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Teachers worry about getting hurt on the job when they intervene in student fights

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When I say the words, school violence, it is easy to focus on mass shootings. Teachers have a different concern, a more constant concern - everyday interactions that spiral out of control. Teacher injuries are rarely tracked. KMUW's Suzanne Perez reports from Wichita, Kan.

SUZANNE PEREZ, BYLINE: Teaching wasn't typically considered a risky profession in the past, but attitudes are changing, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association. It showed that about 14% of school employees had been victims of physical violence. Justin Heinze says when it comes to teachers...

JUSTIN HEINZE: Some estimates are more than 50% of teachers experience some form of victimization, whether from students, their peers or parents.

PEREZ: That can take many forms, says Heinze, who is co-director of the National Center for School Safety. It can include verbal threats, sexual harassment and stolen property. Katie Warren heads the teachers union in Wichita. She says when fights break out in hallways or common areas, teachers often serve as first responders.

KATIE WARREN: These things happen so quickly, like it might happen in a bathroom. And by the time security gets there, the teachers are in the hallway and able to respond quicker. And it's unfortunate when teachers are put in a spot where they have to intervene and could possibly end up really injured.

PEREZ: That happened to teacher Dave Clark when he was athletic director at a Wichita high school. He was standing in a hallway when a fight broke out last August. A school police officer restrained one student, and when another student jumped on the officer's back, Clark ran in to help.

DAVE CLARK: And a mob had ensued. And I got between the police officer and the mob. And pretty much that's the last thing I remember because I was knocked unconscious.

PEREZ: Clark suffered a severe concussion and was on medical leave for the rest of the school year. He plans to return to teaching in the fall, but he lost his position as athletic director.

CLARK: I lost my career that I loved through no fault of my own by protecting the police officer and students. So it is maddening.

PEREZ: Most states, including Kansas, don't require schools to report teacher injuries. Some school districts do track them, but there's no uniform process or data that shows the extent of the problem. Heinze, the national researcher, says conflict resolution programs have been shown to reduce school violence. But when fights do break out, there aren't clear rules about what teachers should do.

HEINZE: How are we intervening? These are sometimes things that school resource officers might be trained in. It might be assistant principals, but oftentimes for teachers, the training isn't as intentional.

PEREZ: Some states are taking steps to combat school violence, but few are addressing teacher injuries directly. One that does is Indiana. Lawmakers there approved a measure that requires schools to report and track teacher injuries. Supporters say it's an effort to measure the extent of the problem and hold schools accountable. Meanwhile, Dave Clark, the teacher in Wichita, is still recovering from his concussion. But he says he doesn't regret jumping in to help.

CLARK: I'm there to help protect kids. It may not say that on my contract, but when I'm there, the kids are in my care, so I wouldn't blink. I'd do it again.

PEREZ: That may be a common teacher sentiment, but Heinze, from the Center for School Safety, says teachers who are threatened or injured might start considering a different career.

HEINZE: It's going to have some very real implications for teacher retention, which is a very big deal right now when we know that there are many people choosing to leave the profession.

PEREZ: He says more complete tracking and reporting, along with violence prevention programs, would help schools address the problem and keep teachers safe.

For NPR News, I'm Suzanne Perez in Wichita. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Suzanne Perez
Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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