How one school district tackled assaults on teachers

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Enfield High School

Enfield was one of the first districts to hire armed security after a gunman killed students and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Since then, the district has retreated from employing so many security staff to protect students from outside threats and is focusing its efforts and resources on another school safety issue: assaults on teachers by students.

Statewide, there has been a lack of progress in stemming aggressive student behaviors as student suspension and expulsion rates steadily decline. That dynamic has fueled a debate over whether the state’s push to reduce student suspensions and expulsions – and instead provide students with supports so they can stay in school – actually is working to make schools safer.

It’s a debate taking place nationally as well in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. President Donald Trump recently announced that his education secretary will lead a school safety commission to consider repealing Obama administration school discipline policies that are aimed at keeping more children in school and reducing glaring racial and ethnic disparities in who gets suspended, expelled or arrested.

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For this Sunday Conversation, we sat down with Tod Couture, a special education teacher from Enfield, to talk about school safety. As the leader of the teachers’ union in his district, he regularly hears stories from teachers about the issues they face.

There’s a national discussion going on about school safety. Do you feel students are safe at school here?

I do. Years ago in Enfield, after Sandy Hook, the district put retired [school resource officers], retired police officers – armed guards – in the schools. That was pretty controversial at the time. We did that for a number of years, and that became even more controversial once it [ended] because then people were like, ‘What happens if something does happen now that we are safe?’

Well, we had to do away with that, primarily because of budget cuts. It was costing about $250,000 to keep that program. After that, people really didn’t talk about safety too much. People didn’t feel unsafe, I don’t think, even after the armed guards left. However, since the recent Florida tragedy, the students did get together and talk with the superintendent and assistant superintendent and town leaders and talked about school safety.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Tod Couture, a teacher at Enfield High School.

So there is a sense that students feel somewhat unsafe. I wouldn’t say it’s pervasive, but it was to such a degree that the students filled the auditorium to express their need for change around not only this school but around all the schools in Enfield.

So, I don’t feel unsafe. I know a lot of kids don’t – but there is a pocket of students that really feel strongly based upon that event in Florida that things need to change, and not just here, but they’re talking about, you know, politics and gun laws and all those things.

Are they feeling unsafe because of what’s happening on the inside of school or about threats from the outside?

Outside. I would say prior to that you wouldn’t hear kids say anything about feeling unsafe or anything like that. And after that outside tragedy occurred, then people got really nervous.

And is there a push to have a school resource officers again in the school or armed security?

There’s been no talk about that at all, which is kind of surprising because we were the first, or one of the first towns, to actually implement armed guards after Sandy Hook. So that discussion has sort of gone away surprisingly. I am happy about that.

What are your feelings on having armed retired police officers in the school?

I liked having armed guards, but at the same time I never felt that I was unsafe within the building and that it was truly necessary. So any extra added measure of security is a benefit. I was happy with it, but I wasn’t unhappy when they took it away. I felt safe either way.

What about allowing teachers or other staff to carry weapons?

Personally I would think that it would be a bad idea to have teachers have guns regardless of their training or past military experience.

We have a lot of things to do, and to think that teachers are now going to be rogue cops, if you will, or be able to stop an armed attacker, I think is probably an unrealistic expectation. Look at the Florida tragedy. You actually had a police officer who was trained and didn’t really do, evidently, what he was supposed to do. Now you’re going to have a teacher who doesn’t really have much formal training? And even if they did, it’s not consistent training to actually carry out that kind of function.

How about teachers? Do teachers feel safe at school?

There’s two different things going on with school safety issues: those dealing with threats from the outside coming in and there is a whole other issue of student assaults on teachers. It’s a major issue, not only within our district, but across the state and really across the nation.

Where this is happening really is not at the high school level, it’s not the middle school level, it’s at the lower elementary level – kindergarten through second grade. I think people find that hard to believe, primarily because when most people nowadays think about what it was like when they went to school,they can’t imagine a 5-, 6- or 7-year-old assaulting teachers.

I’ve had to deal with a lot of phone calls from teachers who feel like they are more correctional officers and security officers and crisis intervention members than teachers.

We had to implement a lot of different things to deal with the fact that these assaults are regularly occuring. We’re fortunate to have a district that is proactive, and they developed two really successful programs to counteract the most assaultive kind of behavior.

Talk a little bit about the programs and services that have helped curb these assaults.

The districts has trained us and implemented the PBIS program – Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports – and they also now have a transitional class as well. It is a class for kindergarten, first- and second-graders that based on data takes out the kids that have the most behavioral disorders and puts them in a class with a teacher who wanted to teach that class.

And so the kids that were assaulting the teachers and students the most, those kids are put out of those classes and put into this class where there is a social worker, a guidance counselor and there is a Positive Behavior Intervention Support component.

All those different interventions are working to the degree that those kids are now going back into the kindergarten or first- or second-grade class that they came from. Without that, teachers were at wits end dealing with that kind of behavior on a pretty consistent basis.

