Bite marks, bruises and dislocated shoulders: How America's teachers are battling classroom violence

Ten percent of public school teachers say they been threatened with injury by a student; six percent have been physically attacked. (Photo Illustration: Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Lifestyle)

Although reports of teachers becoming violent against students permeate the news, there’s another epidemic of violence happening in the classroom — this one, in which the teachers become the victims.

Take Brett Bigham, a teacher in Oregon, who recalled being beaten to the ground, whipped by a TV cord and bitten so badly that he was sent to the hospital — just a few days before he was named Teacher of the Year, and an unspecified time after he suffered other attacks by students, including being hit twice with a chair, bitten in various places and “slapped more times than I can count.”

Another teacher, in Florida, suffered a student throwing chairs at her and flipping a table on its side. “The student also kicked me and bruised my leg,” according to a Broward County Teachers Union report on violence against teachers in that district.

Then there was the Wisconsin high school cooking class in which a student kicked a paraeducator in the stomach, punched another teacher in the eye during an attempt to restrain him and eventually picked up a chef’s knife, threatening to stab two teachers with it. “He was shouting that he wanted us dead,” a special-education teacher recently recounted for NEA Today, a trade publication. “After 15 minutes, we finally got the knife away and he ran out of the room without cutting anyone.”

Teacher violence

And in South Carolina, a teacher was so scarred by the repeated physical abuse by two boys in her high school class — including, during an already-stressful lockdown drill, being held and shaken violently — that she wound up with a PTSD diagnosis.

“I pulled up my sleeves and had red marks on my arm,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

And though the teacher (who wishes to remain anonymous), filled out an incident report, went to her department head and reported the assault to the principal, she says she was treated like she was in the wrong. “You can shake a teacher, hurt her to the point her arm is in a sling — and nothing will happen to you,” was the message she says was communicated by the administration to her and the other teachers.

She remembers having a panic attack and breaking down as a result, eventually taking a few days off, suffering lasting pain from a contusion on her arm and struggling with depression. Eventually, she quit.

These teachers are far from alone.

As if low pay, low morale, the pressure of standardized tests and the threat of classroom shootings are not enough stress for public school teachers in America, violence against them from the very students they’re trying educate is yet another piece of the ongoing crisis. Yahoo Lifestyle’s exclusive survey of teachers who have left public schools uncovered stories of in-class violence from coast to coast.

“We would get knocked out, have coffee spilled on us, have shoulders dislocated,” a now retired teacher in Kern County, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle about what he witnessed during his 24 years in the profession.

And various studies show the problem is only getting worse.

PTSD

A 2018 government study on school crime and safety, compiled by agencies from various U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, found that 10 percent of public school teachers — approximately 320,000 — have reported being threatened with injury by a student. Six percent, meanwhile, reported that they’d been physically attacked — higher than in almost all previous survey years.

The actual numbers, though, are likely even higher, as one in five educators say they don’t report such incidents, according to a recent study by Ohio State University researchers. Of the 3,403 kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers surveyed, 2,505 (or about 74 percent) said they had been a victim of some form of violence; of those, 25 percent reported actual physical abuse or assault, 20 percent reported threats of physical violence and 37 percent described verbal insults or sexual advances. Still, 20 percent kept the information from administration, 14 percent did not disclose the incident to a co-worker and nearly 24 percent kept the news from family.

“You would think that the first thing a teacher would do after a violent encounter or threat would be to tell the school’s administrators, but 20 percent aren’t even doing that. That’s disturbing,” lead author Eric Anderman said in a press release at the time. “Too many teachers aren’t talking to anyone about what happened.”

Sonia Smith, president of the Chesterfield Education Association in Virginia, echoed these findings in NEA Today. “Many do not report assaults from students for fear of retribution from administrators,” she said. “There are more incidents happening that go unreported. It’s systemic.”

The impact of such violence on both teachers and the education system at large, whether reported or not, is a “silent national crisis,” according to a report on the subject by the American Psychological Association (APA), which found that costs range from lost days of work/wages and increased medical expenses to teachers leaving the field prematurely and increased workers’ compensation claims.

In states with high levels of violence against teachers, its victims have expressed frustration over what they perceive as a lack of assistance from administrators.

2019 report prepared by Broward County Teachers Union in Florida, for example, indicates that at least half of teachers in the district have felt that their personal safety was in jeopardy while teaching. Over 75 percent say student behavior is worse than it was the previous year, and many educators feel like the administration didn’t do enough to support them when they reported such incidents of student misconduct.

As one teacher featured in the report noted, “When I told administration I wanted the student removed, they said they would honor my request but trade that student with a child who had more severe behavior issues.”

The same teacher also described how administration allegedly dissuaded her from taking further action. “I also wanted to press charges [but] was told that it would go on my permanent teaching record.” A fourth-grade teacher had a similar experience, and wound up having knee surgery for a torn meniscus after a student threw a desk at her.

“I have never experienced this type of abuse as a teacher,” the educator said in the report. “What hurts the most is that nothing was done about it and I still had to teach with this student in my class.” However, many teachers choose to just keep quiet and “suffer in silence” after being assaulted by students.

Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that these acts of violence aren’t isolated, and that to stop them, administrators need to adopt a more proactive approach.

The Broward County survey, according to Fusco, was aimed at exploring the widespread reports of violence against teachers. “I believe it’s a national problem,” Fusco says. “We learned from the survey that violence on teachers from students needs to addressed more seriously, and there needs to be quick action when the violence happens.”

After the survey was released, the school board of Broward County sent a letter to Fusco, saying it planned to investigate every incident through a discipline committee. In a statement to Yahoo Lifestyle, the school board noted that "The safety and well-being of our teachers is something Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) takes very seriously. The District Discipline Committee, made up of teachers, parents, principals, students and BCPS administrative representatives, will address feedback from our teachers. This will include occasions and circumstances of incidents, how they are reported and processed, and prevention.”

While that may alleviate the problem in Broward County, teachers facing violence in classrooms across the nation need a plan too.

As the retired California educator tells Yahoo Lifestyle, teachers “quit all the time.” He retired five years early for the sake of his mental health.

“I retired at 60,” he says, “when our bodies can’t handle stress as easily.”

If you’re a teacher who wants to share your story, send an email to teachersincrisis@yahoo.com

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