FARGO — Fargo educators shared vivid and harrowing details about classroom violence in the district's 20 schools as their teachers' union attempted to make progress on talks with the school board and guarantee safety language is included in their new contract.
The anonymous details or stories, which were included in a survey on classroom safety with 800 school staff responses in March, were released by the Fargo Education Association on Thursday, May 16, with some teachers or support staff saying they live in fear the "moment we walk into the building."
The testimonials said staff suffered concussions and fractured arms, had their lives threatened, were sworn at on a daily basis, shoved forcefully from behind or had to deal with "a group of students who openly participate in campaigns of intimidation and harassment."
The survey included "hundreds of stories" of violence, said the release from FEA President-elect David Marquardt.
The stories are harrowing accounts of verbal, emotional and physical abuse of teachers, counselors, paraeducators and fellow students. It was added that there was also "frustration due to a system that does not listen to them" and lack of support from some administrators.
Here are a few of those testimonials:
- “Our school has a group of students who openly participate in campaigns of intimidation and harassment. Among other things, these students have verbally assaulted staff and students, cornered students in a bathroom and attempted to physically assault them, threatened to physically assault staff, coordinated a time in which they would all leave class to assault another student during their lunch, and waited for and followed students to their bus to continue to harass and threaten them.”
- “I have been bitten, spit on, choked, hit on all areas of my body, slapped, pushed, said they would kill me (in detail), we get called derogatory names, swore at on a daily basis, I have had chairs thrown at me, all items in a classroom, food, pencils, rulers, broken equipment, desks, tables, my friends have received concussions, broken foot, fractured arms. … We live in fear from the moment we walk into the building.”
- “Every day I dread coming to work because any choice I make could result in me being sued,investigated, losing my teaching job or even my teaching license. … When I was a teacher 8 years ago, my biggest worry was whether or not my students were making academic or social progress. Today, I feel fear and intimidation daily and do not feel support from my administration.”
Aside from those staff member comments, some Fargo school board members who fanned out across the district in personal visits to each of the schools this spring also discussed classroom violence in their reports that were released this week.
Board member David Paulson, who visited Kennedy Elementary School in south Fargo, said in one classroom he heard "noise and language coming from the room that were very disturbing." He said an instructor told him that one kindergarten student seems to average five episodes per day lasting up to 30 minutes each.
"The thing that bothers me greatly is that very little seems to be said of the remaining 20 plus kids who are being denied an education while this one student is requiring all of the attention," Paulson wrote.
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In another report, board member Jennifer Benson wrote about her visit to Eagles Elementary in south Fargo that "there are children that feel they can just run throughout the building whenever they want. I witnessed this. Teachers and paras feel like they do not have any options other than to just follow the child around. Outbursts in the classrooms are common.. I would like to know how much class learning time the rest of the class is missing out on because of student outbursts."
Marquardt called the classroom violence an "epidemic."
"Educators want a strong voice in the development and implementation of safety training procedures and protocols," he said.
FEA Vice President Jenifer Mastrud echoed those comments in a phone interview Thursday and added the city's 1,000 teachers just want to put into the contract that the safety committee would continue because it could be "eliminated on a whim" by a new school board or administration.
The safety committee consists of teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, counselors, positive behavior technicians, special education area service coordinators, a safety and emergency management coordinator, a school resource officer, administrative assistants and a student wellness and family facilitator.
Mastrud said the teachers simply "want to work as a team" for solutions on the classroom violence.
Meanwhile, in a meeting Monday night, school board member John Rodenbiker said the negotiations committee decided against an FEA proposal that the safety committee language be included in the contract. He said the current safety panel has been coming through with "good recommendations." He stressed that the board and committee, however, were always willing to listen to teachers and their recommendations.
Rodenbiker didn't return a call Thursday night to reaffirm those comments. However, School Board President Rebecca Knutson said in a statement that "the topic of school safety and the safety committee is currently being discussed at the negotiations table. The Board’s Negotiations Committee will continue to discuss these topics and more with the FEA through their planned meetings."
The FEA and the school board committee will meet again on Wednesday, May 22, at 4:30 p.m. The teachers would like a contract in place before the summer break. One-year contracts were in place the past three years, but the norm has been to negotiate two-year deals.