Teachers suffer too: School violence is a daily reality

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Teachers are injured daily, sharing stories of being punched in the stomach while pregnant, stabbed in the neck with a pencil, and threatened with death. 

Students with severe behavioral problems are too frequently, not receiving the support services they need, and teachers are not well-equipped to manage these issues. As a result, teachers and students alike do not feel safe in school. 

Teachers are often traumatized by violent incidents, which can be initiated even my 7-year old students, leading to mental and physical distress, economic costs, and calls for policy changes.

These recent incidents across the country reflect the growing violence against teachers in schools by students. Indeed, school violence is a significant public health issue in the United States. 

Preventing school shootings and reducing school violence are priorities. There is a need to address the harsh reality that K-12 students and educators experience violence and aggression daily. 

The most recent National Center on Education Statistics report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety shows 827,000 incidents of theft and non-fatal victimizations among students ages 12-18 at school in 2017. 

Still, violence does not occur in a vacuum, and policymakers and school administrators need to consider the broader context. Many school stakeholders experience abuse, especially teachers, who serve on the front lines of our educational system. The adverse effects they experience include emotional distress, guilt, anxiety, depression, fatigue, problems sleeping, disengagement, lower job satisfaction, and higher turnover.

Although investigations of teacher experiences have increased over the past decade, researchers have primarily focused on student experiences and perspectives related to school violence. Indeed, student success and safety are primary concerns, yet teachers’ voices also need to be heard. 

The American Psychological Association brought together school violence and education experts to form a National Task Force to examine issues related to violence directed against teachers. This Task Force, the first and only of its kind, has raised awareness and understanding of teacher-directed violence globally.

In 2010, the Task Force collaborated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) to conduct a national anonymous survey of over 3,000 U.S. teachers. Their work has set a national agenda and led to many discoveries over the past decade. 

For example, my collaborators and I found that 80% of teachers reported experiencing some verbal or physical violence or aggression within the current or past year from a range of perpetrators, including students, colleagues, administrators, and parents. 

As a national education expert with 25 years of research experience in schools and over 80 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters, I served as a member of the first APA Task Force on Violence Against Teachers and President of the Society for Community Research and Action

I am chairing the new APA Task Force on Violence against Educators, a group that hopes to change the face of education by assessing current school violence policies, practices, training, and experiences of multiple school stakeholders across the United States and recommending changes to improve our nation’s schools. 

Attempting to address violence in schools, it is helpful to examine the triggers and consequences of the most commonly occurring form of aggression – verbal aggression by students toward teachers. Verbal aggression includes mockery, teasing, ridicule, insults, profanity, threats, and attacks on one’s character or competence. 

These behaviors are inherently problematic and often escalate into more serious incidents. In a recent study I published with the Task Force along with a team of graduate students, we examined antecedents, consequences, and antecedent-behavior-consequence patterns that occur around student verbal aggression directed toward teachers. 

The most common antecedents to upsetting verbal aggression incidents were disciplined following a minor behavioral infraction, teacher directives to uphold classroom management, and low academic performance. Common consequences of verbal aggression were student removal, no action, and involvement of school staff. 

Educators need effective strategies to prevent and address verbal aggression across developmental levels, including the use of evidence-based classroom management and de-escalation strategies, clear directives, appropriate praise for desired behaviors, and fostering positive learning environments and teacher-student relationships.

Given the continued epidemic of violence in schools, the newly formed American Psychological Association National Task Force on Violence against Educators will collaborate with many national organizations, build upon the results of the previous Task Force, and broaden the focus to examine and address these issues in 2020. 

The Task Force will assess educator, administrator, school psychologist, and school social worker experiences, ecological and contextual issues, school climate, policies, and practices related to violence. 

The results of this study will be instrumental in influencing policies and research at the local, state, and national levels. Besides, results will be used to inform university training programs to prepare educators and administrators to prevent and address violence more effectively. 

Resources need to go to making schools safe for our nation’s youth, educators, administrators, and staff. If educators’ voices and experiences are not taken into account in establishing effective practices and policies that reduce their experiences with violence, there may be no educators to teach our children.

Dr. Susan Dvorak McMahon is a Vincent DePaul professor of clinical and community psychology and associate dean for research at DePaul University. 


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