Assaults on Teachers Should Be Felonies

by Sean Tuffnell

Two years ago, a San Antonio high school teacher was doing what she did nearly every day, teaching class. This day was different however. Instead of handing out homework and preparing her kids for the upcoming test, this was the day that one of her kids punched her in the face and then dragged her down the hall by her hair. The student continued to hit her as she crouched on the floor in fear and in pain. Needless to say, she no longer teaches at the high school.

This is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. In communities all across this country, teachers are assaulted in their classrooms and in hallways by students and parents alike. Take one incredible day last month in New York, when four teachers at four different schools were assaulted in their classrooms, sending three to the hospital. The one who managed to stave off a hospital visit was attacked by three of his eighth-grade students who shoved him against the blackboard and choked him with his own necktie.

Missed among the headlines of tragic school shootings is this little known but very disturbing fact: our nation's teachers often find themselves as the targets of violent behavior. It would be nice to dismiss these stories as incidental outbursts by frustrated teens. But that's not always the case. Violence against teachers ranges from the sudden outburst, to a parent's outrage over a child's failing grade, to a gang banger's rite of passage.

In all, more than 4,100 teachers were assaulted in New York state last year. Eighty-three percent were victims of students, and over half of the incidents happened in the classroom. These numbers may be low, as they only include assaults that were reported to the police, and many schools refuse to report their students.

The large number of assaults is not unique to New York. Texas, for example, reported over 4,300 assaults on teachers during the 1997-1998 school year. But while victimization varies from year to year and community to community, the hard reality is that it happens and little is being done about it. In most instances, the student is simply suspended or sent to an alternative school. In the most serious cases, the attacker is charged with a Class A misdemeanor, with a maximum penalty of up to one year in jail.

Under the prompting of the American Federation of Teachers, many state legislatures around the country are considering making a change in the penal code to send a signal that violence in the classroom will not be tolerated. In New York, for example, Republican State Sen. John Kuhl successfully led the charge to pass a bill in the State Senate to change the treatment of these acts to a Class D Felony, with a jail sentence ranging from two to seven years for adults, and increased penalties in juvenile court. While the bill has an uncertain future in the Democratically-controlled State Assembly, Gov. Pataki has vowed to sign it if it ever reaches his desk.

Opponents of this change often ask why teachers, as important as they are, deserve this special legal protection. After all, assault is assault, right? Not really. This kind of legal protection is already afforded to police officers and firefighters who are assaulted in the line of duty. Adding teachers to this group is not too much of a stretch, especially when our teachers are expected to be disciplinarians and make certain the school's code of conduct is upheld by their students.

Violence in the classroom - like violence directed against cops and firefighters - amounts to violence against the larger society. It's every bit as much an assault on the fabric of society as it is an attack on an individual teacher. And it is the obligation of our elected leaders to create a legal framework that says to parents and students alike, this type of vicious behavior will not tolerated anymore.