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As needs increase, assaults may, too

Students rarely assault or threaten teachers in local schools, but those who do often are receiving special education services. The Forum requested details of physical confrontations between students and teachers in the metropolitan area's four l...

Students rarely assault or threaten teachers in local schools, but those who do often are receiving special education services.

The Forum requested details of physical confrontations between students and teachers in the metropolitan area's four largest school districts.

The Fargo School District, the largest with about 11,000 students, reported 32 physical confrontations between students and teachers since the beginning of the school year. Eleven of those cases are attributed to one fifth-grader at Washington Elementary. A Discovery Junior High student accounts for three more incidents.

The confrontations range from spitting at teachers to throwing binders to kicking a principal.

All but three cases involved students who are receiving special education services. In one of those cases, teachers were struck when they broke up a fight between students at a Discovery dance.


Moorhead had six such incidents this school year.

A Horizon Middle School student accounted for three of the incidents.

All six confrontations involved special education students with severe, multiple disabilities.

"These are not bad kids," said Lynne Kovash, assistant superintendent.

One of the incidents occurred at the high school when a teacher was hit trying to break up a fight between two students.

Kovash, who worked in special education for 11 years, said she fears publicizing the incidents could give some people the wrong idea about special education students.

Moorhead has about 830 special education students and 5,300 students overall.

West Fargo school officials said they had one incident in the fall. A student in a shop class was shooting staples at a wall. When the teacher asked the student to stop and reached for the stapler, the student pushed the teacher away, Superintendent Chuck Cheney said.


Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton officials said they've had no such confrontations this school year.

Special education is for any student with a disability that makes learning difficult. The disabilities range from specific learning disabilities, such as reading troubles, to severe physical and emotional problems.

Brenda Jordan, special education director for Fargo Schools, isn't surprised students receiving special education services are more likely to act out physically.

The vast majority of the district's 1,200 special education students follow school rules, she said.

But some students, especially those diagnosed with an emotional disturbance, can't determine right from wrong, especially when they're in the middle of a high-stress or frustrating situation, Jordan said.

"These are children who have issues normal children don't have," she said. "It doesn't do any good to blame them. We just need to figure out how to help them."

While North Dakota's definition for emotional disturbance is vague, it includes students who struggle with mental illness, such as depression, schizophrenia and mood disorders.

In these cases, special education teachers need to teach students appropriate ways to react to situations in and out of school, Jordan said.


Even so, students have good days and bad days.

- On April 29, an Agassiz student with an emotional disturbance assaulted his teacher, hitting her above the eye and causing a bloody nose. The student was charged with assault, taken to detention and served a five-day suspension, according to information obtained from the Fargo School District.

- In October, a student diagnosed with an emotional disturbance brought a multipurpose tool to Fargo North High and carved a juice carton with it. He verbally resisted requests to hand it over, but ultimately relented.

- At Fargo's Eagles Kindergarten Center, a child threw a computer chair at the special education teacher in August. Another child bit a paraprofessional. Both now have special education and behavior plans.

- A Fargo Jefferson Elementary third-grader kicked and attempted to hit the principal and teacher who were escorting him from the classroom to a special education room. When placed in the timeout room, the student disrobed and urinated on the floor. He was suspended for the remainder of the day plus two more days. When he returned, he was restricted to the special education room for two more days.

All special education teachers who work with emotionally disturbed students receive special training.

Moorhead teachers, through crisis intervention program training, learn to recognize non-verbal signals of a child preparing to act out physically, said Jill Skarvold, the district's special education director.

Teachers also learn how to intervene when a problem is building and how to respond when a child does act out, she said.


In some cases, Skarvold said, children with special needs lack full control of their bodies and may strike out unintentionally.

Nikki Nelson is one of the Fargo district's trainers. She also works with emotionally disturbed children at Lincoln Elementary.

Many factors play a role when students get out of control, she said. Sometimes the students are on medications that aren't working right. Other times, they don't know how to handle situations like other students would, she said.

Most of the time, teachers can talk the children down to a calmer level, but they will use physical holds if students are harming themselves, others or creating major damage, Nelson said.

By the time these students are in middle school, they often are more capable of handling frustrations verbally. But elementary children may act out physically, Nelson said.

Twenty of the 33 pupil/ teacher confrontations in Fargo involved elementary students.

Still, teachers feel quite safe, she said.

"Our number one concern is always with safety," she said. "When staff are trained on how to deal with an out-of-control child, they feel like it helps them add a tool to their toolbox."


Even if a child loses control, federal law requires the school district to educate that child. In previous generations, those children were placed in institutions, educated at home or segregated from the rest of the students, Jordan said.

Students who get special education services receive an Individualized Education Plan, unique plans that address each child's abilities and disabilities.

If a student on an IEP breaks a school rule, he or she still faces discipline, Jordan said.

But those consequences may depend on the situation and the student. Among other factors, educators try to determine whether the student's disability is a factor in why he or she broke the rules.

Readers can reach Forum reporters Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534 and Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530

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