Violence Targets Teachers, Staff
In the last school year, 690 teachers were assaulted; in the last five years, 4,000 were.
Veteran Philadelphia school teacher Lou Austin endured 40 minutes of terror as the 15-year-old ninth grader jabbed his index finger into Austin's temple and threatened to kill him while swinging a pair of scissors menacingly.
Austin didn't even know the youth, who ransacked his classroom - flipping desks and attempting to set fire to books - at Lincoln High School in Mayfair on Valentine's Day. He'd merely asked him to step away from his classroom door and go to his own class when the youth exploded.
Austin's experience illustrates the dangers and frustration that teachers in Philadelphia public schools face daily. During the 2009-10 school year, 690 teachers were assaulted. Over five years, from 2005-06 to 2009-10, more than 4,000 teacher assaults were reported, a yearlong Inquirer investigation has found.
And that doesn't include incidents of threats, disruption, and utter disrespect.
"All I could do was to stand there with my hands behind my back, accept the abuse, and hope this did not infuriate him even more," said Austin, a Philadelphia teacher for 15 years who graduated from Lincoln in 1984.
His story also illustrates how teachers must cope with violent, disturbed students with little backup from the district.
The assaults can turn decidedly dangerous.
Violence against school staff in Philadelphia gained national attention in 2007 when Germantown High School teacher Frank Burd was attacked by a special-education student with a history of disruptive behavior and emotional problems.
The ninth grader was cutting class and roaming the halls when another student pushed Burd, knocking him into the special-ed student. The teen reacted by punching Burd - a man he didn't even know - three times in the face. Burd fell and broke his neck. He never returned to teaching.
The case prompted a district crackdown on violence against teachers, including the establishment of a teacher-safety hotline and more stringent penalties for offenders. City police promised to respond to all calls of assaults at schools and to make arrests if the victim approved.
But four years later, teachers continue to be used as punching bags by wayward students, much to the chagrin of their union.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, met with School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman in November after two teachers in one week suffered concussions when they were assaulted by students.
"It's been a very challenging first semester," Jordan said later. "We've been getting reports from our members about the kinds of assaults that are taking place in schools and the lack of follow-though on discipline.
"There has to be follow-through to be sure teachers are able to teach and kids are able to learn."
His meeting with Ackerman led to a joint memo on Nov. 8 to the School District staff, reminding them to take a hard line on bullying and assaults.
"Some students have decided to be a disruptive force in our schools," the memo said, adding that the School District "will not tolerate this behavior and is reemphasizing its zero-tolerance policy in two major areas: Acts of student violence against adults and bullying."
The memo said that an assault on staff would result in a 10-day suspension, transfer to an alternative school, and possible formal expulsion and criminal charges.
But, The Inquirer found, that's clearly not an iron-clad rule, especially in cases involving special-education students.
Under state and federal law, school officials must take a student's disability into consideration when deciding on punishment and consequences. In most cases, they must look at the appropriateness of the student's special-education program and whether the behavior was a manifestation of his or her disability, which can include learning, emotional or physical problems.
If the school was not giving the student adequate help, then a change in the child's program or education services may be the right consequence, according to special-education experts.
But that doesn't necessarily mean that a student can't be disciplined.
Most special-education students can be suspended for as many as 15 school days each academic year - and longer if the district gets a parent's permission or takes it to a hearing. Students also can be transferred to disciplinary schools in some cases.
But the regulations are not easily interpreted.
"Special-education law is complex and confusing, and that's why many people mistakenly believe that schools are unable or prohibited from dealing with behavior problems involving kids with disabilities," said Len Rieser, executive director of the Education Law Center, a nonprofit in Philadelphia. "In fact, schools have options, but school personnel are not always clear on what they are."
An Inquirer investigation in the aftermath of the attack on Burd found that special-education students were responsible for an inordinate number of assaults on teachers and other school staff.
In 2007, special-education students accounted for just 14 percent of the city's school enrollment, yet committed 43 percent of the 7,547 assaults on staff during the previous five-year period. The numbers haven't changed much. From September through February of this school year, 1,628 assaults have been reported in the district, and about 39 percent included at least one special-education student as an offender, School District spokeswoman Shana Kemp said. About 14 percent of the student body is in special education, excluding gifted students.
