 9 percent, respectively). Teachers were also less likely in 2003–04 than in 1993–94 to report having been physically attacked.
But try telling that to an educator whose workplace has been tainted by violence, or who knows someone who's been attacked by a student. Even if incidents nationwide remain relatively few, threats and assaults against teachers should never be ignored or downplayed.
Ellen Kupfer has been working in Kenosha Public Schools for more than 30 years. Photo: Peter Zuzga
That message reached the administrators of Lindley Middle School in November 2007 after 20 teachers filed grievances against the principal and assistant superintendent, citing the school's unsafe working conditions. The principal responded by promising to implement a new discipline plan in 2007–08.
"Schools have an obligation to address this issue," says Katherine Bishop, a special education teacher in Oklahoma City. "Education has to take place for all children, and all school personnel and students have to be safe."
Swept Under the Rug?
The issue of school violence has been a fixture on the media landscape since the appalling shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. Unfortunately, news reports often treat school violence too simplistically, bombarding the public with shocking images of gun-toting teen criminals and promoting the false image of public schools as breeding grounds for lawlessness. Meanwhile, crime statistics continually show that students are twice as likely to be victims of violence away from school as they are in school.
Rarely addressed in the dialogue about school violence is the safety of teachers, bus drivers, support staff, and other professionals who make educating and serving children their life's work. School personnel are harassed, threatened, and attacked every day. Most experts agree there is no single cause, but rather a combination of factors that lead students to turn on their educators: peer pressure, drug and alcohol abuse, the influence of mass media, and the overall school climate. Students' individual characteristics, such as socioeconomic status and a history of prior violence, also play a significant role.
Ellen Kupfer, a social worker for Kenosha public schools in Kenosha, Wisconsin, for more than 30 years, has seen generations of students pass through school. She knows how unpolished students' social skills can be, but she says something has changed over the past decade.
"Culturally, something has happened, and it is having an effect on the safety of our schools," says Kupfer. "Your typical 14- or 15-year-old doesn't solve things by talking. There's an aggression that wasn't there before."
Wright says young people today are "externalizers," more apt to project anger outward at others.
"Kids have always had the same problems, but years ago, we would project inward or withdraw, maybe think of harming ourselves," Wright explains. "It's different now. It's more about potentially harming others," she says, and that behavior may be directed at their own teachers and other school personnel.
So why does the problem remain largely out-of-sight? Many staffs are overwhelmed, says Tana Page, and simply don't have the time or resources to properly confront the issue. In addition, some schools are hesitant to dish out severe disciplinary action, particularly expulsion, to avoid the wrath of irate parents. And now safety records are under scrutiny because of provisions in the No Child Left Behind law that require schools to develop their own definitions of "persistently dangerous." Avoiding that label, which, if imposed, allows parents to transfer their children out of the school, is an incentive for underreporting violent incidents.
In some urban districts, however, student violence has been a fixture for too long to be ignored. Despite some encouraging national statistics, Milwaukee and several other urban areas, including New York City and Philadelphia, have reported increases in school violence over the past few years, including an uptick in assaults on staff. Students in these and other cities bring the pressures of urban life—poverty, substance abuse, and unstable home lives—into school with them every day, leaving many staff and other students vulnerable.
"Teachers should interact with students as much as possible," says crisis counselor Teri Mahoney (right).
Photo: Doug Kilpatrick
Although Milwaukee Public Schools has recently taken steps to improve security for students and staff, some point to the curriculum as a problem. Over the past decade, the district has slashed programs for physical education, music, and other arts, cutting off important outlets for students.
"Students need something more than math and social studies," says Dennis Oulahan, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association. "Education becomes less and less of a positive experience and the climate of the school suffers. Students become angrier and more confrontational, and staff sometimes bear the brunt of student frustration."
Urban schools face unique challenges, but Wright and others believe that an abundance of threats or assaults probably suggests a problem with the school's climate that goes beyond socioeconomic factors.
" Schools need to take steps to create a more positive environment for students," she says. "Teachers and other staff would like to do this but often don't have the tools, resources, or expertise."
