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The response to school violence is a major concern for teachers

 The response to school violence is a major concern for teachers
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With school closures across the United States due to coronavirus, students and teachers are ironically safer from gun violence. Indeed, last month was the first March since 2002 with no school shootings. Once schools are back in session, there is a need to improve school safety plans and better address and prevent violence. The pandemic will likely have long-term psychological, emotional, and behavioral effects on students and teachers alike.    

Beyond school shootings, violence against teachers is a regular occurrence, and some school administrators in the U.S. may overlook the impact on teachers. The response to school violence is a major concern for teachers, as well as students, parents, and the broader school community.

The National Center for Education Statistics 2019 report estimates 962,300 violent incidents and 3,600 firearm or explosive device incidents happen nationally in schools over one academic year. 

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Despite these large numbers, statistics may underestimate violent crimes in schools as some administrators worry about adverse media attention, training and policies are insufficient, state laws vary and have little enforcement and there is no federal mandatory K-12 school crime reporting. Further, some teachers may not share their experiences due to feeling embarrassed or fearing threats, job loss, or not being taken seriously.

The Task Force administered an anonymous survey to about 3,000 pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers. In examining teachers’ reactions to experiencing violence, our Task Force found that about 20 percent of teachers did not report their most upsetting incidents of personal violence to their administrators. The Task Force also found that 10 percent of teachers described lack of administrative support as their worst experience with violence – often concurrently with another incident.

A 39-year old white male high school teacher in Washington, D.C. shared a disturbing reality.  He wrote, “I was attacked or threatened with specific physical action on at least nine other times.… and received negative backlash and no concern for my safety or the teaching environment from administration.”  

His experience is not unique. Teachers often feel ignored or blamed by the administration when they report experiences of violence from students or parents.  

For instance, a 52-year old African American male in a rural Texas teaching high school stated, “I call for assistance to break-up a fight between two male students and my call was ignored by delaying the response. I received a blow to my chin and an administrator made a joke of it. 

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Teachers reported they felt blamed, unsafe, and disempowered. They were frustrated that administrators did not take action, chose the perpetrator’s side, or used ineffective discipline. They reported some principals feared parents and others tried to protect their schools’ reputation. Findings also revealed these events were chronic as there were insufficient policies or use of policies. For example, when schools have outside pressures to reduce suspension rates, students may be placed immediately back in the classroom with few consequences.  

A 53-year old female Hispanic middle school teacher in suburban California noted, “The incident was discounted by the administration and all credibility was given to the student until other witnesses and evidence of the injury was revealed.” 

In another instance, a 41-year old white female high school teacher in urban Illinois indicated, “As a teacher if you complain or take action about discipline issues or lack of a discipline program in the school, you are targeted, your job can become a very hostile and isolated environment and you can face problems finding another job elsewhere.”  

These findings spurred the development of a new Task Force on Violence Against Educators that I am chairing. Collaborating with eight national education, psychology, and social work organizations, the Task Force is launching new research to assess violence and victimization across school stakeholders. We will also assess current school policies and practices and their effectiveness from educator, administrator, and school mental health professional perspectives.

Although a variety of best practices have been identified, there is a lack of research on their effectiveness, implementation, and use. Further, teachers often report they lack the preparation needed to address the range of violence we currently see in schools. Improving training, interventions and policies to effectively address violence will yield beneficial effects for students and teachers alike. 

Recently, a new federal clearinghouse was established to raise awareness of resources, increase communication, and consolidate school safety resources that appear across different sources. School administrators and educators need more resources, training, and access to best practices to prevent and address violence.  

As the negative effects of COVID-19 reverberate, so do the effects of school violence. Once students are back to school, the trauma of coronavirus may yield new ripple effects of psychological and behavioral issues in schools. Teachers and school administrative leaders need to acknowledge and report incidents, provide support, implement best practices, and enhance recovery for all who are exposed.

Susan Dvorak McMahon, Ph.D. is a professor of Clinical and Community Psychology and associate dean for Research at DePaul University. She is a former president and fellow of the Society for Community Research and Action.