Marie McNichol, a soft-spoken but firm Buffalo math teacher, is fighting back.
She became a victim of school violence last month when a student threw a 45-gallon trash can at her in the cafeteria at Lafayette High School.
Now, she's a crusader for safe schools. After filing criminal charges against the student, she has become an outspoken advocate against violence in city schools.
"I feel terrible that I have to do this," McNichol said in a recent Buffalo News interview. "But if I don't take matters into my own hands and protect myself, the system will not protect me."
McNichol is one of a growing number of Buffalo teachers fighting back as attacks in city schools -- against teachers and other students -- appear to be rising.
About 10 to 15 teachers file criminal assault charges against students each year in Erie County, and the vast majority are from Buffalo, said District Attorney Frank J. Clark.
During a two-week period last month, 11 Buffalo students were charged with assault, although not all of those cases involved teachers. During that same two-week period, there were 70 fights in the city's 16 high schools.
Although comparable year-to-year statistics were not immediately available, several school officials said violence appears to be on the rise.
McNichol, a private and public school teacher for 36 years, now understands firsthand the human side of the problem.
She filed criminal charges against the 17-year-old who threw the plastic garbage pail, obtained an order of protection directing him to stay away from her, and urged the Board of Education to beef up what she considers a horribly ineffective disciplinary system that fails both troubled students and their well-behaved classmates.
"I'm hoping people will listen and start fighting for the rights of not only teachers but of the majority of the students," McNichol said. "They have a right to be in a safe place, to get the education they deserve and to not be afraid."
Plans to improve safety
School district officials said they are crafting plans to improve safety. Instead of returning suspended students to their home schools, they will instead be assigned to one of the city's two opportunity centers, where they will receive counseling on anger management and appropriate behavior, said Andrew Maddigan, a district spokesman.
"From here on, we're not going to be putting them back in their home schools until they're ready to go back," Maddigan said.
He said the district also plans to:
Enlist more human services assistance from outside agencies. That has long been a sticky issue because of union jurisdictional issues.
Provide mentors to help violent students act more appropriately when they return to their original schools.
Provide more training to teachers on dealing with potentially dangerous students and situations.
After being assaulted, McNichol experienced shortness of breath and tightness in her chest. She sat down and cried while being comforted by other students. Back injuries and mental anguish caused her to miss two days of school.
The next school day, another Lafayette teacher suffered head wounds when he tried to break up a fight between two girls. The teacher, who has not yet returned to school, is having difficulty speaking, keeping down food and with his memory, according to fellow teachers.
McNichol, who has been concerned with school safety for years, said the back-to-back incidents prompted her to take action.
"When those things happened, I decided this was my opportunity to stop complaining and try to do something," she said.
A broken system
Critics of the district's disciplinary system, including the school system's security chief, said violent students are often suspended for as little as five days, given no counseling or anger management assistance, and then returned to the schools where they caused trouble.
One of the girls involved in the fight at Lafayette had returned from suspension just hours earlier.
The district's security officers are given high marks for preventing trouble and responding to violent incidents. But William Jackson, who heads the security unit, said there has been no follow-up other than criminal charges.
"The system we have now isn't working," he said following the Lafayette incidents. "It's broken. If there are no consequences for bad behavior, you could put a thousand officers in the schools and it wouldn't make any difference."
Looking for answers
The Buffalo Teachers Federation is pushing for the reinstatement of alternative schools, where disruptive and violent students get individual or small-group assistance and instruction until they are considered ready to get along in traditional school settings.
A once-extensive network of alternative schools has been largely gutted in recent years due to policy decisions and budget shortages. The district is trying to plug that gap with the opportunity centers, which have a combined capacity of 120 students.
In addition, the BTF is seeking a review of district suspension policies and the creation of a joint district-BTF task force to make recommendations on improving school safety.
"I'm not stopping until we get this thing done," said Philip Rumore, BTF president.
Like many teachers, McNichol turned to the courts. She filed a misdemeanor assault charge against Gerald Keith, 17, who is now free on $1,000 bail and is receiving home instruction.
In addition, an order of protection directs that he stay away from McNichol, both at school and home. McNichol said the district hearing officer who handled Keith's suspension told her the student would have been returned to Lafayette if she hadn't obtained the order of protection.
"He said: 'I have no choice. There is no place to put the boy,' " McNichol said.
Clark, the district attorney, refuses to grant reduced pleas in cases involving violence against teachers without their consent.
"Teachers shouldn't be in an environment where they fear for their own safety," he said. "This is a problem that has to be addressed."
'A slap on the wrist'
But legal action only goes so far.
Despite the tough plea-bargaining policy, most convictions are for misdemeanors or criminal violations. Defendants routinely receive what Clark calls "the judicial equivalent of a slap on the wrist" -- conditional discharges or orders to perform community service. And if they are under 19, most defendants automatically receive youthful offender status after a conviction so their records are sealed from public view.
"A criminal conviction doesn't deal with the underlying problem," Clark said. "It's the school system that can deal most effectively with these kind of problems. If they don't do anything, and we're not equipped to do anything, the problem gets addressed but not resolved."
One student's opinion
Clark said returning violent students to the same school, without effective counseling, produces tension and fear.
"When a student like that comes back in the building, he or she can create a very threatening atmosphere for the teacher without saying a thing," he said. "How do you teach under those circumstances?"
Loreena Maslanka, a Lafayette senior who comforted McNichol after the cafeteria assault, agrees.
"I don't think they should be able to come back," she said. "Especially when they hurt a teacher. That's going too far."
McNichol is an adviser to Lafayette's Zonta Club, an organization for women. She routinely stays at school for 90 minutes after classes end and wears purple and white -- the school colors -- on dress-down days.
"She's a very concerned teacher," said Loreena, who was in McNichol's math class. "She really cares about the students here."
McNichol said she still looks forward to coming to school every day and is determined to maintain a positive outlook while advocating for safe schools.
"I'm always bragging about my students at Lafayette High School," she said. "I look at them and say: 'I love it here.' "