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Teachers often victims of violence

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on December 5, 2013)

On back-to-back days in October, two U.S. teachers were killed at the hands of students: Michael Landsberry, in Nevada, and Colleen Ritzer, in Massachusetts. Both taught math. The student charged with killing Ritzer had recently moved there from Clarksville.

The deaths of these teachers highlight a dimension of school violence that is too little discussed. Often, teachers are the victims of violence.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2007-08 school year, 7 percent of teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student. Four percent of teachers reported having been physically attacked.

In Tennessee that year, the percentage of teachers who reported being threatened by a student was 7.7 percent, while 3.9 percent reported being physically attacked.

A 2011 survey by the American Psychological Association found that 80 percent of teachers reported having been victimized in some way during the previous year. Half had experienced theft or property damage.

My first thought on reading these statistics was that they couldn’t be right. But it is actually worse. Not only are teachers the frequent victims of students, many have been attacked or injured by parents. Yes, parents.

These sorts of actions, directed at professionals who are committed to helping children, are simply unacceptable. Such acts assault our values. One wonders what must have happened to transform teachers from people to respect into objects for abuse. It is no surprise that so many teachers leave the profession after just a few years, or that it is hard to attract the best and the brightest to teaching.

So, what can we do to restore respect and safety to the profession?

In “Understanding and Preventing Violence Directed Against Teachers,” Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her co-authors on a national APA task force take pains to point out the complex nature of the problem, which involves communities, schools, teachers, students, parents and even those who prepare teachers.

With so many groups implicated, their recommendations are also complex. At the risk of oversimplifying: Programs that train teachers need to ensure that future teachers know the techniques of classroom management and positive behavioral support to keep all their students engaged and on track. Aggressive behaviors have to be nipped in the bud before they escalate into physical violence.

School leaders need to support teachers as well as students by creating safe environments within their schools. This means promoting a shared understanding of appropriate behavior and enforcing discipline consistently when it is needed.

Students need opportunities to make choices, and they need to know that with those choices comes responsibility for their consequences.

Civic leaders and youth organizations need to offer healthy activities in safe locations outside of school to keep kids engaged and instill pride in their communities.

Parents and relatives should watch for situations that might trigger children to act out. They should communicate their concerns to teachers and school officials so that families and schools can work together to meet children’s needs and encourage positive behavior.

We still have much to learn about violence aimed at teachers and what we can do to prevent it. But first, we need to stop pretending it isn’t a problem.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.