I-TEAM: Teachers assaulted in their own classrooms; How safe do they feel?

DAYTON — How safe do Ohio teachers feel inside their own classrooms? The News Center 7 I-Team is revealing the startling results of our exclusive, nationwide survey.

The I-Team’s lead investigative reporter, John Bedell, spent weeks talking to educators about what they’re up against and what can be done to keep everyone’s learning environment safe.

We’ve seen chaos in the classroom in southwest Ohio. In one of the most recent examples, a teacher suffered a severe brain injury when a student attacked her. As News Center 7 previously reported, we got a hold of the police body camera video showing the student’s arrest.

“When you started freaking out … do you remember having any conversation with the teacher?” a police officer asked the 15-year-old Colerain High School student in the school office earlier this year.

Just three months ago, that student assaulted one of his teachers. Doctors had to remove part of the victim’s skull after the attack to prevent brain damage due to swelling. The student punched the teacher repeatedly during the attack.

The police body camera video showed the student’s account.

“(The teacher) said she was going to call the police,” the student told the officer. “I just started punching them.”

“You started punching who,” the officer asked. “The teacher,” the student answered.

The I-Team also talked to a Washington state teacher who was violently attacked by a 6th grader last month. The attack was caught on video. “It’s changed my entire life,” she told the I-Team.

One Georgia elementary school teacher told the I-Team about a 4th grader who she said hit her with a full water bottle.

“He just started hitting me with it everywhere from the shoulder down to the knee because he was just mad at me,” Amber Strickland said.

These teachers are not alone.

The News Center 7 I-Team teamed up with our Cox Media Group sister stations across the country to ask teachers about their experiences with student violence, their opinions about the causes, and possible solutions.

More than 8,000 teachers in 34 states weighed in – with more than 1,100 sharing personal stories, including five teachers from the Miami Valley.

One Butler County teacher wrote, “I am an early childhood intervention specialist. I had a kindergarten student obsessed with killing me. He talked about it all the time. My administration would not do anything about it. He hit, kicked, and bit me. He would launch objects across the room at me. It wasn’t until another therapist outside of the district informed my administrator that she was so concerned about my safety that they finally removed him from my caseload. I feel not enough is done to protect teachers.”

Another teacher from Clark County wrote, “I work an Autism unit K through 3. They mix verbal with non-verbal students. Each student needs a one-on-one aide but school districts don’t want to pay extra for these students to have what they need. Sensory items, break rooms, and additional staff to help when behaviors occur. This leads to more staff injury and sometimes other student injury. It is a broken system and gets worse daily. The administration has meetings to decide on policy, pay professionals with no idea the context of the student decide what and how to handle said child with no regard to other students’ safety or staff-student ratio.”

One teacher in Miami County wrote, “Administrators are mostly spineless when it comes to backing teachers up and supplying firm, fair, and consistent discipline. All of the legislation for schools puts the onus on teachers to control everything and there is zero accountability for administrators when they don’t support us and things snowball.”

A teacher in Montgomery County wrote, “This year has been the worst year in my 13 years of teaching with student behaviors. Students have cussed me out, and written horrible things about me in notes and on school property. The students are so apathetic about learning and don’t care about learning. Admin tells us how to talk to the kids, handle them, etc., but the kids do not care about authority at all. We feel defeated and like everything that is going wrong is our fault.”

Finally, another teacher from Montgomery County said, “It’s simple. Kids do not treat teachers as authority or adults. We are a distraction from social media, not being productive, and worrying about the next big thing. School is not valued. Fights happen and most systems of discipline involve tracking, working with the kid, calling parents, etc. instead of immediate discipline for fights, swearing at teachers, refusal to listen to instructions, and trying to teach. In my district, the blame is on teachers, not students and admin is even afraid of kids and tells us hands off while 1000+ other kids see a double standard.”

The I-Team went to Columbus and shared some of our findings with the Ohio Education Association. The OEA declined the I-Team’s request to distribute our survey to its membership. When Bedell asked why the OEA made that decision, President Scott DiMauro told the I-Team, that it was a matter of policy.

“We do have protocols where if we’re going to do a member survey that we’re directly involved in the creation of that survey and we’re directly involved in how the data gets used,” DiMauro told the I-Team.

