Marietta English was horrified when she watched the viral video showing a student hitting a Frederick Douglass High School teacher in the face.
The Baltimore Teachers Union president was equally horrified when, a few weeks later, she saw footage of a student allegedly assaulting a cafeteria worker at the National Academy Foundation School of Baltimore. Then on Wednesday, news broke of another attack: a student punching a physics teacher at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
This trio of violent events has revived discussions about school safety and the debate over how students are punished.
English responded by creating a school safety task force, which will meet Dec. 14 to examine the district’s code of conduct and issue recommendations. She says the current climate in schools is “inexcusable,” with these highly publicized incidents representing only a fraction of the threatening encounters that teachers and school staff face at work.
“What teachers fear the most is that there is no consequence for this behavior,” English said. “Children have to understand that there are consequences for their behavior. You can not hit an adult and think there’s not going to be consequences.”
The district’s code of conduct provides some discretion for how students who attack school personnel are punished. There are five district-sanctioned levels of disciplinary response laid out in the policy, with Level 1 calling for discipline in the classroom and Level 5 encompassing long-term suspensions and expulsions. An attack on a school employee can be treated as anything from a Level 2 to a Level 5 offense, with punishments that vary from detention, schedule changes and peer mediation to being kicked out of school.
“Teachers feel that this code of conduct is not very supportive of them,” English said.
City schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the district takes these incidents seriously and “there’s no disagreement that there should be consequences.” Still, each situation deserves to be looked at within the proper context, she said.
Plus, she said, it’s clear from watching the video footage of these attacks that Baltimore’s students are carrying the city’s deep-rooted pain and problems with them to school.
“Schools are a microcosm of our community and our city,” she said. “That does not let us off the hook. But I do think we have to take a real look at where we are. Our young people are an extension of the community — both our hopes and dreams and potential and the challenges we’re working on.”
Issues of violence against teachers are a perennial problem in Baltimore. A Baltimore Sun investigation in 2014 found that school employees reported more injuries than those in any city agency except the Police Department. There were more than 300 workers compensation claims related to assaults or run-ins with students in fiscal year 2013.
The number of suspensions stemming from attacks on adults is at its lowest in at least five years, according to the latest available state data.
Last school year, Baltimore City Public Schools issued 436 suspensions and expulsions after a student attacked an adult. An additional 309 punishments were issued for threatening an adult. In the 2013-2014 school year, there were nearly 800 expulsions and suspensions resulting from a student’s physical attack on a staff member.
This decline comes as the district continues to emphasize the need to rein in its suspension rate. Research has shown that suspended students fall further behind academically and that such punishment rarely improves behavior. Instead, students who get suspended are more likely to end up entangled in the criminal justice system.
The Maryland State Board of Education passed disciplinary regulations in 2014 ending a zero-tolerance policy that resulted in the suspension of a large numbers of boys, special-education students and African-Americans for minor and vague infractions, like insubordination.
The district should never “throw a kid away,” English said, but punishments must still be severe enough to discourage students from thinking they can get away with hurting a teacher.
Karen Webber helped the district craft its current code of conduct and now works as the director of Open Society Baltimore’s education and youth development program. When she led the school system’s office of student support and safety a few years ago, she said, cases would come across her desk that recommended expulsion for offenses she believed didn’t warrant such a severe punishment.
She recalls one incident in which an elementary school student ran into a teacher’s arm as the adult held it up to block a door. The child was accused of assaulting the teacher and faced expulsion.
“We have to have discretion,” Webber said. “We have to look at what’s happening on a case-by-case basis.”
Still, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School teacher Corey Debnam thinks hitting an educator should lead to an immediate suspension. The spate of recent violent incidents has him feeling “on high alert.”
He is also concerned that these incidents increasingly end up broadcast all over social media. The video of the student hitting the Douglass teacher has garnered tens of thousands of views.
“When these things blow up on social media, it seems like it’s the popular thing to do,” he said. “It’s almost like they’re not embarrassed about the things happening at their schools.”
Santelises says her team is dedicated to disrupting this culture. A cornerstone of her administration is “student wholeness,” with a focus on implementing restorative practices and improving school climate.
“Given the context that our kids are coming from,” she said, “we need to teach de-escalation strategies.”