By Sara Ganim
January 19, 2021
Below is a transcript of the EXTRA episode Attacked. We encourage you to listen to the episode. It was written to be heard, not to be read.
Teacher: He grabbed me from behind around my neck, and put me in a chokehold telling me in detail how he was going to come to my house and kill my *bleep* first, and then I could watch, and then he would then kill me. I’ve worked in this field for over 20 years, and I have had three student attacks that have sent me to the hospital.
Sara Ganim: So I think most people, when they hear what happened to you, one of their last guesses would be that you are a teacher
Teacher: It’s important for people to know that this is happening. Teachers encounter a lot in a day, and I think you tend to hear about teachers who might respond inappropriately to students. That’s kind of what makes the news, but you don’t hear about encounters teachers have daily that aren’t acceptable. In my job, being physically aggressed upon is like an everyday thing. It’s frustrating when we don’t have enough staff, and knowing that we can get hurt on the job, and maybe not feeling a whole lot of support and understanding from those people above us.
Sara Ganim narration: From the University Of Florida’s Brechner Center For Freedom of Information, this is a Why Don’t We Know ‘EXTRA’ episode about teachers who are attacked at work and why we often don’t know about them.
Teacher: I had PTSD, I had panic attacks.
Sara Ganim narration: For this episode, we have agreed to keep this teacher anonymous and distort their voice
Teacher: it was pretty significant for me, and I think when you are in this kind of a traumatic environment day after day, it has lasting physical and emotional impacts on your body, and I’m not the only one.
Sara Ganim narration: and the reason is that the district where this teacher works does not have a great history of treating these incidents with concern.
Teacher: when there was an incident report written administration would read it, they would have several questions as to why we did this, I don’t know that it was intentional, but it felt like our credibility was being questioned anytime there was an incident report. It felt like we were certainly being looked at as the cause of these incidents, and mind you, these students have had lifelong trauma issues, family issues, mental health issues. So it was feeling like the staff were being blamed for some of these behaviors, and no one ever calls us to make sure we’re okay. I mean, I had to leave, I had to go to a hospital, and I didn’t hear from my district through all of that. Nobody should endure daily violence.
Sara Ganim narration: This story might sound like a fluke, maybe it sounds like an abnormality. Because it isn’t the kind of story we often read about in the newspapers or hear about on TV. Certainly not the way that headlines about gun violence and bullying grab our attention. That’s what makes this topic a data desert.
There is, in fact, no way of knowing how many other teachers there are out there, with stories like this one and how many of them don’t have the support they need. Our requests for this data, from state departments of education in all 50 states, turned up a broken recording system.
What we found is that most of the time, data is kept on student violence, but it’s not broken out by who the victim is. So, for example, in 46 states, you cannot check to see how many times teachers were violently attacked. all you can see is how many times students were accused of being violent. the victim could be another student, a parent, or someone else outside the school entirely.
But stories are cropping up all over the country. Newspapers in six states, that we could find, have written about violent attacks on teachers.
And many of them note the lack of data how the reporters tried to look up the numbers in their states but struggled to find accurate information.
The closest thing we could find to a nation-wide view is a 2018 U.S. Department of Ed survey of teachers nationally. It reports that 10 percent of teachers say that they have been threatened and six percent say they have been physically attacked. And if six percent seems like a small number, think of it this way: There are three and a half million public school teachers in America. Six percent is two hundred and ten thousand teachers attacked by students at school.
Sara Ganim: Why do you think it is that districts are reluctant to accurately count this, to actually make this a category and keep data on it?
Teacher: Gosh. I mean, schools are underfunded, they’re understaffed. It takes a lot of resources to work with these kids. There needs to be a witness, there needs to be somebody watching the situation, tagging out when you need to tag out, and it’s tricky to do that with the amount of staffing that we’re allocated. And so, maybe by not keeping track of these, they’re just ignoring maybe the problem. I truly don’t know.
Sara Ganim narration: The National Education Association points out in a 2019 story, many teachers do not report assaults by students for fear of retribution. That’s what was happening in New Hampshire in the district where the teacher we spoke to works
Teacher: We were feeling pressure every incident report we wrote
Sara Ganim narration: and it prompted the district’s teachers union president, Bill Gillard, to try to do something to improve reporting.
