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APRIL 2017
When they begin their careers,
teachers imagine creating a secure,
welcoming, and stimulating
environment where they’ll inspire
generations of young thinkers and
learners. Long before their careers
are over, however, many teachers
find themselves trapped in
classrooms that are unstructured,
unsustainable, and unsafe.
In Connecticut and nationwide, a
steady rise in student aggression,
especially among younger children—
combined with a lack of
administrative support in addressing
the problem—is pushing new and
veteran teachers to leave the
profession and the students they love.
“This is unacceptable,” says CEA
President Sheila Cohen. “The path to
earning a teaching certificate is
rigorous and challenging.
Connecticut has some of the best,
most dedicated teachers anywhere—
professionals who come to the
classroom with all the preparation
and enthusiasm they need to make a
lasting, positive impact on their
students’ lives. That dream is crushed
every time a student is allowed to
threaten, attack, abuse, and return to
the classroom. We need to ensure
that for teachers, dealing with
student assault does not simply
‘come with the territory.’ Everyone
has the basic right to work without
fear of abuse.”
Recognizing the crisis of
unaddressed student assaults, CEA is
moving on several fronts to ensure
that teachers and students are fully
protected and supported. The
Association is working toward
quicker intervention and
outplacement for students who need
it, offering informational sessions on
teacher rights and student behaviors,
and advocating on the ground for
teachers in their districts.
CEA’s Robyn Kaplan-Cho, who
specializes in student assault laws
and policies, says, “While
Connecticut has laws regarding
student assault, not all principals and
superintendents are aware of their
obligations or committed to fulfilling
them. Some respond by calling a
teacher’s classroom management
ability into question. Some shrug it
off as part of a teacher’s job. There is
a huge disincentive to report student
suspensions and expulsions related to
assault—and, by extension, a
disincentive to suspend, expel, or
outplace at all.”
Kaplan-Cho has seen
administrators instead try to address
the problem by ordering protective
gear for teachers. “Teachers are now
wearing Kevlar gloves and arm
guards to protect against bites. One
teacher was given a football shield—
one of those heavy-duty shock
absorbers used in hard-hitting drills
and contact sports. That’s not an
administrative response we should be
OK with. That is not the solution.”
Teachers speak out
workshops and in one-on-one
interviews, CEA has talked to
teachers throughout the state dealing
with student aggression and assault.
They include educators in pre-K
through 12 classrooms in rural,
urban, low-income, middle-income,
and wealthy suburban schools. Many
confide that they fear for their
personal safety or worry about
retaliation from administrators. All
spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Here are some of their stories.
Escalating violence
After nine
dislocated fingers, Karen (not her
real name) considers herself one of
the lucky ones. A preschool teacher
for 26 years, she works in a regular
education setting with a staff of
paraprofessionals, special education
teachers, a school social worker,
speech and language pathologist,
psychologist, and nurse. She
describes her administrator as helpful
in the outplacement of her most
violent students and has had strong
support from her school and union.
In spite of all these supports,
however, Karen’s ordeal dragged on
for nearly two years.
In 2015, Karen began teaching a
three-year-old who logged 400
behavioral events in one year.
“My two paraprofessionals and I
have been kicked, punched,
scratched, spat at, and urinated on,”
she says. “We’ve had hair torn from
our heads. I have been treated for
bruised skin and bones, sprains, and
bites that broke through the skin.
I’ve had my fingers dislocated,
straightened, and splinted. One of
my paraprofessionals developed a
blood clot from a deep bone bruise
on her leg.
“We responded immediately. Our
principal spoke to the child’s mother
on the first day of school. By the
sixth week, the child had been placed
in a process of instructional support
with strategies that included one-on-
one time, priority seating, social
stories, timers, an emotions chart,
and a safe spot rather than time out.
In the spring, she was up to 24
strategies with a crisis team and daily
visits from a social worker, and it
was not working. She was disrupting
the learning environment, and she
was not safe. Because she was so
disruptive, she also was not learning.
In the fall, we were able to refer her
out, and she’s now in a self-contained
classroom for children with severe
social and emotional needs. She was
identified as having low or no
empathy, which is clinically
“My greatest fear throughout was
for the safety of my other children
and the quality of their learning
environment. I also worried about
copycat behavior I was seeing from
“I asked my instructional aide to place her hand behind a
student’s head to protect him. We had a child in our classroom
who threw things, and this boy was in the line of fire. ‘Hold
your hand here,’ I said to my aide. And then I thought, ‘Wow.
We’ve normalized this. This should not be normal.’ ”
Elementary school teacher
CEA’s Robyn Kaplan-Cho offers free workshops on preventing and responding to
student assaults.
Some administrators have provided
teachers with special gear, like this
arm guard, to protect against violent
students—a response CEA decries as
inadequate. Student assault is never
acceptable. If you are a victim, contact
your local president or UniServ Rep.
“She was a
beautiful child,
cute as a button.
Her file was six
inches thick.
Every day,
teachers were
sent to the walk-
in clinic.”
Elementary school
four other students. It was a struggle
when parents questioned the safety
of the classroom, and I couldn’t
comment on the child or the
circumstances due to confidentiality.
“With the level of disruption and
the paperwork I had to generate
documenting this child’s behavior, I
was afraid of falling behind on my
work and not accomplishing my
teacher evaluation goals—not being
considered effective or proficient. I
had to fill out behavioral data sheets
for non-violent behavior; incident
reports for violent behavior that
required additional staff; incident
reports for violent behavior that
required other responses, such as
classroom evacuations; and injury
reports and lost time for walk-in visits.
And I still had 19 other children with
goals and objectives to meet. She was
not my only behavioral problem, but
she was the worst. I wanted a
classroom that was fun, not fraught
with tension and fear.
“Since she has been outplaced, we
have started the year all over. I re-
established the school rules, and we
are assuring our students that we
care about them. We have been
working on routines. The classroom
is quieter, and we are re-establishing
a baseline to see what our children
may have lost due to missed
instructional time. We have gone
back to basics. It has been a good
two weeks. Parents are saying their
children are no longer skittish about
coming to school. My staff and I are
less stressed, and our focus is on
teaching as much as we can before
the end of the year.”
Leaving the profession
20 years, another preschool
teacher—who had been named
teacher of the year—is ending her
“There have always been violent
kids, but in the past three years,
getting help for them is so much
more challenging. There’s a stigma, a
lack of resources in schools, and the
fear of litigation. I’ve watched a fifth-
grade teacher have books and
laptops thrown at her head. I met a
teacher who confided, ‘I have chest
pains from this job.’ I love my
children, but I also have high blood
pressure now. I didn’t go into
teaching to be assaulted. I’m
desperately looking to leave the
Though she went into the job
loving it, Ann (not her real name)
admits, “I have two students who are
hitting, kicking, scratching,
I lovedmy job. But then one day I no longer
recognizedmy classroom. It wasn’t the
fun, friendly place it used to be. No one felt
safe. No one was learning. The principal
shrugged. ‘Get used to it,’ he said.
I would never get used to it.