More teachers fear for their safety in school

DOVER — Violence by students against teachers is rising throughout the nation.

According to the National Center for Education citations, the 6 percent of public school teachers reporting being physically attacked by a student in 2015–16 topped all previous survey years except for 2011-12.

Other survey years indicate 4 percent of educators reported student attacks at school.

The Delaware State Education Association — the teachers’ union — believes the number of incidents are growing and also include adults attacking teachers and staff.

“We’ve been hearing more and more reports of it from our members and consider it a very significant issue,” DSEA spokeswoman Shelley Meadowcroft said last week.

DSEA advocates for more mental health professionals at schools and would like to see stronger repercussions on adults who commit violence against educators, Lobbying efforts are forthcoming when the next General Assembly convenes in January.

The union is also pushing for injured teachers not to lose sick days during the first three days of their absence from school. Days four to seven are covered by workmen’s compensation.

Responding to student violence is a balancing act when age and special needs concerns are factored in as well, DSEA said.

Also, according to the NCE, 10 percent of public school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student from their school during the 2015–16 school year. While that was lower than the 13 percent in 1993-94, it was higher than 8 percent in 2007-08.

Some local school districts reported experiencing just a few assaults as training for educators on de-escalation tactics, among other factors, are paramount to a safe environment for all.

The Delaware Department of Education reported 1,303 offensive touching of an employee incidents in 2017-18, compared to 1,322 the year before and 1,217 in 2015-16.

Terroristic threatening complaints dropped to 269 last year, compared to 296 in 2016-17 and 334 in 2015-16.

Students under 12 years old with third-degree assault offenses ranged from 20 in 2016-17, 15 last year and 11 two years ago.

Use of restorative practices

“The Delaware Department of Education supports the use of restorative practices and training staff members in de-escalation techniques to decrease physical contact and improve school climate,” spokeswoman Alison May said.

“There is national evidence supporting this approach.”

In the Middletown area Appoquinimink School District, violence against teachers is reportedly rare “and, if anything, appear to be on the decline in our District,” said Thomas J. Poehlmann, director of Safety, Security and Operations.

“That said, even one incident is too many. We remain committed to a process of continuous training and review of our safety and security procedures.”

From the 2014-15 school year to now, Appo reported two student assaults of teachers.

Attacks on teachers are rare in the Dover-based Capital School District, Superintendent Dr. Dan Shelton said.

“Students who have been identified with more aggressive tendencies are often evaluated for special education and/or placed in more therapeutic environments,” he said. “Working on professional development on relationship building is the best way for teachers to be able to work with a student to get them out of an agitated state to a calm state.

“Teachers who have strong relationships with students and students knowing they truly care about them can de-escalate situations quickly.”

In rare and typically minor incidents, according to Dr. Shelton, the violence is usually “not directed at staff, but results from students, as with many adults, struggling with how to regulate their emotions and respond in a healthy manner.

Capital takes in students with behavioral disabilities from throughout Kent County and aggressive behavior instances are thus higher as is the increased presence of highly trained staff, Dr. Shelton noted.

Added security presence

Capital has added School Safety Monitors to the police presence of School Resource Officers as well, which allows students to share information about potentially problematic situations.

A crisis team program trains staff to properly engage physically with students who may be a threat to themselves or others, Dr. Shelton said. Capital is working with the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security to train all schools in a response to active shooter-related ALICE program.

Also, teachers receive general training and a School-wide Evaluation Tool “is designed to teach staff how to identify and diffuse potential risky situations,” Dr. Shelton said. “Some teachers who work with our more at risk students have additional training.”

Polytech School District staff “receive regular emergency response training as well as de-escalation training to reduce the threat of violence,” Superintendent Dr. Mark Dufendach said. “We have been fortunate not to have any such reported incidents of assaults against staff in recent years.” According to Dr. Dufendach, “When we discuss school safety related issues, we always begin with our overall vision and values. Last year we updated our strategic plan and we developed a foundational priority which states our highest priority is to create a safe and supportive culture for all students, staff and stakeholders.

“Treating all individuals with respect, patience and understanding is the most important aspect of our safety plan.”

Appo employs SROs who are “commissioned, highly trained Delaware State Police officers who specialize in working with young people,” Mr. Poehlmann said. “Their role is to prevent and deter violence, work that includes building trust and relationships within our school communities so that students and staff are comfortable reporting threats and concerns.

