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The High Cost of School Violence

by Julia A. Gumminger
Violence is under-reported because schools don't want to run the risk of being labeled as "persistently dangerous," which would result in funding cuts.

One year later, this is still happening. When I agreed to go to the media last year, I had no idea that my story about having been assaulted in the Baltimore City middle school would go as far as it did in the local news. One year and two weeks later, another art teacher has been assaulted—and this time, it was caught on video, and her story is making national news. So now the "proof" is there, and yet still, the administrators are blaming the teacher for the attack. Neither my story nor Ms. Berry's story is surprising to anyone who has ever taught in Baltimore City Public Schools. While there are many more teachers speaking to the media about the state of our schools, there are still countless teachers afraid to come forward and tell their stories. This problem is so large, and involves so many people.

There is a culture of acceptance towards violence in the city's public schools. Administrators, faculty, and staff shake their heads in disbelief, but do nothing to change the broader picture. Staff members look the other way when violent incidents such as rioting and fighting happen. "It's just the way things are" is a common phrase spoken in the hallways. Student-on-student fights happen daily, and now student-on-teacher assaults are happening more often.

Principals purposely mis-categorize violent incidents in schools, filing paperwork that re-names the incident as a less serious event. Schools don't want to run the risk of being labeled as "persistently dangerous," which would result in funding cuts for the school.

A small percentage of our schools' children are persistently disruptive and violent. These few children are being given permission to run amok, and then the larger percentage of the school's population follows suit and joins in the melee. Administrators walk through hallways, and kids who are cutting class and being destructive or disruptive are being told to spit out their gum, pull up their pants, and tuck in their shirts. Never mind the chaos in the hallway—gum chewing is not allowed, and that's an easier "situation" to solve. Principals are overwhelmed, and struggling to grab hold of the situation in any way they are able.

Teachers struggle to finish one lesson from their lesson plans, while disruptive behavior goes unresolved. Teachers send their students to the principal and assistant principal for disciplining, and the students are sent back to the classroom holding hand-written notes that read, "Ms. ___, there is no one in the office to deal with this student right now. Please do not send any more students to the office today." The disruptions in the classroom, therefore, continue and lessons remain unfinished.

Turn-over rate in our schools' faculty, staff, and administrators is very high. Teacher training programs like Teach for America and Baltimore City Teaching Residency are popping up everywhere, in an attempt to recruit young, energetic, and idealistic teachers. These young teachers are "trained" to be educators in a matter of weeks, and are promised a free master's degree in education at Johns Hopkins University. The drop-out rate of these programs is sky-high.

Male and female teachers alike are in distress; some are even being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, while some others are turning to alcohol, all because of the shell-shocked sense of hopelessness and helplessness being experienced in a chaotic environment that has been described by many as a "war zone."

How can we sit by, and let an entire city's population of children go uneducated? How can we accept this culture of violence as "just the way it is"?

These are our schools, where our children go to learn. How can any child learn in an environment like this?! How can we sit by, and let an entire city's population of children go uneducated? How can we accept this culture of violence as "just the way it is"? We need to collectively decide that enough is enough, and make a conscious effort to stop accepting this. Until we do, our city (and others) will continue to lose great teachers, and our children will continue to be on the receiving end of the biggest injustice in this nation.

The writer formerly taught art in a Baltimore City middle school.

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This story was published on April 14, 2008.