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KEEP TEACHERS SAFE IN THE CLASSROOM

The recent attack on a Buffalo teacher by two special-education students is a reminder that teachers can't teach, and students can't learn, if violent kids are allowed to disrupt the school. In a truly horrifying incident, a teacher was hospitalized with a back fracture and head and abdominal injuries after being punched and kicked while trying to break up a fight between two 13-year-olds.

For those who think teacher injuries are rare, the Buffalo Teachers Federation has reports of nearly a half-dozen incidents since school began in September. Most aren't as severe as this one, but even one incident of a student attacking a teacher is too many.

The school district must do all it can to stop them. That requires punishing students decisively to safeguard the learning environment, send a message of deterrence and reassure school staff that the workplace is not a danger zone.

But the district also retains the responsibility to provide instruction -- both academic and behavioral -- for the guilty. They must learn that violence is not acceptable at the same time they continue to learn reading, math and science so that they don't fall behind while being punished. That policy is not a bad one. Academic failure itself can lead to even more behavioral problems.

And when special-education students are involved, things get even trickier because of special safeguards that protect their rights.

The teachers federation is calling for a permanent suspension and alternative instruction in this case. But unless the district gets a court declaration that the kids are dangerous -- which it will seek in this case -- special-education students can only be suspended for a maximum of 10 days. That's not much punishment in a case like this one.

If the district gets the court declaration, it will suspend the kids for a year and work with the families and community agencies to find ways to get them academic instruction as well as help with their behavioral problems.

That approach, made possible by a change in state law a couple of years ago, sounds like the best means of handling this case.

For non-special education students, the district already has an alternative school program that, as a result of changes made last year -- and with proper funding -- sounds like it should be sufficient.

At the alternative high school, kids are placed in much smaller classes with desks far apart and much more supervision. They stay at least a year before going through an extensive evaluation that looks at their academic achievements and improvements in attitude and social skills to determine whether they're ready to return to the regular program.

Before last year, students were automatically released from the alternative school after earning a certain number of points. But that resulted in recidivism and complaints from principals. Since the new system was implemented a year ago, there have been no repeat offenders, according to principal Elzie Fisher.

There are 156 students in the alternative program now, out of some 48,000 students. And this is just the first or second time that the new state law pertaining to special-education students has been used here, according to Superintendent James Harris.

That indicates that violent students are far from an everyday problem in these classes. Still, no attack on a teacher -- or another student, for that matter -- can be tolerated. The district's quick action in this case indicates that it won't be.

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