Violence Against Teachers – An Overlooked Crisis?

86488331According to a recent article published by the American Psychological Association (APA), 80 percent of teachers surveyed were victimized at school at least once in the current school year or prior year. Violence against teachers is a “national crisis,” says Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who served as chair of the APA task force on Classroom Violence Directed at Teachers.  And yet, the issue is generally ignored or at least underreported by the media and given inadequate attention by scholars – a deficiency that has widespread implications for school safety, the teaching profession and student learning.

The APA article was based on a survey – one of the few national studies – conducted in 2011 that solicited anonymous responses from almost 3,000 K-12 teachers in 48 states (NEA assisted APA by distributing the survey to its members).

NEA Today recently spoke with Dr. Espelage about the tasks force’s findings and recommendations and how addressing teacher victimization must be a component of any comprehensive school safety plan.

What kinds of attacks are teachers facing?

About half of the teachers who reported being victimized experienced harassment. Others reported property offenses, including theft and damage to property. And about one-quarter of these teachers experienced physical attacks. Harassment includes anything from obscene gestures, verbal threats and intimidation and obscene remarks. With physical offenses, teachers widely reported objects being thrown at them and being physically attacked. The most severe and uncommon cases are physical attacks that result in a visit to the doctor.

In your work with the task force, what did you find out that might surprise people about violence against teachers?

A big surprise was the general scarcity of research out there about the victimization of teachers in the workplace. When the APA asked me as head the task force to conduct a survey, I assumed a lot of research was out there, but itwasn’t. It’s 2013 and there have been only 14 studies conducted internationally. It’s a very underreported problem.

So if you have an area that isn’t being studied thoroughly, it will never come to the attention of the public. And that won’t translate into better pre-service training, professional development for teachers, more support from administrators and other measures that can be taken to address the issue.

Any comprehensive examination of school violence must include violence directed at teachers. Focusing solely on student victimization to the exclusion of teacher victimization results in an inadequate representation of safety issues, which makes it more difficult to formulate effective solutions.

What people also should know is that we’re not just talking about students attacking or harassing teachers. Students are not always the perpetuators. We heard about incidents of adult-on-adult incidents – including parents and colleagues.  What we found is that a physical attack was more likely to come from a parent as opposed to a student.

You also found that a teacher who is victimized by a member of one  group, say a student, is more likely to be victimized by another group.

Dr. Dorothy Espelage

Yes, but it’s hard to determine why that is. It could be a number of factors. A student who harasses or threatens might come from a family who is inclined to victimize the teacher in some way as well. It could be something about the teacher. Maybe he or she is not adequately supported by the administration and puts them at risk for other episodes.

What are the costs to the school or community?

The big issue is teacher attrition. It’s hard to know exactly but we suspect that it is one component of many that explains why teachers are leaving the profession. Other costs include lost wages, lost instructional time, potenial negative publicity for the school, and a negative impact on student learning. Teacher cannot perform their job effectively if they feel threatened.

The task force makes a number of recommendations, including the creation of  a national registry that can be used to track these incidents. You also urge that teacher preparation programs be  strengthened so that teachers enter the classroom better prepared to confront and defuse potential violence against teachers. How much of an impact can this make when so many other outside factors contribute to the problem?

Many pre-service teachers aren’t necessarily equipped with the skills to manage their classrooms. So it starts with pre-service education.  This is a priority in special ed, where teachers are really taught how to deescalate conflict. So one of the top recommendations we make in the report is urging teacher preparation programs to provide the next generation of teachers with a better skill-set that can at least help manage conflicts before they escalate.

Clearly teachers aren’t victimized just because they haven’t received adequate pre-service training or professional development.I also take a sociological perspective to studying the issue. What are the demographics of the school? What’s the administration like?  What resources are available at the school?  What neighborhood is the school situated in? And obviously we have to look at parental involvement.

And what’s the school climate like? We know about the connection between positive school climate and lack of aggressive or violent behavior. The research is very clear on that connection. Really strong leadership by the administration is needed to create a positive learning climate. How well does the administration connect with the teachers, how well do they know the student? The entire ecology of the school and the community has to be taken into account.

As for additional resources and teacher support, the trend in many states isn’t headed in the right direction. Class sizes are betting bigger – that certainly doesn’t help – and teachers are receiving less support, not more. So major shifts have to occur in our priorities for education funding. This is why we need to study this issue more, raise greater awareness, and help move the conversation forward.

Read the APA article, “Understanding and Preventing Violence Directed Against Teachers.”

See also:

When Educators Are Assaulted-What NEA Affiliates Are Doing to Protect Members from Violent and Disruptive Students

Bullying of Teachers Pervasive in Many Schools