Teachers learning to file assault complaints
BRIDGEPORT, Conn.—The first time Christine Taylor, a teacher at Central High School, was assaulted by a student, it didn't occur to her to report it, seek immediate medical assistance, or even call in sick the next school day.
Her 250-pound, 6-foot-3 assailant, a sophomore, was running past her in the hallway, on his way to a fight, when it occurred.
"I said, `Turn around and go back into your cafeteria.' He goes, `Get out of my way,' and slugs me in my left shoulder, punches me with an open palm, knocks me into the locker and kept right on going. My head must have snapped back. I wasn't expecting it," said Taylor, recalling the 2003 incident as if it were yesterday.
A second-year teacher at the time, Taylor wasn't aware of what to do if she was assaulted by a student.
She said after the assault, school security told her to go to a walk-in clinic, report it to her supervisor and press charges.
The student was expelled, but came back to Central the following year and had a habit of walking past Taylor's classroom. It made her uncomfortable.
In 2010-11, the latest school year data available, there were 181 assaults on teachers and school employees in Bridgeport and 1,528 assaults in the state, up from 1,308 in 2009-2010.
The number of assaults varies widely among districts. While Hartford had the most assaults with 254, Greenwich had none, according to state records. But the numbers, say members of the Connecticut Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, don't tell the whole story.
Often assaults go unreported. Some teachers are too embarrassed to say they have been hurt by a student. Others are reluctant to get a student in trouble or worry the incident will make it look like they can't control a class. And sometimes, teachers say they are dissuaded from reporting assaults by administrators.
Joan Hughes, a union field representative for Greenwich teachers, said in testimony before the state legislature that the number of assaults reported in her district does not accurately reflect the number of times teachers there have been "pushed, shoved, hit, spat upon, punched threatened or subjected to any other form of violent or insubordinate act."
Often, police are never informed of the incident.
"Even in those cases where teachers do file a complaint with their administrators, it is common for that report not to be forwarded to the police -- a direct violation of the law," said Robin Kaplan-Cho, whose job with the Connecticut Education Association includes advising teachers of their rights and responsibilities.
She and others want to toughen a 1979 law that requires a school principal who receives a written report of an assaulted school employee to file that report with the local police.
Kaplan-Cho said the law needs teeth so acts of violence in schools are taken seriously. The union wants to fine principals and require that they get training.
But that proposal never got out of the legislature last year because some lawmakers took issue with the size of the proposed penalty, which was between $500 and $2,500. The senate voted to reduce the proposed fine to $250, but the session ended before the House acted on the amended bill. This past spring, with the focus on major education reform efforts, the bill never got out of committee. The CEA tried without success to get the fine attached to another bill about workplace violence.
The bill was opposed by the state's Chief Public Defender's office and Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. Kachina Walsh-Weaver, of CCM, said the group was concerned about who would be liable for paying the fine. Christine Perra Rapillo, director of the juvenile delinquency defense office, testified that the current law was sufficient.
Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said this week that before he could support the measure he would have to know the extent to which teacher assaults are not being reported.
Nobody wants anybody assaulted. Number two, anytime there is an assault, it should be reported. No question about it," said Cirasuolo. "But before we come up with a solution, we need to make sure there is a problem."
Just how often assaults go unreported remains uncertain. What is known is that reported assaults on teachers and other school personnel are on the rise in Connecticut, according to Kaplan-Cho and others.
There were more than 6,400 reported incidents of physical violence against school employees from 2006 through 2010, according to data collected by the State Department of Education. The American Psychological Association called violence against teachers a silent national crisis in a study it released last year.
Using figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics, the study found that 253,100 teachers -- about seven percent -- report being threatened with injury, and 127,500 report being physically attacked in 2003-04. In 2007-08, according to the NCES, the number threatened had risen to 289,600 and the number attacked rose to 154,400. Reported assaults were more likely in urban districts and in secondary schools, the data showed.
But for every one reported assault, others never surface to the proper authorities.
In some instances, said Lori Rossomando, head of the teachers' union in Stamford, teachers suppress the incident.
When a kindergartner yanks a teacher to the ground, Rossomando said, the teacher is less likely to want to get the student in trouble, and more likely to be embarrassed and fearful they will be seen as someone who can't control their class.
But other times they are dissuaded from reporting an assault.
"We know for certain that many teachers are too fearful of retribution to ever file a report of an assault with their administrator, much less with the local police," said Kaplan-Cho.
Carmella Lorusso, an eighth-grade English teacher at Tisdale School in Bridgeport, said she was assaulted by a student in the 2010-11 school year after more than 25 years of teaching. "I went to the door and there was a security guard. I didn't see the student behind him until I opened the door. The child pushed his way into the room and ended up hitting me in the shoulder, nearly knocking me down," said Lorusso, of the middle school student who was taller than she was.
"The concerning part of that was that I was told I shouldn't call the police and that the child never received punishment," said Lorusso.
She reported it anyway but the police officer told her they were not going to arrest the child.
"School police said I wasn't really hurt and I didn't feel I wanted to go further with it at that point."
Lorusso said she later learned that the student had a history of harming teachers and other students. He eventually was placed on homebound instruction only.
Lorusso, who is the grievance chair for the Bridgeport Education Association, said on the whole, she thinks most administrators are good about reporting assaults to police, but not always. "Sometimes it is hit or miss. Some do their own thing. School climate is a big issue and there is some hesitation," Lorusso said.
Shively Willingham, Bridgeport's special assistant for Safety, Security & Climate under Interim Schools Superintendent Paul Vallas, said in his experience teacher assaults go underreported. Willingham served as a principal and then an intervention officer in the Philadelphia school district, where failing to report a teacher assault was a disciplinary offense that could get a Philadelphia principal demoted or fired. He couldn't say how often a principal was demoted but said one was fired for not reporting an assault.
He said many principals were reluctant to report teacher assaults because then their school gets labeled as persistently dangerous.
"There is a list of must-haves in a school and safety is one of them," he said. He said a student who assaults a teacher should get arrested.
In Bridgeport, the district now has a system where teachers can report assaults online so if principals don't follow up, central office staff will be alerted to the incident. The district is also fine-tuning its use of security cameras in schools to protect students and staff.
Knowing the location of security cameras at Central High School in Bridgeport may have helped one teacher escape assault last year.
"There were kids out in the hall during a lunch wave and I asked them to move along," said the teacher, who asked that her name not be used. "They started to be obnoxious. One student says, `Do you really want to do this ... you want to head up.' Head up means fight."
The student started to walk around the teacher in a circle and all of his friends stopped and created a circle around her.
"He was sizing me up," said the teacher. She turned to the student and said, "No, I don't want to head up but I am going to report this. I know what hallway you're in, I know what time it is and I know that you're right under a camera. I will find out who you are and we will have a conversation. Then I walked away,"
The teacher of 12 years said she remained calm at the time, but afterward, was shaken. The security camera tape was reviewed and the student was identified and expelled.
Taylor, the Central teacher, said even if a student is disciplined, an assault can shake a teacher for years to come. She said after an assault a teacher is constantly on alert and worried about students who want to get back at them.
Taylor describes 95 percent of Central students as fabulous. But, she said, it's the five percent who give her such high blood pressure she has been taken out in an ambulance more than once.