Bill Gillard: when I came on as president, I just, kind of, thought that I would be helping with making sure that we had a good newsletter, and that our email service was up-to-date
Sara Ganim narration: Why Don’t We Know Reporter Angela Dimichele talked to Gillard about what happened.
Angela Dimichele: shortly after you became the union president, you heard complaints from members who were concerned about growing violence from students
Bill Gillard: and so I began and, to, you know, kind of, look into it, and, you know, the injuries were very serious. You know, they- they were and they were, most of the injuries stemmed from student violence against teachers. Not just teachers, but, In New Hampshire we call them ESPs, which is an educational support professional. We basically have, you know, across the country, you might consider that a- a teacher’s aide.
Angela Dimichele narration: he brought his concerns to the school board telling them that not only was safety a problem but the way that incidents were being reported or not being reported was also a big problem.
Bill Gillard: right off the bat, the one of the biggest things that- that, um, came up in terms of about the injuries was employees not being able to file injury reports to our Department of, the New Hampshire Department of Labor. And in our district we have what are called critical incident reports.
So they’d be, filings that with the school as to what happened, you know, who was involved, and- and what was, you know, the remedy to the situation, and so-on and so forth. And, so, um, these were not always kept, and they were not always up-to-date.
Angela Dimichele narration: in New Hampshire, there is a law on the books called the safe school zones act, which requires schools to report acts of violence to law enforcement within 24 hours of the incident.
Bill Gillard: but the principals in the district had not been notified about it. They had not been directed by our superintendent that these things needed to be reported. I mean we’ve had incidents where, where teachers have been, you know, hit, struck by a student and they’ve broken bones and, or gotten a concussion, or- or, you know, had sprained ligaments, or had to have, you know, a surgery, or been brought to the emergency room. And some of these incidents were not being reported to the police
Angela Dimichele narration: Bill explained that there is a profound consequence to failing to report to law enforcement.
Bill Gillard: If the students are acting out and being violent, it’s not only disrupting other kids’ education and the teachers, but it’s also disrupting their education.
You know, you might have a family situation where there’s drugs in the home, or there’s only one parent. Or you know, there’s different things that are happening that are causing these children to act out. And the siblings. So, a child at the elementary school and a child at the high school, are exhibiting similar behaviors. And, so, if they know about all of it, they’re able to provide what we would call wrap around services, or, you know they can bring in social workers mental health clinicians. They can refer them to drug and alcohol counselors, or whatever would be needed. And it, you know, so, w- we approached the superintendent saying, “You need this data. You actually could do a better job at educating students if you had this.”
There’s definitely a pushback to wanting to report all these incidents and wanting to, um, be transparent about how many of these things occur in the schools.
You know, and I don’t know whether that’s because they don’t want the schools to look bad, or, um, they don’t want the public to think, or be afraid of what’s going on in the schools but it’s- it’s a, it’s a pretty difficult situation.
Angela Dimichele narration: Bill went to his state senator and lobbied for reform and during that process, he found major inconsistencies in his state that mirror exactly what we found in our nationwide search
Bill Gillard: the data does not exist, even at the Department of Education level. Um, first of all, there’s no mandate that the schools report this data. So let’s take an elementary student for example. Let’s say that they act out, and they assault a teacher. Um, at a lot of the elementary schools, there is no definition of in school or out of school suspension. So this student might assault a teacher, they might be taken and spend half the day in the principal’s office, or maybe the whole day. But the data is never recorded. So, first of all, there’s no guarantee that the data that the Department of Education is getting is accurate. And secondly, the Department of Education and this committee said, one of the issues is that we have no recourse if they don’t file the report. So if a school district doesn’t file, doesn’t even send in the paperwork, they have, there’s no law that says that they can sanction them, or that they can, you know, hold the superintendent accountable, or anything like that.
And then, thirdly, the Department of Education, through this committee, brought forth the fact that they don’t have any employees whose job it is to analyze the data. So even if the data was accurate and was arriving at our Department of Education you know, complete and comprehensive, there’s no one there who’s actually looking at it to look at trends. Are the numbers increasing, are they decreasing? What is the response?
Angela Dimichele narration: His push for change led to his district being fined more than 15 thousand dollars for failure to report but it came at a personal cost for Bill Gillard.
Bill Gillard: Yeah, so for a long time it wasn’t public knowledge that I had been disciplined.
