The Faces of School Violence

06/15/2011 01:28 pm ET | Updated Aug 15, 2011

Sometimes a teacher is required to block the door, as tardy students follow procedures for late admittance to the class. An aggressive student refused to comply and brought a principal into the process.

I could see that the teen sincerely wanted to learn how to be a student. While arguing his or her case, however, the freshmen grew agitated and again tried to force his or her way into the classroom. As the principal dragged him or her off, the student screamed, "I did not try to barge into the room! On my dead brother, I did not!"

To improve our schools, we must recognize the faces of chronically disruptive and violent students who bring their pain to school. But we can no longer deny the faces of the victims of rampant disorder and violence in our schools. A series by the Philadelphia Inquirer has done a great service in bringing them into the discussion.

Tamika contemplated killing herself last April after classmates "wedged their hands under her shirt, and tried to fondle her breasts." She had been teased and taunted for months, "A boy put her in a headlock during writing class, punched her, and broke her glasses. A student grabbed the glasses off Tamika's 8-year-old sister and stomped on them after finding out the girls are related." The sexual assault was not addressed because the administration did not want to disrupt state testing.

Teshada, a freshman, could not concentrate on algebra as she watched girls rubbing Vaseline on their faces and parading up and down the hall in advance of attacking her. Then a dozen students barged into the room and assaulted her. A few minutes later, a brawl was captured on videotape.

The Inquirer described a veteran teacher being threatened with death by a freshman with scissors. More than 4,000 teachers have been assaulted in the last five years. Perhaps even more painful is the frustration of teachers who are not allowed to protect their students.

The Inquirer discovered that "on an average day 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or victims of other violent crimes." Worse, 183 cases came to light only when city police made arrests.

According to teachers, there is constant pressure from administrators to hold down disciplinary numbers. The president of the school police union said his members are frustrated because they are told not to report incidents and that "everything must go through the principal. If they don't want to report it, it doesn't get reported."

Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman, who had been proclaiming a decrease in school violence, first described the mayhem as a "public health problem." Then she adopted the classic pose of blaming teachers, "Good discipline occurs in classrooms with good teaching." And then Ackerman blamed her principals, "When young people rush into a classroom, when they roam the halls, that's an adult problem - of the educators in that school. Having been a teacher, having been a principal, I never had that happen in my classroom, and I sure didn't have it happen in my school."

The face of violence might seem simple from central offices and think tanks, but we can not turnaround out toughest schools without recognizing the complexity of our dilemma. Often, perpetrators are survivors of horrible abuse. But if "reformers" dared to set foot in schools, and meet face-to-face with the children who are being robbed of their educations by the failure of administrators to protect them, they might gain a sense of urgency in challenging the toughest public health problem facing our schools.