John Ekblad will not be back teaching when the school year begins Tuesday in St. Paul, but his assault at the hands of a Central High student last December has sparked change amid hopes that schools will be safer in 2016-17.
Facing the same worries over student and teacher safety, school districts across the metro area are taking steps they hope can prevent violence before it flares.
St. Paul Public Schools is testing new behavior programs at six schools. Counselors have been hired, and psychologists, too. The Anoka-Hennepin district is expanding a classroom management program that has seen a decrease in disciplinary problems and an increase in academic gains. A legislative group is examining student discipline statewide.
“There will be strong interest in programs and personnel to be supportive on the front end, instead of reacting on the back end,” said Mark French, a Hopkins principal and president of the Minnesota Elementary School Principals’ Association.
But while there is action, there are no guarantees of imminent fixes, judging from injury reports filed by teachers around the metro area. The data, part of school district workers’ compensation programs, suggest there are challenges ahead for several local school systems.
Reports of staff members being struck or injured by students or colleagues are up in the Anoka-Hennepin and Minneapolis school districts.
St. Paul saw its injury reports drop in 2015-16. But separate tallies of aggression toward staff have risen in recent years. That has prompted a task force to suggest that the district might want to train regular classroom teachers in the de-escalation techniques required of special-education teachers.
French, who is in his 35th year as an educator, is a co-chairman of the state legislative working group on discipline. He sees promise in training teachers to ease misbehavior and in finding ways to better understand student needs.
Still, there also is the feeling that some things are beyond teachers’ control.
French said things are more complicated today for students, staff and families, with tensions carried over from home and community.
“Kids bring those worries,” he said. “They bring those stressors. They bring that anxiety. It’s more challenging now.”
In St. Paul, Jon Peterson, who oversees district efforts to improve school climate, and Kathy Lombardi, the district’s mental health coordinator, talked recently about the steps taken on the behavioral front this summer. But when asked to specify changes that might ensure that teachers will be safer this year, Peterson replied: “I can’t say that. That’s not predictable.”
One night in August, a group met at St. Paul district headquarters to brainstorm ways to tackle the issue of physical aggression toward staff. The stories were familiar. There was talk of the 2013-14 move to mainstream students with emotional and behavioral disorders — and how some schools struggled while others, such as Battle Creek Middle School, took on the challenge and said: “We got this.”
Last December, a few days after Ekblad sustained his concussion in the Central High cafeteria, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers took contract talks to mediation, and the district eventually agreed to hire support staff and test methods to improve school safety at six “restorative practices pilot sites” in 2016-17.
Change the culture in a building to address issues facing students, and adults will be protected from violence, Nick Faber, the union’s vice president, said last week.
Take the example of a student acting out in a science lab, he said. The teacher might call the office several times to have the student pulled out of class, and when the student returns, sometimes in as few as five minutes, the teacher will not know what transpired. In a restorative practices setting, he said, teacher and student will have a chance to talk it out, and perhaps learn that the student did not realize what he or she was doing was wrong or the teacher unknowingly pushed the kid’s buttons.
Whether more staff members are needed to provide support services is an issue to be discussed by the legislative working group, French said. So, too, will be the impact of student misconduct on teacher safety. The group has yet to see any data there, he added.
In an effort to document student-on-staff violence, the Star Tribune requested workers’ compensation data from five of the largest metro school districts. Some could say which staff injuries were student-related, but for others, it was less clear, with students striking or biting teachers and staff members being lumped into categories that also could include two teachers colliding in a hallway.
In Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district, the category tracking incidents caused by human contact ballooned from 5.5 incidents for every 1,000 students in the 2010-11 school year to more than triple that at 18.5 incidents for every 1,000 students in 2014-15.
In Minneapolis, the rate of student-related workers’ compensation incidents climbed less dramatically — from about 4 incidents for every 1,000 students in 2010-11 to about 7 incidents during the 2015-16 school year.
Incident rates were fairly stagnant in the Osseo and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school districts.
St. Paul reported about 11 incidents for every 1,000 students in 2015-16, but efforts to compare that figure with previous years is complicated by changes in how injury reports are collected. Included in its numbers are injuries inflicted deliberately or accidentally by students and staff members.
This month, the St. Paul school board will hear recommendations that include exploring training general-education teachers in nonviolent crisis intervention techniques.
Those are tools to de-escalate problem behavior, and range from what one does with words, “or not using words,” to giving space, or approaching from the side instead of behind, “and if you have to put your hands on someone, a safe way to do a hold,” Lombardi said.
Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, expressed enthusiasm for the idea last month but was more cautious about it in an interview last week, citing its potential costs and the concern over having teachers learn how to put hands on students.
As teachers brace for the challenges of a new school year, and St. Paul digs into its restorative-practices work, people hoping for a quick turnaround in misbehavior and staff assaults are advised to let the process play out.
It is a culture shift, Rodriguez said, and “not an instant solution.”