SALT LAKE CITY — While the focus of making Utah’s schools safer has been on securing the buildings, violent behavior among children is also posing a threat to both students and teachers alike.
Teachers have noted that violence among students has become more prevalent, and classroom rage is another indication of the mental health crisis in the state’s schools.
The toughest lesson Sophia Cruz learned in third grade wasn’t tied to academics, but rather what to do when a boy in her class threw scissors, staplers and flipped desks.
“I thought I was going to be scarred for life because they were really sharp scissors,” she said.
Her mother struggled to teach Sophia to be kind, but she also feared for her safety.
“I very much worried that she could be hurt,” said her mother Amy Burgon-Hill. “Having scissors thrown at her — that’s scary.”
More than a dozen teachers interviewed said a growing number of students have violent behavior, and teachers take the brunt of it while trying to protect other students. Teacher Mike Henkes recalled one instance where a student climbed up on his back and put him in a choke hold.
“It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
When problems persisted with the same student, Henkes retired from teaching at public schools. He now teaches math at a private school. Retired special education teacher Debi Hunt got to the point, like other teachers, where she was wearing protective gear to class: shin guards and arm pads.
“You’re caught in the middle trying to protect these children,” Hunt said.
Even with padding, she was treated for bite wounds and other injuries. When two doctors diagnosed her with PTSD, she decided it was time to retire.
What the law says
Teachers said they feel their hands are tied due to laws that leave them with few options. Federal law requires schools to provide public education to every student who walks through the doors. That education must be the “least restrictive” possible, meaning there is a push to mainstream students in regular education classes.
On the other hand, a relatively new state law prohibits teachers from restraining students unless it appears a student might cause harm to themselves or others. By then, many teachers said, the situation has already escalated out of control.
Ben Horsley, a spokesman for the Granite School District, explained that the law even restricts teachers from physically intervening when students are destroying school property.
“You might have a child radically destroying classroom space, and the law allows for that to happen,” Horsley said.
When that happens, teachers evacuate the students to the hallway or another classroom to keep them safe until the outburst subsides. Burgon-Hill said her daughter’s class was being evacuated weekly.
“How can learning really take place?” she asked.
Growth of violent behavior
Districts try to place students in appropriate classes for their needs, but that process takes time and documentation.
Utah has a system for schools to document violent incidents. Last year, 10,000 violent incidents were reported. However, not all schools comply, and the categories don’t define what is going on in schools.
For example, a police report from the Park City Police Department described an incident as a “juvenile problem.” But the report detailed how a student stabbed another student with a pencil and left a “stab wound in the back.”
Perhaps the strongest indicator of the growth in violent behavior is Salt Lake School District’s service records. In 1999, it had two behavior specialists and served about 40 students. Today, with little change in student population, the district has five specialists and serves 200 students.
“It’s alarming,” said Shelley Halverson, director of special education for the Salt Lake School District. “We’re doing what we can to get out in front of that as much as we possibly can.”
School districts were quick to point out that the percentage of students involved in violent incidents is low, given the thousands of students they serve.
“We do want to reassure parents that, while we do have circumstances where children sometimes act inappropriately, by and large our schools are very safe places,” Horsley said.
The cost of resources
Educators unanimously agree, though, that schools need more funding for mental health resources.
Utah already faces a teacher shortage. Special education teachers and the aides, or para professionals who help with special-needs students, are some of the hardest staff members to hire and keep.
“They can take a fast food job and make more money with benefits than the districts are offering,” said retired teacher Beckey Carson.
She’s right. McDonald’s in Salt Lake City pays entry level, full-time workers about $12.30 an hour, plus benefits, educational assistance and free food. Para professionals in the Salt Lake School District make $11.50 — and they’re all part-time with no benefits.
School districts said their No. 1 priority this legislative session will be seeking funding for mental health.
“We see it everywhere,” Halverson said. “So it needs to be a priority for everyone, not just for schools.”
In the meantime, Burgon-Hill has advice for parents who may have students in this situation. She encouraged parents to ask their students for details about what is going on in class, keep a record and provide it to administrators.
“Just document things,” she said. “Not threatening, just keeping track so that the correct services can be provided to the correct student.”