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New report highlights violence against educators, school staff during pandemic

“I think you have some unique issues that have come up through the pandemic that have been especially overwhelming for educators,” one researcher said.

A third of teachers surveyed in a report released Thursday say they have experienced at least one incident of verbal or threatening violence from students during the pandemic, and many in the profession said they wanted to transfer or quit education altogether.

The American Psychological Association's survey of nearly 15,000 teachers, administrators, psychologists, social workers and other school staff members across the country also found that more than 40 percent of school administrators reported verbal or threatening violence from parents during the 2020-21 school year, when the survey was conducted.

Although many schools had implemented remote or hybrid instruction during part of the coronavirus pandemic, the survey found “substantial rates of student physical violence” against teachers and school personnel, including physical attacks and students’ throwing objects and using ordinary objects as weapons.

The findings highlight the challenges facing teachers and school staff members as students return to classrooms after having spent months away from in-person learning and bring the trauma of navigating a pandemic with them.

“I think that schools feel pressure to catch students up, but if we’re not looking at tending to mental health needs, as well, that could be a concern,” said Jill Cook, the executive director of the American School Counselor Association.

Schools cannot help students who have faced learning loss and interruption during the pandemic catch up “if their social and emotional development and their mental health needs aren’t tended to,” she said.

Cook said she has heard from school counselors and others across the country that there have been more fights and more disciplinary issues than had been the norm before the pandemic.

Just this month, a 14-year-old Washington state boy was charged with attempted assault after he was accused of putting his belt around a teacher’s neck during class; a South Florida teacher was taken to the hospital after she was attacked by a 5-year-old student, authorities said; and a senior citizen substituting in DeSoto, Texas, had chairs thrown at him.

“I think you have some unique issues that have come up through the pandemic that have been especially overwhelming for educators,” said the chair of the American Psychological Association's Task Force on Violence Against Educators, Susan Dvorak McMahon, a professor of psychology at DePaul University.

The association presented its findings to some members of Congress and the Education Department on Thursday.

Tracy Cooper, a 22-year veteran school bus operator in Orange County, Fla., said during the presentation Thursday that “working conditions continue to deteriorate and get more dangerous” as the turnover rate for drivers and other school personnel increases.

“Low pay, long hours and the threat of violence make it so you have fewer and fewer experienced drivers sticking around,” she said. “They can get the same or better able to pay in a safer job almost anywhere.”

Cooper said she has had a student on a bus attempt to push her down and a fairly new colleague who immediately quit after she was “bitten badly” by a student while working a new bus route. 

Cooper said bus drivers also face threats from parents.

“A few months ago, a parent threatened to have me fired because I was simply carrying out safety measures, the mask policy required by the school district,” she said. “Just because a parent disagrees with the school system policy doesn’t give them the license to make threats or block the buses from moving, and that’s what that parent did on that day.”

Cooper said "the workplace violence is intensified when we don’t have enough experienced staff who are properly trained."

Twenty-two percent of school staff members — such as paraprofessionals, counselors, instructional aides and resource officers — reported that they had experienced physical acts of violence in the school setting during the year, the survey found. School personnel also reported violence in the form of aggression from parents and other adults.

“These rates of violence are extremely problematic and may contribute to teachers and school personnel wanting to quit or transfer,” the organization said.

Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, said in a statement that the report “highlights a growing problem for our nation’s educators — a worrisome rise in both verbal and physical attacks.”

“While the sources and motivations behind violence in schools vary greatly, the solutions are clear as day — more staff, more training, and more attention to mental health needs,” Pringle said. “And yet, schools are not given the funding needed to hire, train, and retain necessary staff at their schools like counselors and social workers — and we’re already in the middle of a dire educator shortage.

“This crisis of violence should unite educators, students, families, and politicians around the common goal of ensuring that our public schools are the safest, healthiest, and most just places in our communities,” she said. “We need to address the mental health needs of students and educators, as well as school staff shortages — both of which undermine the learning and growth of our students and the safety of our educators.”  

The survey found that 29 percent to 34 percent of school staff members, administrators and mental health personnel reported interest in quitting their careers or transferring schools. “Almost half of all teachers reported they desire or plan to quit or transfer their jobs due to concerns about school climate and school safety,” the group said.

As of January, 44 percent of schools reported having at least one teaching vacancy, and nearly half had at least one staff vacancy, according to data released last week by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. More than half of those vacancies were because of resignations, according to the data.

The American Psychological Association said in its report that schools needed comprehensive, research-based solutions to address issues of violence. The group recommended supporting the well-being of educators and students by establishing mental health programs for educators and personnel and increasing the number of trained teachers, psychologists and social workers to address student needs, as well as using trauma-informed practices.

The organization also said federal policies were needed to invest in growing and diversifying the educator workforce, increase funding for programs that train educators and increase funding for programs that provide school-based mental health services.

It also recommended anonymous reporting and assessing students’ and school personnel’s perspectives every year.

Byron McClure, a school psychologist who also spoke Thursday when the report was presented, said ahead of the briefing that students may experience violence in their communities, which can trickle into school environments and create an unsafe learning environment. Aside from students lashing out, teachers can also experience vicarious trauma, picking up “on the trauma that our students bring into the school environment,” he said.

McClure said it was imperative to have mental health professionals collaborating with school staff and educators, as well as working directly with students and parents to meet the needs of the school community.

“We can’t do this alone,” he said.