Several other state teachers’ unions did agree to send our survey to their membership for this report, including in Florida, Massachusetts, and Georgia.

However, the I-Team had other ways to get the survey out to teachers in the Buckeye State. More than 600 Ohio teachers answered. Here’s what we found.

Of those surveyed 77% said they’ve been subjected to physical violence by a student at least once.

“What’s your reaction to that (77% figure)?” Bedell asked DiMauro.

“That’s really disturbing,” DiMauro answered. “And I think that’s an indicator of the problem that we’re facing. I think you have to dig a little bit deeper in terms of the nature of those attacks. I mean, in some cases, they’re very severe. In other cases, I think they’re probably less consequential. But no physical altercations are acceptable. And I think that is symptomatic of a challenge that we’re seeing and the need for a serious, comprehensive, collaborative strategy to address it.”

And, 65% of teachers who responded in Ohio told the I-Team they’ve considered quitting or retiring because of violence against teachers.

“I’ve seen some other survey data that is very similar to that,” DiMauro said when we shared that data from our survey with him. “We saw at the height of the pandemic a record number of educators who were seriously considering leaving the profession or retiring early. And while that’s come down a little bit, this is an issue that remains a challenge. And as we’re working to recruit and retain caring, qualified educators in all our classrooms, we have to make sure that we have safe environments. Because otherwise, we’re going to lose good people.”

Dr. Susan McMahon is the chair of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Violence against Educators and School Personnel.

Dr. McMahon has been reviewing the problem closely since 2008 and has led nationwide studies about violence against teachers. The I-Team shared our findings with her.

McMahon pointed out that teachers who have been attacked may have been more willing to fill out the survey. She added that while it’s difficult to track how many teachers are leaving the job because of the threat of violence, their responses demonstrate how bad it’s gotten for many in the classroom.

“It gives us a glimpse of what’s going on in the school and sort of how serious the situation is when so many people want to leave,” Dr. McMahon told the I-Team. “It’s an indicator that we need to figure things out and make it better.”

More than half of the teachers we heard from nationwide said they support zero-tolerance policies at school to help address the safety threat.

But critics warn those policies can create even more problems, Including dilemmas with where to put troubled kids if they’ve been removed from a school.

We also heard calls for increased funding to support at-risk students.

“There are a lot of traumatized kids that are coming in and their behavior is a reflection of their experiences at home,” said Cliff Canavan, a teacher at Brockton Public Schools in Massachusetts. “So putting things in place that allow us to help them and support them so that they can correct their behavior.”

When we asked teachers what the biggest impact on student behavior is, 77% of Ohio teachers said a lack of parenting involvement and discipline. Nationally, it was 75%.

“Parents play an absolutely critical role,” DiMauro said while discussing how violence against teachers in the classroom is a complex problem to solve. “Part of it is setting clear expectations, at home and kind of building that base so that students are coming to school ready to learn. But I also don’t want to get in a situation where we’re pointing fingers at parents. A lot of parents are feeling overwhelmed. If you have somebody who is working multiple jobs to make ends meet or just doesn’t have the resources themselves to serve their students, I think that’s a challenge.”

DiMauro calls violence against teachers “a big concern.” He said since the pandemic, it’s “the number one issue that (OEA membership) brings up concerns about increased frequency of student violence against educators. Also concerns about intensity.”

In the end, DiMauro said this will require a “partnership” to fix.

“We have to have not just schools responsible for solving this, but across different agencies, social services, we have to be attending to issues of health and nutrition and mental health in all of this,” DiMauro said. “There is not one single entity who bears this responsibility. Teachers do need help. But yes, it starts with parents for sure. I’ll also add that when I talk to colleagues, they need support from their administrators. You know, a lot of times we have discipline policies and there’s frustration that there isn’t adequate support in implementing those policies, or in making sure that there’s consistency, when it comes to implementing policies, setting clear standards, making sure that there are high expectations for all students, and that we are reinforcing positive behaviors and that there are consequences for students who have negative behaviors.”

As for the student from the Colerain High School teacher attack earlier this year, just last month he admitted to felonious assault in Hamilton County Juvenile Court. It was part of a plea bargain.

The 15-year-old admitted his guilt and Hamilton County prosecutors agreed to stop their work to get the case moved to adult court.

That 15-year-old is scheduled to be sentenced in juvenile court next week.

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