At Owen J. Roberts High School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, for example, staff are encouraged to take time to establish positive relationships with all students, to make the culture as "student-centered" as possible—without sacrificing order and discipline.
Teri Mahoney, a crisis counselor at Owen J. Roberts, says teachers are asked to greet every student at the door before each class period. Not a panacea for all discipline problems, she concedes, but these and other efforts can help build communication and trust, making potentially violent standoffs in the classrooms and hallways less likely to occur.
"Teachers should interact with students as much as possible," explains Mahoney. "Always take the extra steps, even if they appear to be small."
Terrance Klazer, a teacher in Maryland for more than 30 years, agrees. The more positive relationships educators have with students, the more likely a staff member would be able to talk an aggressive student out of a serious incident. When an altercation with a student begins, Klazer says it's important to avoid ramping up the confrontation in any way, particularly in front of other students.
"It should never be about getting the better of the student, particularly when he or she is in front of classmates," says Klazer. "Give them space and defuse the situation."
Despite a staff member's best efforts, verbal badgering can escalate into abuse, threats, and, in extreme cases, physical assaults. Even if the situation hasn't reached that point, Klazer offers teachers—younger teachers, especially—simple advice: "Trust yourself. If something doesn't feel right, if this doesn't seem like typical rudeness, take proactive measures. Report the situation if you feel you cannot control it yourself."
An Honest Assessment
Any threat aimed at a teacher is serious business and must be investigated, says Dewey Cornell of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia. In his state, threats of violence in schools are common. According to the 2005–06 report by the Virginia Department of Education, school staff reported more than 2,500 threats made against them (and about 4,800 threats made against other students).
While classroom strategies can defuse tense situations, Cornell also urges schools to adopt threat assessment models to help gauge the seriousness of threats and determine the appropriate course of action. The purpose is not to downplay incidents under the guise of a review. Quite the opposite, Cornell says: Threat assessments ensure that school leaders pay appropriate attention and take proactive steps to avoid a violent incident by understanding the problems in the student's life that are driving him or her to act out in school.
Under the guidelines designed by the Virginia Youth Violence Project in 2001, each school assembles a multidisciplinary threat assessment team that usually includes the principal or assistant principal, school counselors, and safety resource officers. When a threat is made, the team convenes to discuss the facts behind the threat and whether it is likely to be carried out. Ultimately, says Cornell, the process is concerned not with whether the student has made a threat, but with whether a student actually poses a threat.
The model divides threats into two categories: transient and substantive. Distinguishing between the two is a crucial component of any assessment program.
Transient threats typically include such comments from students as "You better watch it" or "I'm gonna get you," and are not likely to be carried out. When the threat assessment guidelines were field tested in 35 schools across the country, more than 70 percent of the reported threats were classified as transient.
"Teachers don't want to hear any type of threat—who would?" says Cornell. "But these are probably not threats that will result in violence." Accordingly, says Cornell, transient threats can be resolved through a reprimand, parental notification, and counseling.
It's the substantive threats that require a swifter response. Substantive threats usually detail a specific victim, time, place, and method of attack and are often issued on multiple occasions. Once a serious threat is identified, safety evaluations and plans are implemented that, depending on severity, may involve law enforcement, protection of the intended victim, and strict disciplinary measures against the student.
Loudon County, Virginia, is one of many districts that have formally implemented a threat assessment plan in their schools. The program was initiated as a proactive effort, not in response to particular acts of violence.
"It just helps enormously when you work in a community that has a preventative mindset," says John Lody, director of psychiatric and diagnostic services for Loudon County.
Now in its fourth year, the Loudon County threat assessment program revealed that more threats originate in middle and even elementary schools than in high schools. But the vast majority of threats by younger students tend to be transient. Although fewer in number, the threats made by high school students require greater attention by staff.
"Older students," explains Lody, "have the capability, the means, and the relative sophistication to carry out their threats."
Because the threat assessment approach is proactive and includes formal response actions, it gives staff the confidence that the school is serious about preventing threats from being carried out against them or other students.
