Violent students go unpunished, teachers say School officials claim discipline maintained

November 05, 1995|By Carol L. Bowers | Carol L. Bowers,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County teachers are being assaulted in their classrooms and not much is being done about it, teachers complain.

"I am scared to be there," said a middle-school teacher who spoke on condition that neither she nor her school be identified. "Every morning I sit on the edge of the bed and ask myself, 'Do I have the guts to go to school today?' Some days I do. Some days I don't."

Teachers cite in particular a case at Chesapeake High School in which a teacher was slapped by a student, and one at George Fox Middle School in which a teacher was struck between the eyes by an eraser thrown by a student.

Principals at those schools decided neither case qualified as an assault, union officials said, and the students were not suspended or expelled, despite a policy that calls for such action.

In the George Fox incident, the student was convicted of assault in juvenile court after the teacher pressed charges.

Harry Calender, the principal at Chesapeake, would not comment on the incident at his school. Don McClenahan, the principal at George Fox, could not be reached.

"This is widespread throughout the system," said Thomas J. Paolino, vice president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County (TAAAC). "There's no consistency. It's up to the discretion of the principals."

Kenneth R. Lawson, associate superintendent for instruction, said he had heard of the incidents and acknowledged that some rulings had been disputed by teachers. But he said several students throughout the county "have been expelled for assaultive behavior" and that he was satisfied with the principals' decisions in the cases he reviewed.

"It's not accurate to say the policy isn't being enforced," he said.

Teachers disagree.

"There used to be a line, and if you crossed it, you were out," said Patricia Hunt, a teacher at the Learning Center, who chairs the union's committee on student discipline. "But we keep moving that line back, and moving it back, and moving it back, and now it just doesn't exist."

She said teachers sometimes learn that students who supposedly had been expelled were transferred to another school. On other occasions, expelled students have been returned to school despite failing to meet the conditions for their return.

Defining assault

The policy defines assault as "any unprovoked attack upon or malicious act of violence against another person, any attempt to commit such an act, or any threat to commit such an act, if that threat could reasonably cause the other person to believe he or she is in imminent danger of serious physical harm." Assault also is defined as reason for suspension or expulsion.

Principals interpret the definition differently, Mr. Calender said.

"It's the verbal things you really run into trouble with," he said. "For instance, if a student tells a teacher, 'I'm going to get my mom after you,' is that a verbal assault?"

Some would consider it assault by threat but others wouldn't, he said. He called for a code of conduct with clear definitions and consequences that the union, board members and principals could agree on.

School officials have tried twice to draft a code without success.

Ms. Hunt serves on the third committee to tackle the issue, and she said she still is not convinced that a code is enough.

"I told the other committee members, 'You can write anything you want on that piece of paper, but until you enforce what you said, nothing will change,' " she said. "The board must come up with a code of conduct and enforce and make the principals follow it. And you need to take the best of what teachers are doing on their own and use what's effective."

Innovative approaches

Some schools have been innovative in their approach to discipline. At Windsor Farm Elementary, students began wearing uniforms to school this week as part of an effort to improve discipline and get the children focused on schoolwork instead of clothes.

"We didn't have much of a behavior problem, but we know it helps," said Lewis Frey, principal at Windsor Farm. "This is one more piece of the puzzle to get kids doing what they're supposed to be doing."

At Old Mill and Annapolis senior highs, school advocates spend their days patrolling hallways and school grounds on the lookout for fights and other discipline problems, prepared to intervene.

Last year, Hillsmere Elementary became the first primary school to offer Saturday school as an alternative to suspension. The program curtailed the misbehavior of 19 of the 20 students who participated, principal Karlie Everett said.

But with only a $100 donation to the program, the school can afford to offer only two Saturday sessions this year, she said. The school PTA is trying to raise more money from local businesses.

Mr. Lawson praised the efforts of such schools but said the percentage of students who misbehave in any school is small.

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