Every year, hundreds of Baltimore City teachers are injured at work by violent or unruly students, and many school employees believe such incidents have become more common in recent years as a result of the policies aimed a keeping troublesome students in class rather than suspending them. If that's the case in some schools, the policy is being misapplied. Reducing suspensions does not mean abandoning discipline or turning a blind eye to violence. Schools can still suspend fewer students without compromising school safety if teachers receive better training and principals support them by encouraging them to report violence and injuries promptly.
An investigative report by The Sun's Erica Green, Scott Calvert and Luke Broadwater showed that workers compensation claims by teachers injured by students accounted for more than a third of the $4.6 million the school system paid out to employees for medical bills and other personal injury claims in 2013. The severity of the injuries ranged from scrapes, cuts and bruises to major sprains, fractures and more serious wounds that in some cases left their victims temporarily disabled or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Many of the teachers most seriously hurt were trying to break up fights between students or were attacked by out-of-control youngsters they were trying to calm down. Others were injured by emotionally disturbed or developmentally disabled students they were trying to protect from the consequences of their own actions. In one case, for example, a school psychologist suffered serious injuries to his hands, wrists and shoulder while restraining an emotionally disturbed child from attempting suicide by jumping out a window.
None of these incidents, or the injuries they caused, were experiences teachers signed up for when they decided to become educators. The fact that nearly all of them eventually returned to the classroom to resume their work is a testament to the dedication they bring to an often difficult profession.
That is why one of the most disturbing aspects of The Sun's report was a finding that many teachers injured on the job complain that when they report such incidents to school administrators they are treated as if they were the instigators of the problem rather than its victims. Several teachers interviewed by The Sun said that their principals made it clear to them that any injuries they had suffered were due to their own failings as educators and that if they wanted to keep their jobs they shouldn't pursue the matter further.
No principal should be more concerned about maintaining his or her school's reputation for safety than about dealing with the reality of what is actually going on inside the building. Trying to sweep the problem under the rug won't make it go away, and the damage such action does to staff morale and effectiveness will only make matters worse.
Out-of-school suspensions tend to be counterproductive for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that the kids who are kicked out of class often are the very ones who need to be there most. Study after study has shown that poor and minority students, students for whom English is a second language and students with learning and developmental disabilities are disproportionately punished by suspensions, which leave them more likely to drop out of school, be unemployed or become entangled in the juvenile justice system.
Baltimore's effort to keep as many of its students in school during the day as possible is sound educational policy that needs to be reinforced by administrators at every level in the system. But schools don't have to resign themselves to rising incidents of violence or allowing students to do whatever they please in class. Administrators and teachers need to collaborate on developing approaches to discipline for disruptive students that don't lead to unnecessary suspensions but also don't leave teachers and other students vulnerable if a disruption turns violent. Moreover, the school system needs to provide better training for teachers on how to respond to student fighting so that they don't become injured themselves when they try to protect other students.
If teachers and principals work together, rather than against each other, they can improve safety for staff and students without either resorting to draconian levels of suspensions or pretending to look the other way when youngsters cross the line of permissible behavior in a school setting.
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