Still, proponents of threat assessment stress that any such programs should be accompanied by additional preventative and enforcement policies. The countless societal, individual, and school-wide factors that contribute to violence require comprehensive and thoughtful strategies. Understanding how these forces shape students' lives should be a goal of every community and school.
"In the end, it doesn't really matter if the problem is being overhyped in the press," says Dennis Oulahan. "There are problems in schools that have to be addressed if teachers are in physical danger. We have to be realistic and stand up for educators."
When incidents involve students with disabilities, districts still have an obligation to educators.
Schools and districts have multiple policies in place to deal with students who threaten or assault teachers—they are often suspended long-term or expelled outright. But the equation changes when the student in question receives special education services. Students with disabilities who commit similar offenses have due process protections different from those general education students have.
The vast majority of students in special education do not attack their teachers or fellow students. Still, as a group, students with disabilities are responsible for a disproportionate share of threats and assaults on teachers and other school staff. A 2004 study by the University of Virginia, for example, found that special education students commit threats at a significantly higher rate (33/1,000 students) than general education students (7/1,000). Specifically, students who are classified as "emotionally disturbed" are responsible for the highest number of threats and the most serious.
"Any incident of a teacher being threatened or assaulted is absolutely unacceptable," says Ellen Kupfer, a social worker in Wisconsin. "Districts have an obligation to address this situation, even if it involves students with disabilities."
"There are a number of myths that many professionals who work with these students have heard," Kupfer continues. "No question—there's a balancing act, but the law is actually very clear."
Leslie Collins, a staff attorney with the Pennsylvania State Education Association, reports that an increase in reported incidents in Pennsylvania corresponds with a higher rate of inclusion of some students with disabilities. When inclusion occurs without adequate support aid and services, Collins says, there may be a lack of protection for the educators, other students, and the learning environment.The problem is not the goals and spirit behind the idea of inclusion, which are vital.
It's a question of how it is carried out in some districts."In many instances where a special education student is harming others," Collins explains, "the program is not appropriate or, if the program is appropriate, it is not being properly implemented."
One common misconception is that schools are not permitted to strongly discipline or remove a student with disabilities. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) protects these students from being punished for behaviors related to their disabilities, but it does not give them immunity. Districts are instructed under IDEA to make a special effort to give students with disabilities access to the general education curriculum. The law, however, does not require placement in a regular classroom in all situations.
During the 2004 reauthorization process, NEA pushed for, and won, the insertion of language allowing for the removal of violent students to alternative education sites—with the proviso that their due process rights were preserved and their right to a free, public education safeguarded.
"That's key," says Teri Mahoney, a social worker in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. "There is no 'right' to be in a general ed classroom. In fact, sometimes that's the worst place for a student with disabilities to be. But they must always have access to a general public school curriculum.
"When students with disabilities threaten or attack their peers or teacher, explains Collins, districts must take a series of steps to ensure that students are placed in appropriate programs and that the safety of the school is preserved.
Any teacher who has been threatened or attacked should request a reevaluation to assess whether there are any psychological, medical, or medication issues causing the student's violent behavior. Under IDEA, districts must comply. The teacher should specifically request a functional behavioral assessment to determine triggers or causes of the student's behavior.
Typically, the Individual Education Program (IEP) team works with parents to determine how a student with disabilities should participate in the same curriculum as his or her peers. If such a student is involved in a violent or aggressive incident, the student may be removed immediately to an alternate setting. Then the IEP team must determine whether the action was due to the student's condition. If the team determines that the offense is a direct result of the disability, the district must return the student to the original placement, although the team should still address the behavior—generally through a change in the behavior plan. If the team concludes that the behavior is not a direct result of the disability, the district may suspend, change placement, or expel the student, generally treating him or her in the same manner as any other student.
If a change of placement or expulsion is authorized, districts must still provide the student with educational services in an alternative setting that provides a free, appropriate public school education.
Any member who feels that his or her employer is not taking appropriate action should contact local leaders and request assistance from the Association.