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News Maryland Sun Investigates

Council wants hearings on school violence

City lawmakers said Monday that they were shocked by newly published reports of school violence and plan to hold hearings to address the hundreds of injury claims filed by teachers.

Mary Pat Clarke, chairwoman of the City Council's education committee and a former teacher, said she was taken aback by a Baltimore Sun investigation that included firsthand accounts of teachers who were assaulted in the city's schools. In the last fiscal year, more than 300 workers' compensation claims were related to assaults or run-ins with students, according to data obtained by The Sun. School employees suffer more injuries than those in any city agency except the Police Department, the data show.

"I was rather shocked at the incidents that were described," Clarke said, adding that she plans to hold a hearing focusing on ways to improve teachers' treatment. "I had no idea of the extent of this problem. We'd better get a grip on this and stand up for our teachers, so we can build the basis of a good education for the children who want to learn."

The hundreds of workers' compensation claims provide details of teachers' encounters with students — often as they try to break up fights — and offer a behind-the-scenes look at violence that is rarely documented in school system reports.

School employees account for an estimated total of $4.6 million in medical bills and other costs related to workers' compensation claims for 2013, for injuries that range from assaults to accidental falls. The largest single category of claims: assaults and altercations, for which the city anticipates paying $1.4 million, records show.

"We're in a day and age where teachers aren't respected, education isn't valued," said state Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a city Democrat and another former teacher. "When I was growing up, it was unfathomable, a student assaulting a teacher, throwing desks at a teacher. When teachers are threatened by students, it raises the hair on the back of my neck to say, 'What's going on in our system?'"

Shanaysha Sauls, chairwoman of the city school board, said the district has been identifying resources and initiatives that can help create "safe and supportive learning environments," and the board expects that "effective ideas and initiatives are implemented appropriately and at scale."

"The stakes are high when it comes to creating safe, nurturing, and respectful school climate and culture," Sauls said in a statement. "We say again and again that our schools are the safest places for many of our students. This refrain must match the reality in every school building — so there is work to do. The costs — human, financial, and environmental — are far, far too high."

The workers' compensation claims for assaults and altercations represent about a third of the physical attacks on teachers listed in other school data. In the last school year, the district logged 873 suspensions for physical attacks on staff, according to the school system. Some teachers have said they felt compelled to intervene in fights to prevent students from getting hurt.

School officials said they would reinforce to teachers that rather than risking injury, they should rely on trained workers like school police officers to de-escalate situations.

Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the school police union, said the police force would encourage teachers to reach out to the police force. But he said that "adult instinct" kicks in, and most staff try to calm students before officers can get there.

"Our officers report that a lot of times ... when they're called to situations, the staff do an excellent job in abating them," Boatwright said. "However, when there's something in progress, our guys can be quick to respond, but unfortunately when an injury occurs, it's already happened before we get there."

He said it's easier for officers to be proactive and monitor spots in schools where fights often break out and monitor continuing feuds that could escalate.

"Our officers try to be as proactive as possible," he said. "But you can't be every place at every time."

Councilman Robert Curran, who serves on the education committee, suggested expanding the school system's police force, saying he was impressed by the way officers dealt with unruliness at a recent high school basketball game he attended.

He plans to request the times, dates and locations of assault and altercation claims filed by teachers to see if there are any patterns that could guide the deployment of officers.

"Obviously, it's way too late once something is going on in the hall where a teacher is attacked or in the class where students are fighting," he said. "It's a family issue. Where is the respect these children have for authority figures, not just police but their teachers?"

Mitchell, who called the violence "disturbing," said he'd like the school district to have clearer policies to cut down on staff assaults, as well as policies that make staff feel comfortable to address behavioral issues without fear of retaliation. He added that principals face pressure to evade labels like "persistently dangerous," which are given to schools that have high suspension rates.

Mitchell said he believed systemic changes like mayoral control of schools, a cause he has championed for years, could be a solution.

"There definitely needs to be a cultural change," he said.

Councilman Nick Mosby, who also serves on the education committee, said "strong leaders" are needed to turn around dangerous situations in some schools. He said he went to Chinquapin Middle School, which he described as "too violent," and Polytechnic Institute — one of the city's top schools — for high school.

He said the difference was due to the culture created by the school's principal and other leaders.

"You can't put a school police officer in every classroom," Mosby said. "If students have certain expectations of success, it will completely change everything."

In The Sun's article, published Sunday, interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards acknowledged that teachers sometimes face dangerous situations. She said teachers "want to go into a school where they can be in a healthy, respectful environment, and we have an obligation to help them create that environment in our schools."

In the article, Kimberly Lewis, who oversees the school system's human capital office, attributed the high number of claims to the fact that its 13,000 employees make up the largest share of the city workforce. She described the workers' compensation expenses as "the standard cost of doing business."

Several lawmakers took issue with that statement Monday.

"I don't accept that," Clarke said. "Every person is valuable, and every teacher deserves a safe environment in which to teach, period, the end. It's bad enough we're experiencing this. We certainly can't accept it."

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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