During my tenure as an art teacher at Waverly Middle School, I was assaulted by students twice. The first time I was assaulted, the student was back in my classroom within two days. I taught in Baltimore for a little over a year, and in that time I received multiple death threats, got injured breaking up fights between students, witnessed numerous riots in the hallways, and never was able to completely teach a full lesson. It became obvious to me that I had no choice but to leave - for my safety, and for my physical and mental health.
Now, a year later, another art teacher was assaulted - and because it was caught on video, her situation is making national news. But neither my story nor that of Jolita Berry, who teaches at Reginald F. Lewis High School, is surprising to anyone who has taught in Baltimore public schools.
There is a culture of acceptance of violence in Baltimore schools. Administrators, faculty and staff shake their heads in disbelief, but do little to address the underlying problems. "It's just the way things are" is a common phrase in the hallways. Student-on-student fights happen daily, and now student-on-teacher assaults are happening more often.
Some principals purposely miscategorize violent incidents in schools, filing paperwork that renames the incident as a less-serious event. After all, no school wants to run the risk of being labeled as "persistently dangerous," which would result in funding cuts for that school.
Only a small percentage of our schools' children are persistently disruptive and violent, but these few are being given permission to run amok, and this leads a larger number of students to follow suit. Administrators tell kids who are cutting class and being destructive or disruptive to spit out their gum, pull up their pants and tuck in their shirts. Never mind the chaos in the hallway - gum chewing is easier to solve.
Principals are overwhelmed. Teachers struggle to finish their lessons while disruptive behavior goes unresolved. If they send a student to the office, they are often told that no one is available to deal with the child - and please don't send any more.
Turnover rates for faculty, staff and administrators are very high. Teacher training programs such as Teach for America and Baltimore City Teaching Residency attempt to recruit young, energetic and idealistic teachers. But these young teachers are "trained" to be educators in a matter of weeks, and are promised a free master's degree in education at the Johns Hopkins University. The dropout rate from these programs is sky-high.
These are our schools, where our children go to learn. How can any child learn in an environment like this? How can we sit by and let an entire city's population of children go uneducated? How can we accept this culture of violence as "just the way it is"?
We need to collectively decide that enough is enough and make a conscious effort to stop accepting things as they are. Discipline codes must be rewritten stronger - and followed. Parents in our communities need to demand more from school administrators, so that they are held accountable. Teachers and principals need to be better trained, and better supported once they start working.
It's also time to ditch the No Child Left Behind law so that schools can address the problem of violence head-on, without worrying about being labeled "persistently dangerous" and thus losing funding.
Until we do these things, our city (and others) will continue to lose great teachers, and our children will continue to be on the receiving end of the biggest injustice in this nation.
About the author
Julia A. Gumminger is a former art teacher at Waverly Middle School. She lives in Baltimore.
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