Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which serves about 10 percent of North Carolina’s public school enrollment, accounted for 20 percent of all student assaults on staff last year, according to a recent state tally.
CMS reported 258 such assaults. Wake County, the only district bigger than CMS, logged 92.
The CMS total is up 19 percent over the prior year, but comes as little surprise to anyone who follows such things. For years CMS has had a disproportionately high level of violence against teachers and other staff.
The perennial question: Why is that so, and what should the district do to keep employees safer?
CMS leaders say they’re trying to chart a course that protects staff and students while reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions for smaller infractions. All employees are being trained in crisis prevention and intervention techniques, designed to help them calm students with words and avoid physical confrontation when possible.
Erlene Lyde, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, and Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association, say district programs matter less than each principal’s ability to support teachers and enforce consistent discipline.
“If discipline doesn’t change behavior, then discipline isn’t effective,” Lyde said. “That’s leading to some teachers being stressed and anxious about going to school.”
“It just appears that there are some administrators who would rather ignore the behavior to get their suspension numbers down,” said Kidd.
2 schools top list
Assault on staff doesn’t necessarily mean criminal action. Incidents can range from young children lashing out during a tantrum to teens intentionally attacking teachers. Staff who are trying to break up a fight or get a disruptive student out of class may be struck or shoved in the process; that counts as an incident.
On the other hand, attacks that involve weapons or serious injuries aren’t part of that category. They’re reported separately, regardless of whether victims are staff or students. Last year CMS reported no assaults with serious injuries and five with weapons, a 10-year low.
And it’s worth noting that most CMS schools reported few or no assaults on personnel.
Lincoln Heights Academy, with 41 assaults on staff, and Metro School, with 21, accounted for almost one-quarter of all the incidents in CMS. Both are small schools for students with disabilities, and each had a total higher than most school districts in North Carolina.
Lincoln Heights serves just over 100 students, ages 6 to 22, with severe emotional disabilities (students with disabilities can stay in school past the age when most students graduate).
Aggression toward classmates and adults is often part of the picture, and teachers expect to help students manage anger and practice appropriate behavior, said Gina Smith, the CMS assistant superintendent in charge of special education. The school uses Boys’ Town classroom management techniques to develop social skills.
“There’s a lot of practice in it, a lot of shaping kids’ behavior,” Smith said.
Nevertheless, she said, one student who’s having a hard time adjusting can be responsible for several incidents. Few districts have a school for students with this kind of issue, and Smith said it’s possible that students with the most severe emotional issues elsewhere end up hospitalized or in other non-school settings.
Metro has about 225 students, ages 3 to 22, with severe cognitive disabilities, often accompanied by physical and medical issues. Many can’t talk, and “the assaults occur because a student gets frustrated and they can’t express what they need or want,” Smith said.
Statewide, just over half of all assaults on personnel were committed by students with disabilities, according to the report. It wasn’t clear how many of the CMS assaults involved disabled students, most of whom attend regular schools.
When a behavior problem is related to a student’s disability, the law requires a team that includes parents, teachers and a school administrator to review how the consequences support the goals for that student. Actions are “very confidential and private,” which means faculty may not know what, if anything, happens after an assault.
“That’s frustrating,” Smith acknowledged.
Are schools safe?
Lyde, a West Charlotte High teacher whose group is affiliated with the National Education Association, said her group supports restorative justice, an approach CMS is using to reduce suspensions.
Across the country, African-American males get a disproportionate share of suspensions for insubordination, failing to follow rules and other nonviolent infractions that require a judgment call. “It’s part of the school-to-prison pipeline that we are trying to guard against,” Lyde said.
Restorative justice uses group meetings that encourage the offender, the family and the people affected by misbehavior to work out constructive solutions. But Lyde said not all principals understand the approach.
“If they don’t do restorative justice right, it can lead to bigger problems,” she said.
Kidd, a retired CMS teacher, said her members told her about a middle school student who committed three assaults on teachers last year, including things such as taking a swing at one teacher and putting another in a chokehold. That principal refused to suspend the student, Kidd said, and he returned to commit another staff assault this year.
The student was transferred to another middle school, where Kidd says the principal has a reputation for firm, consistent discipline. The student has now been suspended several times, she said, “because they can’t get him under control.”
“In some schools there’s no structure and no expectation of behavior,” Kidd said. And in those schools, “the teachers are leaving; that’s the bottom line.”
That’s another state report where CMS repeatedly stands out: Its teacher turnover rate has been above the state average for years.
Assaults on school staff
The 2014-15 state report on criminal and violent acts in public schools tallies assaults by students against school personnel. Here are numbers for North Carolina’s five largest school districts and for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools with more than five incidents.
West Charlotte High
Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction