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Zaleski: An epidemic of violence in the classroom

Jack Zaleski.jpg
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When the number one issue in teacher contract negotiations is student behavior in the classroom, the situation cannot be minimized. When teachers rank salary and benefits second to their personal safety on the job, administrators and school board members better pay attention. When reports of documented and anecdotal violence against teachers stir enmity between parents and teachers, a bedrock principle of successful public education is under assault, and everyone who values public schools should take notice.

To hear teachers from Fargo (and other districts) tell it, classroom violence is epidemic. It’s no longer merely the smart-mouth kid who kicks over a chair or shouts out an obscenity and is sent to the vice principal’s office. That kind of thing was always manageable. Today’s classrooms with their mainstreamed populations of special needs students have become socially engineered danger zones, made so in part by parents who make unrealistic demands, and are quick to threaten schools with legal action if demands are not met immediately. Add one-size-fits-all laws and regulations that prevent teachers and administrators from removing violent kids from the classroom, and the results are not pretty. Special needs kids don’t get the specialized help they need. The education of the other students is disrupted daily and therefore attenuated over the course of a school year. Teachers dare not protect themselves by restraining a violent kid for fear of legal sanctions that could end a career.

Parents of special needs children rightfully want the best possible classroom education and socialization for their kids. They expect schools to have in place protocols and staff to deal with occasional violence and other out-of-control behavior. Public education, after all, is a right. On the other hand, the rights of students whose learning is routinely disrupted are not negotiable. The parents of those kids presume a classroom setting that is amenable to learning. Also, the safety of teachers and by extension the sense among students that their classroom is safe are essential to education. The regular incidence of student-induced violence and the every-day expectation of violence rattles students, sets teachers on edge and subverts learning.

There is no easy fix. Conflicting and complex factors include the bond between parent and child, the mandates on public education, the reasonable assumption that classrooms should be violence-free, and the existential threat to the future of the teaching profession itself. If this escalating nodus is not addressed, good teachers will quit and fewer talented college students will take up teaching.

In the tapestry of public education, the thread most frayed over this issue is the indispensable relationship between parents and teachers. The unfolding conflict over violent special needs students will not be addressed sanely if parents and teachers are at odds. Some of that sentiment bubbled up at recent Fargo School Board meetings. For their part, board members early on were dismissive of teachers’ concerns, but now seem to be listening .

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No quick answers. But asking the right questions is requisite, no matter the fallout. Thus far, teachers, who are on the front lines when a student is out of control, are driving the discussion. Good for them.

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