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BitePRO CEO's Personal Interview: A Teacher's Experience with Workplace Violence

In this insightful interview, Robert Kaiser, an expert in the prevention of workplace violence and the founder and CEO of BitePRO®, speaks with 'L', a dedicated teacher who sheds light on the profound challenges and systemic failures in handling violence within underprivileged schools and the direct impact this has had on her personal and professional life.

Hi ‘L, first, a massive thank you for generously sharing your personal experiences from your career as a teacher. May I please start by asking how you got into teaching?  
I entered the teaching field later than most.  I had been working in human resources and the tech industry when I decided to go back to school and pursue my Master’s degree in Religious Studies (World Comparative Religions) at Naropa University. It was about 15 years ago when it was suggested to me to become a teacher and help build a better school district, and this idea became a real inspiration.  After I obtained my MA, I re-entered the undergrad program to pursue my teaching certificate for secondary level school. Since that time, I have seen teaching in public schools as a form of social justice, helping our most challenged members of society achieve a quality education that can lead to success and empowerment.  Most of the schools I have worked in are considered Title 1 (more than 80% of students on free or reduced lunch). There have been many good schools and great leadership that I have experienced.   

Can you tell me something about your own experiences with assault and violence in the schools you have worked in?  

I have been threatened, shoved/pushed (especially when a fight occurs), things have been thrown at me and my colleagues, many teachers I know have been verbally abused, sexually harassed, and a student has even spit at me.  Over the years, most incidents have not resulted in appropriate consequences; either because the school promotes a restorative practice policy, or the district limits the number disciplinary decisions allowable for a particular demographic (usually boys, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, or students on IEPs).  
It's profoundly disheartening to witness schools' failure to promptly and adequately respond to serious incidents and assaults on teachers. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be for you, or any other teacher, to experience assault in an environment where there's a glaring lack of action. Do you have any specific instances where a school utterly let you or your colleagues down?  

An African-American colleague of mine quit last year after a group of students (hispanic boys) in her class used the N word multiple times with only restorative conversations and a restorative class circle that didn’t work. Parents were called, but this did not result in a change in behavior. The administration admitted that the parents did not take it seriously.  Even with multiple reports of new incidents and pressure from the building union representative, nothing was done to either discipline these students or remove them from her class.  In her final meeting with our principal, she was told not to invite her union rep as it was not a disciplinary meeting.  In this same school, another teacher quit after a male student consistently (and with witnesses) made overt sexual remarks towards her, near her and usually about her in class.  He was never suspended and after his parents claimed that the teacher was targeting him, the teacher was then watched by administration. The student’s behavior was never addressed. The teacher demanded that the student be removed from her class and rostered with another science teacher, administration refused (even though that is expected procedure after the 2nd incident in our union contract with the district) and claimed she needed to work on her classroom management skills.  Since neither of these teachers wanted to file a grievance (the paperwork is time consuming), there is no permanent record of these breaches. I left this school due to very clear breaches of our union contract that were not handled well. However, I assumed that this was just inexperienced leadership. 

In my current school (I transferred to a middle school within my district, we experience the same issues.  Our district again limits discipline events allowable based on demographics.  Fights, assault, and Title IX violations (which can include racism and sexual harassment) continue and are often underreported, especially when against female staff.   

That is indeed shocking and deeply saddening. It's perplexing that schools would simply hope for improvement without taking any action against the perpetrators. You mentioned earlier that you were injured by a pupil. Would you be comfortable sharing what happened?  

Earlier this year, I experienced a health issue. I had a surgical consultation for my right hip. I was still walking and working on PT, but the surgeon recommended surgery as soon as he could get me in. The first week of March, I talked with my AP and let her know that I may need to adjust a few things to help with pain levels so that I could survive until the end of the school year.  My doc wanted limits on the time I spend walking/standing. He also limited the amount I can carry/push, etc.  Lastly, he wanted me to avoid crowded hallways and any activities that could lead to increased pain or a fall.  HR would not accept the doctor’s letter, but needed a special form completed.  My doctor completed this in less than 24 hours and returned it to HR end of March.  HR basically sat on the paperwork and my request for nearly a month. 

A couple of days later, I was assaulted by a student at work.  One wonders if the accommodations might have prevented the event.  However, current discipline failures in my school have also allowed a violent student to avoid expulsion.   

It's evident that the school failed you on two fronts. Firstly, your superiors didn't acknowledge your clear doctor's letter, and secondly, they allowed a violent student to remain in the school. Was the student's history of behavior known to the school?  

The student who assaulted me had already physically harmed other students, made violent threats to teachers, physically harmed the female dean, and has (and continues to make) made sexually graphic comments.  His behavior and conference record for the year were full of these events.  His mother has a lawyer that she has brought to meetings.   

How did the school respond to the assault on you? Was the student adequately disciplined after this? 

