World Events Help Put Teacher Safety in the U.S. in Perspective

As a former social studies teacher who spent seven years in the classroom, I was fortunate never to face an explosive situation. I was never threatened by a student or parent. I never witnessed a student fight that I wasn’t able to deflate. I suspect that’s more than many teachers with similar experience can say. I feel a sense of relief that I never encountered the kind of personal threats that I have recently read about on an all-too regular basis in news articles.

A 40-page report by Human Rights Watch released in December 2010 examines violence toward teachers in Pakistan’s Balochistan province. The report states 22 teachers have been killed Balochistan between 2008 and 2010. Attacks and bombings by various nationalist, sectarian, and Islamist armed groups have damaged schools and universities, killing and wounding students, and severely harming education in Balochistan.

Additionally, over the past couple weeks, I’ve read multiple news accounts from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a violent border town across the Rio Grande, where teachers and their students have been threatened by extortion gangs if the teachers did not hand over Christmas bonus checks. Christmas bonus checks? Can this be real? Numerous businesses have already been forced to close in this town that is, for all intents and purposes, overrun by drug lords. The first time I read that teachers were being targeted for protection money, I felt what I was reading must be hyperbole. After all, who would want to extort money from teachers, and why? All I can think of is the drug lords can, so they do.

Upon reading these news accounts, I rattled off an e-mail to my wife, who teaches English in a suburban school district, with a link to the news story and a simple one line message: “And you thought you had it bad.” Instances of violence toward teachers in this country are not uncommon, particularly in urban schools. A report issued by the American Psychological Association in 2010 documents each year more than 250,000 teachers in U.S. schools are threatened with physical violence. 127,000 are actually attacked. Teacher safety is often cited as a concern in this country, particularly among young teachers, and fear of violence unfortunately leads some to quit the teaching profession. While teacher safety unquestionably deserves a powerful response from policymakers, many states have already responded with laws and regulations to protect teachers.

For example, Nevada Revised Statute 392.850 requires school districts to inform each employee of the district, who may have consistent contact with a student who within the last 3 years has caused or attempted to cause serious bodily injury to any person. Thus, teachers must be informed if one of their students has caused serious bodily injury to another student, teacher, bus driver, etc. within the last three years. The law is intended to make teachers more aware of potentially explosive situations that might be caused by students in their charge.

In 2010, the Michigan Supreme Court was asked by the Lansing Schools Education Association to uphold a state law requiring students who physically assault an educator be expelled. In the lawsuit, the teachers alleged that in several instances students who physically assaulted teachers were suspended but not expelled. Although the ultimate issue of whether the students should be expelled wasn’t settled by the high court, the justices did rule the teachers had standing to bring the lawsuit, which overturned a lower court ruling.

It is shocking and unfortunate in today’s society that accepting the potential threat of violence should be part of the job description for anyone who chooses teaching as a profession. Fortunately, a report by The National Crime Victimization Reports concludes violent crimes in U.S. schools have actually decreased since 1994. And when put in perspective, teachers need only look across the Mexican border to see how much worse the situation could be. Without diminishing the gravity of the situation in this country, if a teacher in the U.S. has been warned to “hand over your paycheck, or else...” I am unaware of it.