The 2007 investigation also found that the district routinely failed to provide services to special-education students, and therefore felt it could not follow through with discipline if the students assaulted a staff member.
In the case of the Lincoln student, Kemp said a suspension would not have been appropriate.
And she said that even though the youth faces a criminal charge, he could end up back at Lincoln - his neighborhood school - because of his status as a special-needs student. The district would make a decision along with other behavioral and mental health agencies after his case was adjudicated, she said.
"The young man had emotional disturbances. We can't refuse a student entry into a school based upon that situation," she said.
Austin learned that the teen had been allowed to enroll at Lincoln in January without teachers' knowing his history. He was perplexed.
Kemp said the district - by law - can't release medical details about the student to staff.
In the Lincoln incident, the teen initially was charged with aggravated assault, criminal mischief, possessing an instrument of crime, terroristic threats, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person.
On Feb. 25, he made an admission to simple assault and terroristic threats charges, both misdemeanors. Disposition of his case is pending.
A right to defend
Under the teachers' contract approved in January 2010, teachers were granted the authority to use force to defend themselves.
The contract says a teacher "may use reasonable force to protect himself/herself or others from attack or injury or to quell a disturbance which threatens physical injury to a teacher or others."
Reasonable force is defined as the same level of "physical control" a parent could legally use to deal with a child.
Teachers gave union leaders a standing ovation when they announced the provision before the contract vote.
But even with this new provision, teachers remain cautious because of past experience.
Barry Strube, a physical education teacher at Olney High School East, spent two months in a disciplinary room - dubbed the "rubber room" or "teacher's jail" - while his case was being decided after an incident in January 2010.
It started when a student in his health class refused to sit down. Strube said he put his hand on the student's shoulder and the boy "burst up," threatened to kill him, cursed him out, and tried to hit him, he said.
"I grabbed him by his book bag, spun him away from me, and took him across the hall to the discipline room," said Strube, who has taught at the school for 16 years.
The student complained to the administration that Strube had hit him. The student later admitted he had lied, Strube said.
Strube was allowed to return to teaching, but said he was suspended for three days, and told he should have somehow called for help. The school also tried to take away his football coaching position, but the union filed a grievance and won, he said.
"It's absolutely ridiculous that they're accusing me of doing anything," Strube said. "I don't know what else I could have done. I was doing what I thought was a good thing - getting him out of the room as quickly as possible."
Kemp, the district spokeswoman, said Strube "was provided due process" but declined to elaborate, saying it was a personnel matter.
Jordan, the PFT president, says too often teachers are blamed when violence occurs.
"Incidents are reported and, instead of following up, teachers are questioned as to what is it they did in order to cause the behavior to occur, which is really the wrong approach," Jordan said.
The union provides training to its 11,600-member teaching force on how to defuse disruptive situations and handle problem behavior. It recommends, for example, that teachers avoid blocking a student in a classroom because he or she will "lunge" to get past the teacher, and it will result in physical contact.
"Let the kid go, pick up the phone, tell administration 'So and so just left my room very angry,' " Jordan said.
One teacher's defense
Sometimes, however, teachers have no choice but to defend themselves.
Matthew Mundy, a world history teacher at Martin Luther King High School, was punched and kicked by a female student on a rampage on the second day of school last fall.
The girl entered his classroom and informed Mundy, "I'm going to break every f- ing thing in this place," after he reprimanded her for failing to sit in her assigned seat.
He called the dean of students, the principal, and the school police on the phone, but no one answered. The girl disappeared only to come back at the end of class, pound on the door, curse, and write on the window with a marker. When he opened the door, she rushed in and attacked. He tripped her to get her on the floor and stop the onslaught.
School police arrived and handcuffed the girl. Adding insult to injury, she spit in his face on the way out the door.
Some call it quits
Even when teachers are not the victims, they're profoundly impacted by the violence they see.
Sean Fennessy, a former teacher at Olney High School East, took two days off after witnessing a brutal attack on a student in his classroom in March 2010. A male student rushed into his room during class change and pummeled a student, Fennessy said.
Fennessy, 26, watched in horror.
It took several minutes for school police to arrive. In the interim, the victim fell to the floor between two desks. His attacker had time to throw 20 to 30 punches before fleeing.
"It was such an affront to me," Fennessy said. "I considered my classroom a sacred space."
