“How can we keep our kids safe at school?” has been the question on many people’s minds in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. A just-published study (pdf) by the American Psychological Association (APA) reveals that schools have also become a lot less safe for teachers, with 80 percent saying they have been victimized at school at least once.
Other statistics cited from one survey of over 3,000 teachers (grades K-12 ) in 48 states are just as alarming:
94 percent of the teachers surveyed said that students had victimized them.
44 percent said they had been being physically attacked.
72 percent said they had been harassed.
50 percent reported experiencing theft or property damage at school.
Reading these figures, one wonders if some will take this study as additional evidence that school staff should have carry firearms — and the answer must be an unequivocal no.
The APA study reports on what is a shockingly high incidence of violence against teachers in schools not to sensationalize the issue but to underscore that this is a “national crisis with far-reaching implications and deserves inclusion in the school violence equation,” says the study’s lead author, Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That is, the APA study shows why it is all the more urgent to address why students might have “problem behaviors” that lead them to harass or victimize teachers.
Espelage’s article offers specific suggestions for making school safer for teachers:
1) Create a national registry of incidents: Currently, “general records” of incidents of violence against teachers are kept by local and state school agencies. A national registry would provide more information enabling us to “estimate the magnitude of the problem more accurately and develop targeted prevention.”
2) Focus on prevention: Teachers must be trained to focus on the reasons for problem behaviors occurring, instead of solely on how to stop a behavior once it happens.
3) Revising state licensure requirements: With #2 in mind, the study calls for all teachers to “master classroom management training before they are licensed to teach.”
4) Recognizing that “problem behaviors” in students can have complex causes: The study calls for collaboration among a broad spectrum of community-based organizations including after-school programs and social service agencies to create a “more integrated effort” in identifying and addressing why students or others might have behavior issues at school that compromise a teacher’s safety. I would also assert that parents and/or other parties responsible for caring for a child be included, in order to get the fullest possible picture of what is going on.
Teachers themselves, Espelage and her colleagues emphasize, ”play a powerfully pivotal role in reducing school violence” by what they do in the classroom. Teachers need to have a range of pro-active classroom practices at their disposal including “being consistent in modeling and rewarding positive behavior”; showing flexibility at transition times; and “building on student strengths, such as ethnic identity, rather than focusing exclusively on weaknesses or using punitive methods.”
The APA study is troubling, but it also shows how important it is to be aware that violence in schools affects students and teachers and to take action. It is unsettling to think that our schools have become such unsafe environments for students to learn in, for teachers to work in. If our teachers do not feel safe in their workplace, how can we expect students to?
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