Teachers are targets when violence plagues our schools

by Jim Longworth

Wall-to-wall media coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre has finally abated, but the tragedy (which included the murder of several teachers) has not been forgotten. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has appointed a special commission to study what happened, and how it might have been prevented. An increasing number of universities are examining quick responder text messaging systems. And colleges like UNCG are now heeding the Blacksburg wake-up call by moving swiftly to expel students at the first sign of trouble. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association and other groups continue to preach their credo that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Technically they are correct. But if we only look at guns as the cause of school violence, and shootings as the only kind of school violence, then we are in major denial.

I remember talking with my friend Brenda Hampton, creator of the long running family drama “7th Heaven” not long after the Columbine incident. Back then, Sens. Brownback and McCain were blaming school violence of all kinds on television and motion pictures. Hampton commented that it is always easier to “assign blame and then we all feel better about [solving] the problem.” She recognized that mental illness was the root cause of violent student behavior, not television or guns. Today, further investigations into Tech assassin Seung-Hui Cho’s background prove Hampton’s point, by revealing a history of mental illness that had been left largely untreated since childhood. Thanks to a flawed system of communication between mental health professionals, educators, and law enforcement, Cho slipped through the cracks, and more like him could follow. The good news is that shooting sprees are a rare occurrence. The bad news is that not all violent youth inflict their damage with guns.

Earlier this year, for example, a teacher in Philadelphia was attacked by two of his students. The boys, ages 17 and 15, used only their fists. The teacher suffered multiple injuries including two broken vertebrae in his neck. Meanwhile, a female teacher in Wisconsin was deliberately pushed from the school stage by an angry 6-year-old student. And just last week, a teacher at Southeast Guilford High School was brutally beaten by a 15-year-old boy.

This kind of non-gun related violence against teachers has been growing over the past 10 years. At the turn of the new millennium, Lou Harris and Associates reported that students physically assault 190,000 teachers each year. Closer to home, Guilford County reported 63 assaults on school personnel in 2005, and that number grew to 71 assaults last year.

Michael LaRocco, the injured teacher at Southeast High, told the News & Record that he has seen an increase in problems among students with behavioral and emotional problems as the school system moved more of those troubled youth into the general population. Said LaRocco, “I’ve been saying for awhile that there are some kids in a school setting that should not be.”

In the past quarter century, more and more public schools began to focus on alternative education and various programs of last resort for at-risk students. These initiatives included privately run residential schools that were designed to get troubled youth back on track and then reintegrated into the public schools. But those specialized programs couldn’t reach or reform every troubled kid, and now it is clear that society is failing to identify, weed out, and re-route our most troubled children. Instead, as LaRocco noted, we are continuing to mainstream kids with a history of violent behavior.

Many states such as Virginia have reformed the system of juvenile justice so that certain youths can be tried as an adult, and that is a step in the right direction. Personally I find it disturbing that each time a teenage thug assaults a teacher, we in the media aren’t allowed to publish the name of the criminal simply because of his age. In my view, if a kid is old enough to commit a violent crime, he’s old enough to face the public and do hard time, either in prison or in a youth correctional facility.

But perhaps if we become more attentive to the signs and symptoms of violent behavior that children display early on, we won’t need to imprison them later. Perhaps if we reform information sharing and coordinated psychiatric evaluations we won’t be so quick to mainstream problem students. And perhaps if we increase the number of school resource officers, we won’t have so many assaults on teachers.

Ironically, as the number of assaults against teachers is rising, the North Carolina legislature is considering a statewide ban on corporal punishment. Are the two connected? Can one prevent the other? Organizations like Parents and Teachers Against School Violence say bottom beatings can be injurious and accomplish nothing. But I spoke with a former principal the other day who told me he once had to paddle a high school senior. The 200-pound boy accepted the punishment in lieu of the alternative: indefinite expulsion. Today that boy is a productive citizen and a good friend of the principal who paddled him.

While I am not necessarily a proponent of paddling, I do believe that appropriate physical punishment can be an effective deterrent. Anyway, while we are waiting on commission reports, and while we strive to get a handle on effective mental health treatments and campus security measures, we might do well to hold off on the statewide school spanking ban. These days, mean kids are not sparing the rod on teachers, so maybe the teachers should return the favor.

Jim Longworth is host of “Triad Today,” which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on MY48 (cable channel 15).