“SROs are part of the fabric of our high schools. It’s not unusual for an SRO to interact with 100 or more students a day, and nearly every day includes time spent counseling individual students. They’re invaluable members of our school teams: embraced by students and staff, they provide a sense of security, serve as confidantes, help to deter crime, and are ready to respond with force should the need arise.

“In a fast-growing district like ours, we feel they have been invaluable in helping maintain discipline, respect, safety and a climate that is conducive to learning.”

The ramifications of assaulting a teacher are covered in the Appoquinimink Student Code of Conduct. While expulsion is an option, mandatory actions include:

• Suspension (5-10 days)

• Police notification

• Parent/guardian notification

• DOE Student Conduct Report will be filed as required by law

• Recommendation to counseling or appropriate social service agency

In January, the Louisiana state legislature revised its statutes regarding battery against a teacher. The language included:

A. Battery of a school teacher is a battery committed without the consent of the victim when the offender has reasonable grounds to believe the victim is a school teacher acting in the performance of employment duties.

Whoever commits the crime of battery of a school teacher shall be punished as follows:

(1) If the battery was committed by a student, upon conviction, the offender shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned not less than 30 days nor more than one year. At least 72 of the sentence imposed shall be imposed without benefit of suspension of sentence.

(2) If the battery was committed by someone who is not a student, the offender shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned with or without hard labor for not less than one year nor more than five years, or both.

(3) If the battery produces an injury that requires medical attention, the offender shall be fined not more than $5,000 or imprisoned with or without hard labor for not less than one year nor more than five years, or both.

An educator’s saga

Work-related teacher injuries as covered under a Delaware workmen’s compensation statute that has requirements for receiving benefits.

Short-term disability coverage for 182 days is also possible if approved through Delaware Code and long-term disability coverage requires termination.

For nearly 10 months, former Kent County Secondary Intensive Learning Center science teacher Thomas “Craig” Swearingen has coped with the fallout from an alleged classroom assault by a 17-year-old student Feb. 22.

He reported a broken rib and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to documents filed by law enforcement and medical officials, and did not return to work before being terminated by the Capital School District.

According to Capital in a letter to Mr. Swearingen on Sept. 11, he exhausted the maximum 182 short term disability and was thus no longer an employee. The district noted that his teaching position would be filled.

Mr. Swearingen said he’s now collecting workmen’s compensation but receiving $1,400 less monthly than his past salary would earn. Thus he has no health insurance and has been “hanging out in the wind” for the past 10 months.

On Jan. 16, 2019, Mr. Swearingen is scheduled for a hearing involving the Department of Labor’s Division of Industrial Affairs Office of Workers Compensation.

He was described as a claimant in the matter and represented by attorney Gary S. Nitsche. The Kent County Alternative Program was listed as the employer and carrier.

A petition to review the term was referenced.

The student in Mr. Swearingen’s case was sent home pending a meeting with parents and school staff, and eventually place on a home schooling program, according to a police report. A third-degree assault charge was included in an initial crime report, which described the teacher as being punched in the chest.

“I heard my last breath … and blacked out,” he recalled. “I woke up on my knees, got up and walked out of the classroom, saw a police officer and said ‘arrest him.’ “

In deciding to speak publicly about his situation, Mr. Swearingen said he wasn’t looking to be the primary focus of any media coverage but instead spotlight safety issues that all teachers may face.

He claimed to know of other teachers who have been attacked and ended up “not as brutally hurt as I was.”

“We as teachers have nothing to protect us, we have no rights,” he said. “The question to me is what are we going to do as a profession to alleviate these problems?”

Mr. Swearingen doesn’t profess to have any solutions, but is sure that many entities must be involved in improving safety in schools.

“I’m not sure how to better protect teachers and staff,” he said. “I have heard many plans involving arming and training teachers, but to me that would be overkill.

“To alleviate many of the issues we face today, it would need to be a collaborative approach between teachers, parents, and state mental health agencies.”

Parental acknowledgment of issues is a must, according to the educator, and perhaps holding them accountable for their children’s actions should be considered.

“Maybe begin with a public awareness campaign about what it means to respectfully communicate with all humans without discrimination or bullying- I know that may seem trivial, but how do you tell a parent that the reason why his or her child is behaving the way he or she is, is due to the parents inability to discipline at home?,” he said.


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