Angela Dimichele narration: The district found that in raising concerns about these attacks, he violated Federal Student Privacy Law. FERPA. In a follow-up conversation, he told me they hit him with two FERPA violations. One, for sharing an email with the teachers union about an incident where a student brought ammunition to school — even though he says it was de-identified.
Bill Gillard: Well, the district alleges that we violated FERPA because,, we disclosed information that could be used to identify the student in specific incidents. We never disclose any student names, You know, we never used any names of students, any grades or genders. So, we worked really hard to maintain appropriate confidentiality, while, also, being very concerned about, you know, safety issues that were grave.
Angela Dimichele narration: The district suspended him for a week.
Bill Gillard: Pretty much every single parent who found out about it was supportive of the union and, you know, advocated on behalf of the teachers and the teachers union that these reportings need to happen, and there needs to be accountability to this data.
Sara Ganim narration: but in the end, Gillard not only persisted, he prevailed.
Angela Dimichele narration: That’s right. His lobbying on this issue led the legislature to change the law in New Hampshire so that schools are now required to report all acts of violence that occur on campus and they have to give annual reports to individual school boards. The legislation also requires the department of education and the department of labor to work together to address employee injuries from acts of violence.
Bill Gillard: Since we last spoke, they passed new as a result of all this stuff we were doing they passed new legislation in New Hampshire. So basically schools are now required by law to report all acts of violence against employees, students or visitors that occur on campus. So any assault, no matter what it is, they have to report it to the Department of Education and they have to give an annual report to their individual school boards within the localities. SO those were not requirements in the past. So now we have two state organizations that are basically working to keep the schools safe and the teachers safe. So, that was a pretty big deal and we were pretty happy about that.
Sara Ganim narration: but even in Keene County, where a spotlight was shown on this issue — there is still work to be done.
Teacher: We had far fewer incident reports this year, and I think that is attributing to saying no to some students who we didn’t feel would be appropriate for public school. We still don’t feel like we’re getting support from our district in getting training, so we can be the best we can be, and making sure we have enough staff.
Sara Ganim: I think a lot of people will hear this and say, “Why do you keep doing this?” I mean, somebody has to do this job, but.
Teacher: Yeah, my mom would like me to be a kindergarten teacher. I think this has been in my blood forever. I came from a broken family and growing up in a single parent household. I was certainly, I was noticing that I was treated a little differently, and my guidance counselor wasn’t encouraging me to take chemistry and calculus, it was more like, “Maybe you’ll go to a trade school.” And I always was fascinated by some of the kids who you’d call the bad boys or the back hall boys, and I just noticed they were treated very much differently than the rest of the population, and I guess I was drawn to these students and tried to befriend them, and it kind of continued and I love it. I do not love getting beat up, but I just love watching these kids learn to trust. Sometimes it takes years, sometime you do not see the level of success on any standardized tests, but when you see a student have a conflict and be able to work through that conflict without throwing chairs, without swearing, and gain some confidence in themselves and their skills, it’s very fulfilling.
Sara Ganim: Do you think we, as a society, are losing teachers like you because we don’t pay attention to this issue?
Teacher: Absolutely. Absolutely. We’re human, and to have , to not be able to have somebody come up from behind you and startle you, I mean, the residual trauma and stress is really there. It’s important to give us resources to teach these students, but it’s also important to give us resources for our mental health and well-being. Teachers want to take care of everyone else before they take care of themselves, and
Sara Ganim: Someone needs to take care of them. Yeah.
Teacher: Yeah. I think I’m fortunate to work with an amazing team, and we take care of each other, but I still feel like we’ve got a long way to go, as far as being able to teach some of these high-risk kids,
Sara Ganim Narration : This is Why Don’t We Know.
This EXTRA was written and produced by me, Sara Ganim, with reporting by Angela Dimichele.
The Associate Producer is Tori Whidden.
This episode was edited by Amy Fu.
Music for this episode was composed by Daniel Townsend.
Audio mixing was done by James Sullivan.
The Executive Producer is Frank Lomonte.
‘Why Don’t We Know’ Is a production of The Brechner Center For Freedom Of Information at the University Of Florida.
A special thanks to the Hearst Family Foundation for providing the grant money that supported this reporting.
For more information, please visit our website at Www.Whydontweknow.Org.