Describe the type of aggressive behavior teachers are facing?

We’re talking about kids who are either biting, kicking, slapping teachers or disruptive behavior to the educational environment. That could be where teachers have to leave their room and go to another room because the student is out of control – knocking over desks, throwing a chair… So they’re not assaulting a teacher, but they’re causing such a disruption to the educational environment that it’s unsafe for those students to be in the room.

They go to a different room until the crisis intervention team goes down, intervenes, and sometimes they have to just wait for that student to calm down since they can’t do much else at that point because he’s not actually hurting himself and he’s not hurting others. So the team is trying to de-escalate him, which could take a long period of time before that class can come back.

And the reality is when that class leaves, the same level of instruction most likely is not going to occur in the new environment. So it is having an impact on the education of others within the school.

Are these just bad kids? What’s going on here?

No. We thought about this a lot as to why has it been a relatively recent phenomenon. It hasn’t been around for years and years and years.

I think it’s a multitude of factors. You’re dealing with probably more instances of substance abuse. We’re dealing with learned behavior. We have students who are starting maybe a little bit younger than they should and haven’t developed the skills necessary to transition into a kindergarten. Some are starting prior to turning 5. Maybe if there was more time for them to develop the skills prior to coming to school that might help. Maturation is obviously an issue.

But there’s not one thing that you can say is the reason why this is occurring. But until you try to do something with all these things, that pattern of behavior is probably going to be around for quite some time.

How often are teachers and other staff being assaulted?

Elementary teachers in general are the hardest working, most giving, nicest people, and that’s why they do so well in their jobs. But at the same time they also typically aren’t the people who like to make a lot of waves and put their face out there.

So the problem with this kind of issue is most elementary teachers, on average, are reticent about filling out the proper paperwork and things like that when an assault occurs because that sort of goes against everything that they think about because they’re just not that kind of person typically.

The issue is if a student is exhibiting this kind of behavior and we don’t document it, then we’re not helping that student out as well, so I think that’s the battle. We have a whole protocol in place. It hasn’t been implemented as well as we would like, predominately because teachers aren’t willing to put on a piece of paper that this behavior has occurred. So there’s a lot more going on than is actually reported.

If you come up with a program one way to address it, but then very few assaults are being formally reported, then it’s hard to have that conversation. The district is aware that there’s a lot more going on, because they’re in the schools, than what is actually being reported. That’s why they implemented those programs even though the data that we really have, at least on the assault protocol, doesn’t lend itself that there seems to be a large problem.

You mentioned a Crisis Intervention Team. Could you explain what that is?

Every school has a crisis intervention team. So obviously a classroom teacher would not be able to leave his or her classroom to go and deal with a student who isn’t behaving in another part of the building. So it’s the guidance counselor, administrators, a special education teacher, a social worker – those are the typical components. And when an intervention needs to be done, they call that team and they come together and they deal with that student. Within seconds they all come together, and then they intervene.

What does an intervention look like?

It could lead to some restraints, just to protect everybody, depending on if the student is hurting himself or others. That has occurred more often than we would like.

Has there been involvement with the Department of Children and Families over the use of these restraints?

Yes, teachers have been involved in DCF due to some of these assaults. So the crisis intervention team would have to intervene and that might sometimes – depending on the behavior – lead to a restraint of the student.

We have other forms that we must fill out when that occurs, but then that student could go home and explain the story from his or her perspective, and then from there DCF has been called to determine if, in fact, there was any kind of misbehavior by teachers or by the police.

So then teachers have to deal with not only the behavior, but now they have to deal with this whole secondary thing of meeting with people to determine whether what I did at the time was an appropriate course of action.

Has a complaint against a teacher been substantiated?

No. No complaint against a teacher has ever been found to be substantiated. But regardless, it’s one of the worst experiences a teacher can go through. You have to go through the process even though nothing has ever been proven that anybody did anything wrong. That process should be followed because if there was in fact an issue that wasn’t correct, then that’s why DCF is there to determine that something needs to be corrected and something needs to be done. But at the same time, if you are totally innocent – which these teachers are – the bad part is you also have to go through that process as well.

Has the use of physical restraints gone up?

I don’t have the specific data as to how many restraints have occurred. My guess is yes.

Are there alternative approaches to the crisis intervention teams?

I think the biggest issue is that the teachers are frustrated because there’s not much help at the elementary level. At the high school level, if a kid is misbehaving you can send them to the office and an hour later the next crop of students come in [when the period ends]. At the elementary level, they have those kids all day. So if a kid really misbehaves at 9 [a.m.], he might or she might come back at 10 and you’re still with that student all day.

The other thing is that you can’t do anything with these students discipline-wise. You can’t take a recess. You can’t do anything with lunch. There’s no in-school suspension. There’s no out-of-school suspension. There’s no expulsion.

Why not?

The legislature had decided not to allow those things to occur. So when you can’t do some of those things, then it’s very hard to discipline the students. Because the only  thing that they have is the crisis intervention team, you have a time-out area with the principal or somebody else. But then they’re going to have to come back.

