The video shows a middle-aged teacher being assaulted by two young men, then falling to the ground and hitting his head, one young man atop him, the other looming over him as a girl off-camera is heard saying, “Oh my god, they fighting the teacher. Oh my god.”
Mark Rawlings, a 48-year-old technology teacher at St. Paul’s Como Park High School, was taken to the hospital by other staff members. No arrests were made this week. Principal Theresa Neal said the school would follow discipline procedures outlined in the school handbook and was perhaps too quick to reassure the public that she considered the assault an isolated incident. Superintendent Valeria Silva took no questions, only issuing a statement that violence in schools would not be tolerated.
That’s a weak response.
School officials must send an unmistakable message to students that striking or threatening physical violence against a teacher will bring the swiftest and most severe consequences that can be meted out, up to and including criminal charges. No student should ever see a teacher being beaten and wonder if they might be next. No teachers should be driven from their profession because they fear for their physical safety. If teachers are not safe, students are not safe.
The attack on Rawlings comes just months after John Ekblad, a science teacher at Central High School, attempted to break up a fight in December and was body-slammed and choked so hard he lost consciousness. He still suffers from numbness, headaches and vision problems, and is suing the district.
St. Paul school officials should be questioning whether recent changes in disciplinary policies or other changes in how they deal with students have, in fact, emboldened some students to act against teachers. School districts across the country have had to grapple with these same problems, with varying outcomes. Kevin Straub, a St. Louis, Mo., teenager, attacked his teacher so violently it triggered a stroke. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014.
Too little is still known about this latest St. Paul incident, but the police report indicates that two male students unknown to Rawlings entered his classroom and refused to leave. When he attempted to escort them out, one punched him on the chin and the other punched him in the eye before the brawl moved into the hall.
Rawlings is to be commended for attempting to safeguard his classroom. To those who say no teacher should ever touch a student, consider this: Next time it could be your son or daughter being dragged out of a classroom for the beating because a teacher dares not physically intervene. As it stands, teachers regularly risk their own safety to protect students. They wade into fights to break them up. They use their own bodies to bar entrance to their classrooms against strangers. They will physically pull one student off another who is in jeopardy.
Teachers, no less than anyone, deserve safe workplaces. And school districts would do well to remember theirs is a dual responsibility — to the students in their care, but also to the teachers and staff members in their employ. On the same day Rawlings was attacked, another Como teacher was placed on paid leave after publicly venting frustration at what he said were attempts to “deconstruct adult authority in my building by enabling student misconduct.”
Theo Olson, a special-ed teacher at Como for more than a decade, became a target of Black Lives Matter, which decried his Facebook posts as racist, even though race was never mentioned. Olson said earlier that he supported Black Lives Matter and that he had marched with the group last fall. “I care deeply for all my students,” he wrote.
St. Paul officials have a difficult challenge. They continue to struggle with a wide achievement gap, and they must navigate community concerns about disciplinary measures that have fallen more harshly on minority students than on whites. But they also must heed the concerns raised by the teachers who serve on their front lines daily.