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Attacks on teachers revive touchy issue of student suspensions

A social studies teacher at Riverside Institute of Technology was kicked in the head Wednesday afternoon while he was helping to restrain a student who had thrown a steel chair at her boyfriend.

When police came, they found a knife with a 10-inch blade on the teenage girl.

Earlier in the day, a teacher at Dr. Charles Drew Science Magnet Early Childhood Center suffered a concussion after a student – a second-grader – kicked her in the head at the school office.

With two teachers assaulted in the same day, some teachers and union leaders in Buffalo say it’s time for the district to address safety concerns in the city schools – and its suspension policy.

“We have fights here almost every day,” said Marc Bruno, the Riverside teacher who was kicked in the head. “The kids walk around and say, ‘We can’t get suspended – we don’t care what you say.’ Most of the kids who go to school here are really good kids. But you’ve got 20, 25 percent who are pretty rough. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

Student suspensions are a touchy issue in the district.

Nearly a year ago, interim Superintendent Amber M. Dixon unveiled a multipronged plan to reduce the number of suspensions for minor infractions after parents complained about the more than 12,000 suspensions.

Schools that failed to reduce their suspension rates would come under review, she said, and would have to implement an action plan.

Now some teachers say that discipline has become too lax and that students are acting out more than ever.

“When I first got [to Riverside], the teachers and administrators ran the building,” Bruno said. “Now the kids walk around like, ‘What are you going to do to me?’ ”

Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes said schools are able to reduce the number of suspensions when they have programs to provide “quality interventions” for students, which lead to less misconduct.

“Acts of violence are unacceptable 100 percent of the time and require the imposition of appropriate discipline,” he said. “My expectation, however, is that adults will resist the impulse to generalize about any individual student, group of students or school. When that occurs, I find it troubling and counterproductive, as should everyone else.”

Student assaults on teachers are certainly not a recent phenomenon. Every year, it seems, a few such incidents make the news.

Some assaults seem especially vicious. A teacher at Grover Cleveland High School was beaten with a wooden board five years ago as she walked half a block from her parked car to the school. The student who beat her left her lying in the street, blood flowing from her head, and stole her car.

Some incidents involve students who are very young. Last year, for instance, a teacher at Bilingual Center School 33 was injured when a 6-year-old special-education student threw a garbage can at her.

In some cases, it’s not students who assault teachers – it’s their parents.

Two years ago, a mother walked into her daughter’s sixth-grade classroom at Dr. Charles Drew Science Magnet School 59 and hit the teacher several times in front of the students in the class. The day before, the mother had been scheduled to come in and talk to the teacher about her concerns that the teacher was singling out her daughter as a troublemaker.

The woman’s daughter was eventually transferred to another school. An Erie County judge ordered the mother to serve weekends in jail for four months.

“I’m not a bad person. I was just having a bad day,” she told the judge.

But the district administration also has had to deal with parents who cite the large number of suspensions. Last year, a vocal group of community activists pressed the School Board and district officials to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses.

Students in Buffalo got suspended for many reasons, including swearing at teachers; violating the dress code; and roaming the halls. And in most schools, there was no in-school suspension, so when students were disciplined, they were sent home for a day or a week at a time.

Those calling for a change in the discipline policy cited the 12,905 suspensions – in a district with 32,000 students – that principals gave to students for nonviolent incidents in a recent year. That included 180 suspensions given to children in kindergarten.

In response to the concerns, Dixon’s administration scheduled a series of public hearings throughout the city. Many of those who spoke said the punishments were not proportional to the offenses. Some said certain students seemed to be bearing the brunt of the suspensions.

“They keep suspending children who look like me – children of color,” Ina Ferguson-Downing, a grandmother in the district who has been vocal about suspensions, said at one of the hearings. “Caucasian students aren’t being suspended. Children of color are.”

Yet teachers such as Bruno feel they have been left with little power to deal with violence by some students.

He was working out after school Wednesday in Riverside’s weight room, he said, when a ninth-grade student walked in, picked up a steel chair and threw it at her boyfriend.

One of the coaches supervising the weight room told the girl to leave the building, Bruno said. About 10 minutes later, the 16-year-old girl tried to force her way back into the weight room. While one coach went to call security, Bruno and the other coach restrained the girl on the floor.

“We got her calmed down,” he said. “I started to ease up the pressure on her legs. She pulled her leg out and kicked me in the face as hard as she could.”

Soon, one of the school’s security guards came, and a large knife was found on the girl.

Police described it as a steak knife. Bruno said that it had a 10-inch blade.

“If she would have come in swinging with that, we would have been in big trouble,” Bruno said.

Police spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said the girl was “pushing and fighting with teachers and did strike one of the teachers in the hand.” The girl, whose name was not released, was charged with assault, criminal possession of a weapon, reckless endangerment, harassment and other offenses, DeGeorge said.

Bruno is calling for a discipline policy that’s enforced more uniformly across the district – and for metal detectors to be installed at the school. Riverside’s four security guards have their hands full patrolling five floors and monitoring about 800 students, Bruno said. He went home Wednesday with a headache and frazzled nerves.

The teacher who was assaulted at Drew Early Childhood Center on Wednesday morning, though, ended up in Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, where she was treated for head injuries and sent home.

The teacher, whose name has not been released, told union officials that a second-grade student in her special-ed class became violent and agitated and started running around the room Wednesday morning.

“He was flipping over chairs and punching other kids,” said Nick Whitman, a labor relations specialist with New York State United Teachers. “She intervened between him and the other students to serve as a buffer between them. He started striking her while she shielded students.”

The teacher had reported behavioral problems with the boy several times this year, Whitman said, and wrote him up at least seven times. Once, he had threatened her with a pair of scissors.

Wednesday, as the boy was causing problems in the classroom, the teacher tried three times to call the office, but the boy either hung up the phone or pulled the cord out, Whitman said. The teacher eventually yelled down the hall for help.

The student was taken to the office. The teacher bent down to pick up the doorstop, and he kicked her in the head.

The district is investigating the recent incidents. District spokeswoman Elena Cala released a statement Thursday, saying: “Students who engage in such acts face consequences according to New York State Education law, local law enforcement and district policies. We provide intervention for all students at every grade level throughout the district in order to promote appropriate behavior, thereby reducing the number of student suspensions.”

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said that the union tracks assaults on teachers but that the information they collect is based on anecdotal reports, making it difficult to know whether violent incidents involving teachers have become more common.

“These are isolated incidents. But the key thing is, if there is an infraction of the rules, it has to be dealt with swiftly and consistently,” Rumore said. “In my many years here, it seems like where there is a lack of discipline and enforcement of rules, that’s when something’s going to happen.”