Fennessy became increasingly disillusioned with the school's administration and leadership on educational issues, too.
He quit last June.
Another who quit was former Beeber Middle School teacher Lynn Larrick.
A 6-foot-2, 250-pound eighth grader told her he would have his mother "f- her up" last school year. When she went to document the threat, he taunted: "I probably have about 10 pink slips, and I'm still here."
Another day, he grabbed a girl's notebook and jumped up and down on it. When Larrick tried to send him out of the room, he told her he had been suspended earlier in the day anyway. As he left, he aimed his finger at her and pretended to shoot her.
There were other incidents, too. Her blood pressure climbing high, Larrick decided to leave the district on her doctor's advice.
Unable to get satisfaction from the School District, she wrote to President Obama.
"No one seems willing to address the issue of negative behavior in our neighborhood public schools," she said in the letter, dated March 25, 2010. "It is the elephant in the room."
Kate Sannicks-Lerner, a first-grade bilingual teacher at Elkin Elementary, a K-4 school in Kensington, said that in her career, she's been bitten, kicked, punched, and spit on by unruly charges.
Most recently, she was kicked, slapped, and cursed out by a first grader who didn't want to leave a classroom.
She took the boy to the office and wrote out a disciplinary slip. The child, she said, was back in school the next day. But he was remorseful, she said, unlike some other cases she has had.
"He brought me flowers and a card," she said.
The violence doesn't surprise her "because of the community I serve. It's part of their daily lives."
When one of her former students was just 3, he witnessed his mother being shot to death while his infant brother lay in her lap.
"Why he acted out is no surprise at all to me," she said.
Her school, she said, needs more resources to help all the students who require it.
"Our administration is very proactive, or as proactive as they can be," she said, "but it's just an overwhelming situation."
She said last week that conditions had worsened.
"I'm really concerned that the students who need academic support and behavioral support are really slipping through the cracks," said Sannicks-Lerner, the union representative at Elkin.
Unlike some other teachers interviewed who were afraid to be identified by name, Sannicks-Lerner said she does not fear retribution from the administration for speaking out.
"I'm willing to go down for the people who have no voice," she said.
Austin, the Lincoln teacher, sympathizes with students who have problems and knows how important school can be. He got involved in band and bonded with teachers.
"Lincoln helped me to get through," he said.
But Austin could see that the teen who confronted him that February day had major problems and didn't belong there. When Austin closed his classroom door, the teen paced angrily outside the room for 20 minutes, peering in the window. He rushed in at the end of class when Austin opened the door. "He got in my face . . . trying to bait me into a confrontation," Austin recalled.
Austin raised his hands to protect himself. The student slapped them down and struck a boxer's pose, he said. He asked a colleague to call for security.
The teacher watched in horror as the student for 15 minutes flipped desks, attempted to set fire to books, took items out of Austin's desk, and hurled them against the wall. It was in the desk that the teen found the pair of scissors he began to wave at Austin.
"Throughout his violent outburst, he repeatedly referred to being 'put away for three, then four, years but not again,' " Austin said. "When help finally arrived, he threatened to stab anyone who approached him."
The principal, school police, and Austin had to wait for Philadelphia police to arrive.
In the aftermath, Austin worried for his safety, wondering if the student would try to retaliate.
Austin tried to go back to school two days later but couldn't.
"I had a dream about school. It was a chaotic atmosphere where I had no control over what was happening," he said. "It made me feel very anxious."
He returned a week after the incident.
His was the fourth teacher assault at Lincoln in two weeks, he said.
Conditions have worsened as the central office pressures schools to lower out-of-school suspensions without viable alternatives, he said.
"The school environment continues to decay because the students have become empowered by the lack of consequences for negative behavior," Austin said.
Lincoln principal Donald Anticoli would not comment. Austin emphasized that he doesn't blame Anticoli or the rest of Lincoln's administrative staff for the problems.
"We do the best with the directives that we're handed," he said.
His union representative, Austin said, told him that School District administrators were upset that Anticoli had moved to suspend the teen for 10 days and wanted to remove the teen from the school.
"To my principal's credit, he made it clear that that kid would not be back, that [he] should have never been placed at the school," Austin said. "He backed me 100 percent."
Austin said he feels sorry for the youth.
"What does the future hold for him? He is the real victim," Austin said.
Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-854-5146.