Jolita Berry, a high school art teacher at Reginald F. Lewis High School in Baltimore, was recently attacked by a female student.
After asking the girl to sit down, she was confronted by the girl, who said that she was going to "bang" her. Berry told the girl that she was in violation of her personal space, and if she crossed the line, she would defend herself. The girl caught Berry off guard and began pummeling her while students chanted "hit her," recorded it on a cell phone and posted the footage on the Internet.
Berry did not defend herself, which resulted in a broken blood vessel in her eye and other minor injuries. What was the school principal's response? Berry provoked the incident by stating that she would defend herself. Unfortunately, Berry has gotten an education of another kind -- that many teachers are working in unsafe environments that have no intention of protecting them or their interests.
I'm not surprised in the sense that violence is happening in our schools. We read about it every day, and many of us witnessed it quite regularly while we were growing up. I was raised primarily in Richmond, Va., during a time when our fair city was called "The Murder Capital" because of the ridiculous amount of crime and violence that was occurring. Our schools were not safe from this violence and often found students "fighting it out" in classrooms, on the yard and on the way home. We observed the "normal" school fight, lost classmates to gun violence and even witnessed a "Mike Tyson" moment (before even he had lost his mind) when a girl bit a chunk out of another girl's face on the last day of class during senior year.
Violence in schools is not unusual to many of us, but violence against teachers is new. Even with all that I just described, I never saw anyone raise a hand to a teacher. Sometimes students would mouth off, but they often walked off before confronting a teacher, of any race or gender I might add. Perhaps it is because they recognized authority and that there were clear lines that could not be crossed -- period. If a student fought a teacher, then that probably meant that your parents would fight you later, at the school. I would dare say that at my school if you had attacked a teacher, the teacher would have defended herself and won. I also believe that students would have jumped in on the side of the teacher and certainly helped her because our teachers were like family members. We loved them and they loved us.
We loved our teachers because they took care of us. They made us do our work, behave and be accountable for our actions. How could you really be mad at that? Of course everyone had a teacher that he or she did not care for, but you never crossed the line by being disrespectful or violent. If you mouthed off, there were consequences like in-school suspension or after-school detention. There was no need for a zero-tolerance policy because there was zero-tolerance for disrespect towards teachers, staff or administrators. This zero-tolerance was understood by all involved, including parents and students. I cannot even fathom what my life would have been like had my parents received a call that I had hit a teacher. As Oprah would say, one thing I know for sure is that there would have been hell to pay, and my teen rage could never match the adult rage of my parents -- particularly my mother's.
Fear was a motivator for good behavior, but respect was the greatest motivator. How did this culture of disrespect emerge? It is clearly a direct connection to a culture of violence that has made its way to the front of the classroom.
What does it say about our society and our educational system when a class of third-graders plots to attack a teacher because she asks them to stop standing on chairs? When did punching your teacher in the face for asking you to sit down become plausible? No wonder test scores and graduation rates are so low. What would happen if you ask some of these kids to come to school and do their work?
It is tragic that going to school has become such a hazard for youngsters and teachers alike. How difficult is it to teach or learn in an environment where anything can jump off? I think about this in my college classroom, as students appear to be more volatile, sensitive, arrogant, disrespectful and combative. What does it mean when teachers are the target of such venom and rage?
People often ask, where have all the good teachers gone? Clearly to a safe place, which unfortunately in many instances, is not the classroom. There is a major exodus occurring due to the complex problems plaguing public school systems. I am a product of the public school system and volunteer my time and energy to them because I feel that it is my responsibility. I believe in young people, who need guidance and direction. To require that teachers work in places where they will not be protected, even after they are attacked, is a lot to ask of anyone. We need a different kind of education where teachers are respected and supported by students, parents and administrators, particularly when they are the victims of violence. The lack of respect for teachers and safe learning environments translates into these senseless and cruel acts.