This student was not properly disciplined for my incident, the incident was in fact reported to the district as merely ‘disruption of the learning environment,’ and he remains in school on the same floor where I teach (he is not my student).   This incident should have been reported to the state as 2nd degree assault and by this point in time, the student should have already been recommended for expulsion.  However, the student has a mental health designation (ODD) and schools often under-report these incidents.  One reason is that they are not allowed to suspend or expel students if the student’s condition presents as the behavior in question.  One teacher was told never to look at or redirect/correct this student as he will become violent.  I wonder how this unsafe situation is allowed in any school. 

I'm truly sorry to hear that the school failed to act appropriately. I can only imagine how betrayed and abandoned you must have felt by the organization you chose to work for. Following the school's initial lack of response, how did you decide to proceed? 

After speaking with my union, I filed a level one grievance and met with my principal (with a union rep as well). Below is what I had hoped to achieve with this meeting: 

  • Appropriate consequences that follow the discipline ladder, even if it is after the fact. Appropriate reporting to law enforcement by the school. Additionally, this student should be beyond level 5 at this point. Recommend expulsion. 

  • Review and rewrite, if necessary, the building discipline ladder so that it clearly follows the district ladder and add additional requirements that each incident be recorded separately.   

  • Investigate whether the discipline ladder was used correctly for this student and how many reportable incidents were either not reported or exist as one of several events in only one entry.  Review any multiple entries and rewrite them as single incidents.  Add after the fact consequences for incidents which were not considered as a separate incident and specifically show where this should have moved the student to expulsion at an earlier date. 

  • Ensure that all teachers in the building are aware of this student's safety plan and his violent nature.  

  • Prohibit any contact between the student and myself, ensure that I can use an accessible bathroom and elevator without further contact with this student or threat / harm to my person. 

My boss said they would review the policy about taking statements but that no one has needed to write their statement themselves before, but she did not see a problem with the language in the description or the combining of events and I was not prepared to argue semantics as the coding was the most important part.  So, I had to drop that part of my request.  I made it clear to my boss that I was not safe in the building with a student who does this - but she assured me that the student would not do it again as he seemed apologetic.  This did not help me to feel safer. Two weeks later I was informed by my principal that the district will not change the description to 2nd degree assault.  The reason given was that the consequence was already given, and they can’t just go back and discipline a student after the fact.  They also can’t change the designation that was originally reported as it would then look like they did not properly discipline a student for assault.  This makes no sense.  My next step now is to contact my union rep again and we will work on a grievance against the district. 

I have contacted 4 separate attorney’s offices. No one will begin legal proceedings either against the school/district or the parent.  Most responses were that they lacked the resources or there would be difficulty getting the video of the event (may not even exist anymore).  I tried to file a police report in March, but the officer refused and stated that he was not going to take a 13-year-old kid into custody without video proof or unless an actual weapon was involved.  This was just unbelievable.  Any officer should write the report and there is no requirement of proof - the report begins the investigation.  The investigation would include contacting the school to gain the video evidence. 

It's truly disheartening and utterly disappointing to receive such a lackluster response from the school. It appears that the school prioritized safeguarding their reputation over  protecting a dedicated staff member like yourself. Since this incident, how has it impacted your life, both professionally as a teacher and personally? 

I have had to miss work.  I have been in pain and cannot walk unassisted at the moment (crutches) - probably until surgery in July, but my PT is hoping to gradually help me strengthen.  I have lost a great deal of quality of life since the injury.  In addition, many admin and 8th grade teachers avoid contact with me (I am a 7th grade teacher).  They all know what happened and only a few are brave enough to tell me how sorry they are, and that this student should have been expelled already.  I am a reminder of a dysfunctional discipline system to most.   

Feeling isolated at work, missing out on normal physical activity, missing social events has all been hard.  I have pain that wakes me up and working is often just in survival mode.  I must constantly demand help and that people honor my restrictions.   

But the largest toll has been how much effort it has taken for me to just stand up for myself. Emails, phone calls, meetings…  All the paperwork involved has created a second job for me.  It seems to be 100% prohibitive.  The grievance process, the ADA accommodations process, just setting up meetings with leadership and even setting up workers comp is a long bureaucratic process.  I can absolutely see why no one wants to do it.  Plus, have I just spent all this time to receive no justice?  Being on crutches until the end of the school year and going into surgery weaker than necessary? Constantly thinking about not just quitting this teaching job, but teaching in general?  At what point do I just give up and accept that this what education is like now?  If I keep teaching, do tacitly accept that the environment is not safe and am I silently agreeing to the status quo? 

About the Author  

Robert Kaiser is an expert in the prevention of workplace violence related injuries. His written work has been published in several international security and safety focused publications. He is also the Founder and CEO of BitePRO®, the world's first specialised brand of protective clothing, offering dependable scratch and bite protection for those working with individuals displaying challenging behaviour.