Student on teacher assaults on rise

ABC2 Investigates

BALTIMORE - We first showed you the most recent video in November; students at Digital Harbor High School in Federal Hill taunting, bullying, assaulting a substitute teacher at the front of the classroom.

Taken with a student's cell phone, the video pulls back the curtain on a bigger issue many simply don't want or won't talk about.

"It's just a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety.  Literally, I have to force myself out the door."

Baltimore city school teacher Jeffrey Slattery wants to talk about it because he still literally feels it.

It was December 2010 at Baltimore Community High School on the east side when he stopped a student without a hall pass.

The student got physical and Slattery let him go.

"He walked down the hallway, I turned around and went back to my classroom and he came up from behind me and once I was on the ground, he's basically standing on top of me.  He struck me multiple times.  When my jaw broke, I went unconscious and I don't remember anything after that."

The Social Studies teacher would later learn it took four other teachers to pull the student off him.

Slattery broke his jaw, it was wired shut for weeks.

He pressed charges and the student was convicted.

Slattery's assault by a student was just one of seven hundred that school year in Baltimore City Public Schools where its own data shows an average of four school personnel were assaulted each day in 2010.

ABC2 Investigators found that average holds true through the past five school years with a total of nearly four thousand assaults by students on personnel, with noticeable increases in the last two years.

Broken down by grade level, it is evident seventh, eighth and ninth graders commit the assaults more often.

[Do those numbers shock you?]  "No," responded the President of the Baltimore Teachers Union, "In fact, I am very surprised they are that low."

Marietta English says it was after an attack on city art teacher Jolita Berry in 2008 when assaults by students raced to the top of mind for most educators.

The story went national, fueled by the video posted to myspace back then.

Berry's story was the impetus for the union to start keeping its own records by imploring teachers to fill out a form reporting abuse; documentation to lobby for more support to stem this violent tide.

"They should not come to work fearing they will be attacked.  They should not come to work fearing they are going to be verbally abused.  This is not what we should be coming to work and face on a daily basis.  [ The reality of it is they do though?]  That's the reality of it, unfortunately yes," responded English.

It's important to note that city schools defines an assault as the act of simply touching any school personnel, but as has been well documented, some of those cases can be quite severe.

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Either way the administration says the numbers are unacceptable and have launched a program just last summer to turn these stats upside down.

"We're faced with children right now that have problems that you could not really even imagine and to treat them just like we treated students in the 1950's is not the appropriate response."

So Karen Webber-Ndour came up with a different approach.

Borrowing from her experience turning around schools in the city system as a principal, she is now the Executive Director of the office of Student Support and Safety; a post she was given a year ago by BCPS CEO Dr. Andres Alonso because of her track record.

Webber-Ndour immediately decided to focus on what she calls school climate; change the perception, feel and environment of a school, and you will change behavior is the philosophy.

A core element of this approach is no longer just teaching the material, but training teachers to relate with the students.

"As we saw the suspension numbers begin to creep up, we realized we had to do some different messaging to the adults in the building because we are the ones in control of what happens in the environment and as soon as we give that control over to children...well we've got a problem," Webber-Ndour said.

Students assaulting teachers it is a problem experts we spoke to say is nationwide and by no means unique to Baltimore city, but Webber-Ndour's approach is.

Already having worked with 32 schools last summer, she is set to work with 32 more this year.

Her confidence buoyed by already beginning to see what she called a drastic decrease in suspensions in that pilot group of schools, an increase in community involvement and more parent involvement.

"So the messages can be articulated to the adults and adults can be coached on how to have relationships with children and that's what we're doing as a district."

The results of which are beginning to garner attention from other districts around the country, but an impact for some here at home that cannot come soon enough.

"I feel that, in the long run, I don't know how much longer I can be a teacher."

Jeffrey Slattery doesn't want to quit.

He was able to return to teaching in city schools just this year.

Now diagnosed with moderate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of his attack, it is a struggle.

"There are days when I just shut the lights off, lock my door if I don't have any immediate obligations like a parent teacher conference or a team meeting or something of that nature and I just sit in my office and I just weep, praying to God that I have the strength to get through the rest of the afternoon.  And by the end of the day I am exhausted.  I have nothing left to give anybody…it's not an easy life," Slattery said. 

[Why do it?]  "Because I love what I do," he responded.

It is a dedication to his profession and his students in spite of the severe end of a troubling statistic.


Federal Statistics

The US Department of Education studied attacks on teachers. 

The National Center for Education Statistics found student assaults on teachers is a problem nationwide but the 2007-2008 school year is the most recent data it had.

That year the feds say Maryland teachers were attacked at a greater percentage than any other state, followed by Washington DC.

It is important to note that not every state defines assault the same.

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