- A recent survey found that teachers and school staff have faced increased violence during the pandemic.
- A teacher told Insider about her experiences dealing with abuse and threats from students and parents.
- The focus should be on reducing tension and supporting school staff, said a school psychologist.
Sarah, a middle school teacher in Las Vegas, Nevada, once warned a student that he would lose his phone if he didn’t put it away during class.
“She hid it behind her Chromebook screen. So I know she heard me,” Sarah, a 32-year-old who teaches reading and writing, told Insider.
She said she gave the student a few minutes to “correct her behavior” during this month’s incident. When the student didn’t, Sarah asked for the phone.
It was then that the situation worsened.
“She started yelling at me that she wasn’t going to give me her phone,” Sarah said. “I walked over to my desk to get a pen and she threw her phone at me. She threw it so hard it ricocheted off my desk and hit the wall behind me, ricocheted off the wall and hit my microwave next to me, then fell to the floor.”
Sarah – whose name has been changed because she fears her school will take revenge on her for speaking out about abuse facing teachers – said she had to report the student, with whom she normally has a relationship. “good relationship”.
“If I hadn’t stepped aside it would have hit me and hurt me badly,” Sarah said of the phone the student threw at her. “If it had hit me in the head, I probably would have had a black eye or I would have had to go to the doctor.”
Students know “there is no one to stop them”
Sarah is one of many teachers and school staff who have said they have faced increased physical violence from students and parents amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to new research from the American Psychological Association. .
Of the 15,000 teachers and other school staff, including administrators, social workers and school psychologists, who responded to the survey, many said they feared for their safety – especially on issues related to COVID-19, such as in-person teaching or enforcing masks and social distancing.
Some 33% of teachers surveyed said they had been threatened by students during the pandemic, as did 37% of administrators and 27% of school staff.
“I’ve been physically assaulted by students in the building multiple times and they not only know there’s no one to stop them, but there won’t be any consequences either,” said a teacher. “I ended up in the hospital the last time it happened.”
A school staff member said: “I’m scared of being shot and attacked all the time during in-person learning. I feel like I’m dying on the job at the hands of a violent student. “
The pandemic has contributed to a noticeable increase in mental health issues among students. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that the pandemic is exacerbating student mental health issues. More than a third of high school students surveyed experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% reported lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
Working with parents has been ‘toxic’, teacher says
Teachers, school staff and administrators have said they have come under increasing threat from parents amid the pandemic. Nearly 30% of teachers surveyed said they had been threatened by their parents in the past year, compared to 42% of administrators and 18% of school staff.
At Sarah’s school in Las Vegas, she remembers emailing a parent whose child was disruptive during class. The parent initially told Sarah it was not a “serious matter”, in emails seen by Insider, adding: “Can’t you email me? This is your room class, keep it under control.”
When Sarah had to report the student again later, the same parent emailed her again: “Do you have a problem with my student?????????? Because we are about to do it!”
A teacher from the APA survey, which was conducted in the 2020-2021 school year, noted that “parents have been more difficult than students this year.”
One administrator said parents are using online teaching to “vent their anger at teachers more often than in person”.
“Our school system has been frequently attacked online,” the teacher said. “Parents haven’t been supportive, telling me my class doesn’t matter, etc. It’s been toxic working with parents in some ways this year.”
The pandemic has set the stage for dozens of verbal and physical attacks on school staff by parents frustrated with school reopenings, masking requirements and vaccines.
In August, a California father attacked an elementary school teacher over a dispute over masking. A few months later, a Connecticut parent punched a school board member in the face during a public board meeting.
Threats were also mounting. A Virginia parent threatened to bring “every gun loaded” while speaking out against mask mandates at a school board meeting. In Florida, school board members said they were inundated with “threatening and vulgar” messages after the board approved a mask mandate. An Illinois school board member has resigned after months of “relentless harassment” and the discovery of 4 dead rodents outside his home.
A staff member who responded to the survey said parents had been “very aggressive” during the pandemic.
“The majority of them politicized the situation and refused to comply with our health and safety guidelines,” said a staff member. “I have received numerous verbal abuse against me and my school regarding masking and social distancing.”
As schools abandon their COVID-19 precautions, school staff have continued to face violence amid a slew of divisive policies.
These trends may continue or worsen if changes are not made
Byron McClure, a board-certified school psychologist in Washington, DC, told Insider that school staff faced abuse even before the pandemic, but virtual learning has allowed more people to see it — and engage in it.
“A lot of these trends were prevalent even before the pandemic happened, and the veil has just been lifted and now everyone can see it,” said McClure, who founded an organization to help educators use the socio-emotional learning. “If we are not proactive in addressing these issues, the trend will only continue.”
States across the country have passed controversial legislation, bringing the culture war into the classroom.
Florida has passed a bill, dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, that would limit teacher instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, and other states may soon to follow. Some school board members in Daytona Beach, Fla., ridiculed students who staged a walkout to protest the bill, calling them “immature teenagers.”
Several states have also banned teachers from covering critical race theory, a decades-old academic movement that suggests racism is embedded in American institutions. Some teachers said the bans would have a “chilling” effect on educators. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has banned the teaching of critical race theory and launched a whistleblower line to report teachers if they deal with “divisive topics”.
Last June, an attendee at a Virginia school board meeting was arrested after chaos erupted during a parents’ protest against critical race theory and transgender student policies.
McClure told Insider that any divisive policy or legislation would naturally create tension and mistrust in education.
“I think where we are now as a nation, as an education system, we have to do everything we can to provide people with factual information, to reduce tension on all sides and, above all, to make which is in the best interest of children,” McClure said.
The best thing school administrations can do is listen to key stakeholders, like teachers and students, McClure said. He also called for more school psychologists on the ground to better accommodate students and staff.
“You have to take the feedback you get from your teachers, your staff, your mental health staff and do something about it,” McClure said. “You have to let them participate in policy decisions and help them make decisions about the curriculum, about what their students need right now. You have to involve the students in that process as well.”
If serious changes aren’t made, McClure said, “people are going to leave.” The APA study found that 49% of teachers, 34% of school psychologists, 31% of administrators and 29% of staff wanted or planned to leave their jobs or transfer.
Overall, there is “very real concern” about a potential shortage of educators and school staff in the future, McClure said.
“Education systems are becoming places that are not conducive to people’s well-being,” McClure said. “What we see are people leaving the pitch, considering leaving the pitch or changing schools. When that happens, it’s the kids who suffer.”