If I was assaulted here, it wouldn’t be that difficult for me to have that student go into another class or to have another environment. There’s plenty of teachers for that to occur. At the elementary level, there’s only like two or three teachers at each level. And if you have a student that’s assaulting you, you have that student for the whole year and that student can’t leave. So I think one of the biggest issues is that there isn’t much elementary principals and staff can do to really have any kind of discipline to allow the student to learn from that behavior within the building to not exercise that same behavior.

[Note from The Mirror: State laws in recent years have been changed to significantly limit when districts can expel or give a student in preschool to Grade 2 an out-of-school suspension. Such discipline can only be given if the student is sexually or physically violent, brings a firearm to school or distributes drugs. Last year public schools in Connecticut suspended or expelled 1,674 students in preschool to Grade 2.]

What was in place before those crisis intervention teams were around?

Relating to that kind of behavior, just the typical interventions. So that would be help from the guidance counselors, social workers, building administrators — but nothing formal like the crisis intervention team.

Does Enfield participate in PBIS? [The nationally recognized approach that trains educators to address behavioral challenges and help de-escalate dangerous situations.]

CtMirror.org

A sign explaining how students should behave while walking through the hall at an elementary school in the Hartford region. The school participates own the PBIS model.

PBIS is a relatively new thing here. And the PBIS approach in the transitional class that was implemented was solely for the reason that we’re trying to deal with these kids’ behaviors within the K-2 grades.

So the superintendent said, ‘We have this issue. Let’s see if we can address it.’ He initially started with the PBIS [approach and training] and then in the middle of year – I believe right after the holiday, so about the first week or so of January 2017 – the transitional classes began.

And how many kids are in that transitional class on any given day?

It differs. It’s probably about eight or so students within that class.

And before this class was around, and before the PBIS training, and before the crisis intervention teams, how often were teachers experiencing this behavior?

The reason why this program came into being – the transitional class – is because there were as many as over 100 different crisis intervention events within a month’s time. So when we looked into that, and there are basically 20 school days within a month, you’re looking at anywhere between four to six different interventions per day at one single school. It is a multitude of the behaviors, but for whatever reason it was determined that the crisis intervention team needed to intervene

And then that got us into the discussion of what we can do to address this. And then the union and the district got together and developed an assault protocol about what to do when a teacher is assaulted. And then the district implemented PBIS. Then the district implemented the transition program, as well, to combat those things.

Fast forward a year: How frequent are such behaviors and crises?

Definitely significantly less.

We had a workshop that [the union] put on that deals with how to handle assaults, and it was populated by mostly elementary teachers because that’s what we’re dealing with, and I asked them that very question, and they said that it’s a lot better than it was, but they’re still experiencing a few a day. But compared to before, there has been a significant decrease.

But even a couple a day still doesn’t seem great, either.

So were social workers and psychologists and all those mental health staff that you would think would help out with these behavioral challenges, did those staffing numbers increase with this plan?

Yeah. We do have guidance counselors at all of the elementary schools now. We had guidance counselors that were going between buildings. So they did increase that as well as adding additional social workers.

So I want to make sure I understand what happened here. Enfield has decreased security staff, increased social workers and other mental health staff, and you have seen improved student behavior and safer schools…

Yeah. The increase of school security was directly related to what happened in Newtown. So that was more obviously geared towards an entity coming into building and trying to cause harm to students and teachers. And now that has sort of gone away.

And now we’re dealing with inside type stuff: students behavior. So they’re connected, but they’re not entirely the same.

You’ve spoken a lot about what’s going on inside the school in order to help improve student behavior. What happens when a student goes home? Is the school referring children to services in the community, providing training with parents?

Well there is 2-1-1 [a phone number for families and educators to use to connect children with necessary services].

We do have connections with outside agencies within the town. We do have a Parent Resource Center as well that’s in town that offers different kinds of parenting classes and behavior management type classes. So there are a lot of supports that parents are offered as well, because if the behavior is consistently happening at school and then nothing gets done afterwards we see that same behavior.

So with all the different supports that you’ve mentioned that are now in place, do you feel like Enfield is better situated – even without the ability to use exclusionary discipline approaches to poor student behavior – do you feel like what’s been put in place is adequate to now handle these situations?

I think what’s in place in Enfield has led to a drastic improvement in what was occurring previous to that. I still think more needs to be done and I’m not sure it’s necessarily at the district level. I think it more has to do with state legislation that needs to change.

If we had some other ways that we could address it, like for example having kids have an in-school type thing or out-of-school or maybe with a really difficult child to put that student into another class. At this point, the teacher doesn’t have any right to tell anybody that they don’t want that student in their class, even though they’ve been assaulted by that student.

I think if we want to really make inroads on this, laws have to change And again, I think most people don’t believe it’s reality, because you just can’t imagine a 5-, 6-, or 7-year-old acting in this manner. We all know kids tend to act up, but we don’t think it’s to the degree that we’re talking about here.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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