Thursday, April 10, 2008

The "D" Word

Meet Jolita Berry. She's an art teacher, on the faculty at Reginald F. Lewis High School in Baltimore. Last Friday, in her classroom, Ms. Berry was attacked and beaten by a student, a 16-year-old girl.

Sadly, attacks against teachers are not unheard of. But it gets worse.

A group of students gathered around the altercation and cheered the attacker on. One of them recorded the attack with their cell phone camera (the video can be seen on You Tube and other websites). Other teachers intervened, and broke up the fight.

When Ms. Berry complained to her principal, the administrator suggested that (perhaps) the teacher caused the attack, by getting in the student's face.

And what did Berry do to "provoke" the incident. She asked the student to turn down her radio. She allows her pupils to listen to music while they're creating "art."

Baltimore school protocols mandate that students who attack teachers are to be suspended and arrested. But in the case of Jolita Berry, the police were never called. At last report, the student was walking around free.

While the case is attracting national attention, it comes as no surprise to anyone who's spent time in a public school in recent years. Many of them are out-of-control, with little semblance of discipline or order. According to one media report, there were more than 100 reports of violence against faculty and staff at Lewis High School last year--the same school where Ms. Berry was attacked.

After reading the Baltimore Sun's account of the incident, I feel genuinely sorry for Jolita Berry. You will, too, after learning how the school system plans to "deal" with the problem.

While the community response to school violence is often to clamp down with more school metal detectors and harsher punishments, in reality, teachers and students will be safer if they learn to deal with confrontations themselves, experts say.

"Rather than confront the child, learn to move the child away from their peers," said April Lewis, director of safe and supportive schools in Baltimore. Students are often embarrassed in front of their peers and become more confrontational with a teacher because they don't want to be seen as backing down, Lewis said.

The attack occurred after Berry asked the student to take a seat. The girl refused and walked up to her. "She said she's gonna bang me," Berry said. "I said, 'Back up, you are in my space. If you hit me, I'm gonna defend myself.'" Berry said the principal told her that she had used "trigger words" that made the incident worse.

"Teachers need to sharpen their observation skills to notice when trouble is brewing," said Rick Phillips, executive director of Community Matters, a California nonprofit hired by schools to help reduce youth violence. "They need to know how to intervene effectively." When he was a teacher, Phillips said, his training didn't teach him to stand at the door of his classroom and check in with students daily on how their lives were going, but that is an essential part of keeping schools safe. "I don't think our teacher training has caught up with this problem.

"Baltimore schools held a series of workshops on Saturdays beginning last fall for teachers to train them in avoiding power struggles with students, dealing with students in crisis and mentoring boys.

But a small percentage of the teaching force has taken part in that training, which is voluntary, according to Mary Minter. She said they are now trying to train teachers in 30 middle schools.

Berry, the teacher who was attacked, joined the staff at Reginald Lewis last December. She maintains that she had good training and good mentoring from an experienced teacher, but it didn't help her."These students are so unpredictable and so nothing really prepares you for that" she said.

There is another solution to this problem--move aggressively against students who cause serious discipline problems. Enforce school conduct rules with a zero tolerance policy, and prosecute students who break the law. But, judging from the Sun's report, school officials in Baltimore are no different than anywhere else. They're timid, spineless and fearful of any student with a lawyer.

So, instead of dealing effectively with problems students, Baltimore school administrators tell their teachers to be less confrontational. What sort of signal does that send to the young thugs who are running wild in our schools? What sort of signal does that send to teachers, who are expected to maintain order--and provide instruction--with the realization that school officials won't back them up?

And finally, we wonder what those same administrators will say to the family of that first Baltimore teacher who's murdered by one of their students.

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