Assaults on teachers and other school workers jumped 56 percent in Durham Public Schools last school year, according to the district.
The preliminary data shows there were 61 assaults on school personnel last school year, 22 more than the 39 reported during the 2015-16 school year.
“The increase in acts of assault on school personnel, although it concerns us, represents just a tenth of one percent of our entire student population,” said Debbie Pitman, the district’s assistant superintendent of student services.
“We are as committed as ever to implementing restorative justice, conflict resolution, and de-escalation strategies that can prevent incidents from occurring and keep our students in the classroom,” she said. “However, we will not compromise on student, teacher, and staff safety.”
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Assaults are among the 16 criminal offenses school districts must report to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) each year.
Overall, DPS saw a 17 percent increase of reportable offenses during the 2016-17 school year.
A state report showing reportable criminal offenses in each school district is released in the spring. DPS has shared its data early because of the Durham community’s interest in school suspensions and the recent revamp of the district’s Student Code of Conduct designed to reduce suspensions.
Bryan Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Educators, said he hasn’t heard teachers express concern about assaults.
But Proffitt said more children are coming to DPS from unstable home environments and require extra support from the district.
“As students come to our classrooms holding more and more trauma from poverty, deportations and violence in their own lives, they need more support than they ever have just to navigate their own emotions and mental and physical health,” Proffitt said.
“At the same time, educators have fewer resources and more pressures than we’ve ever faced,” he continued. “Those two factors together seem likely to produce increased conflict and it’s one more way that the state legislature is putting educators and communities against each other when we are each others most natural allies.”
While the data for reportable offenses does not explain the thousands of suspensions that DPS principals handed out last year, it does put numbers behind some of the more serious offenses.
Possession of weapons increased 15.6 percent. There were 155 last school year, 21 more than the 134 reported the previous year.
Possession of alcoholic beverages increased 72 percent. There were 38 last school year, 16 more than the 22 reported the previous year.
Meanwhile, there was 175 reported incidents of possession of a controlled substance last year, one more than the 174 reported during the previous year.
Pitman said the top four reportable offense for DPS mirror those in other North Carolina school districts.
DPS has reported that short-term suspensions, those lasting 10 days or less, jumped 42 percent last school year when compared to the 2015-16 school year.
The top five reasons listed for short-term suspensions were fighting/physical aggression, non-compliance with directives (middle schools and high schools), serious disruptive behavior (elementary schools), serious disruptive behavior (middle schools and high schools) and non-compliance with directives (elementary schools).
Long-term suspensions, those lasting 10 or more days, jumped 33 percent, with 88 long-term suspensions being handed down last school year compared to 66 the previous year.
The top five reasons for long-term suspensions were assaults, possession of weapons, fighting/physical aggression, assault on school personnel and threat/false threat.
A 47-member task force co-chaired by Superior Court Judge Elaine O’Neal and Elizabeth Shearer, DPS’ executive director of student support services, worked on revisions to the code for a year to give principals more alternatives to suspensions.
But suspensions have increased at many schools even though the revised code no longer mandates them for offenses such as plagiarism, dress-code violations, minor disruptive behavior or possession of cell phones or tablets such as iPads
Shearer told The Herald-Sun last month that behavior issues are often related to mental health and trauma students have experienced away from school.
“Mental health is a huge issue,” Shearer said. “To bring that with them, they exhibit behaviors that are inappropriate, unacceptable, not safe, but they are the results of some very significant events and experiences in their lives. The mental health is huge.”
School board member Xavier Cason, a retired teacher, called the increase in assaults on teachers and others“significant” and said such incidents cannot be tolerated by principals.
Cason said it will take more time for the changes to the Code of Student Conduct to help lower suspensions because a culture transformation must take place in some schools.
“Those things [assaults on teachers and other school workers] don’t happen when the relationships are working,” Cason said.
In the meantime, Cason said the district must work harder to reduce teacher and principal turnover.
“One of the biggest things is having less turnover in leadership and in classrooms,” Cason said. “A consistent staff has a better chance at creating a consistent culture in schools.”
Top 5 short-term suspensions
1. Fighting/physical aggression
2. Non-compliance with directives (middle schools, high schools)
3. Serious disruptive behavior (elementary schools)
4. Serious disruptive behavior (middle schools, high schools)
5. Non-compliance with directives (elementary schools)
Top 5 long-term suspensions
2. Possession of weapons
3. Fighting/physical aggression
4. Assault on school official
5. Threat/false threat
More about suspensions
Last school year, the first under the revised Code of Student Conduct, students were hit with 5,520 short-term suspensions, 1,634 more suspensions than the 3,886 the previous year.
▪ The 5,520 suspensions went to 2,849 students, which was about 8.4 percent of the district’s 33,737 students.
▪ The school district’s report notes that 96 percent of the district’s elementary school students were never suspended. Of the 4 percent who were suspended, 2.5 percent only received one suspension.
▪ Eighty-eight percent of DPS’ middle school and high school students never received a suspension. Of the 12 percent who did, 7 percent were only suspended once.
▪ Twenty-four of the district’s 53 schools saw reductions in suspensions while 29 of them saw increases.