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Playing Defense at School

What ESPs and Teachers Should Know When Threatened by Students

Dave Arnold

Adult violence against children is heinous, brutish and downright criminal. But what about the other way around -- kid violence against adults?

School employees, teachers and education support professionals (ESP) are sometimes victims of violent acts by students, acts which often go unreported and unpunished. For some reason, people seem to have a misconception that when a teacher or ESP is punched, kicked, bitten, spit on or otherwise injured, threatened, or harassed by a student that it is just part of the job. Wrong!

My friends, it is not acceptable for anyone at any time to be a victim of another person's violent act! However, things happen that we cannot avoid, so every school has a procedure to follow when an employee becomes a victim of violence inflicted upon them by a student or other adult.

She Stood Her Ground

This subject came up recently at my region council meeting. I was amazed at how many teachers and ESPs at the meeting had been victims of violent acts inflicted by juveniles. There was only one person who had taken the proper action: Mary Jane Mattix.

She was teaching at a high school where she had worked several years without any problems. Toward the end of the last school year, she was being harassed by one of her students. He had been making verbal threats. When she told her principal, the principal ignored her and brushed her off.

Finally, the student made the threat that he was going to shoot her. On the last day of the school year, he pulled a water pistol from under his jacket and squirted her in the head.  From her perspective, she saw a gun in his hand, then felt something hit her head with a sharp sting. She then felt something run down her face.

For a few terrifying seconds, she believed she had been shot by a firearm. That was the last straw as far as she was concerned. She had been harassed, threatened, and now assaulted!

Without the principal's or superintendent's backing, she went to the phone and called the police and filed assault charges against the student. The principal and superintendent wanted her to drop the matter and told her she was making a mountain out of molehill. She took it to the school board and they sided with her. When the case went to court the judge did too.

Mary Jane made national news by not taking any more abuse from a misguided, aggressive, disrespectful student. At the trial, the judge said that "the next time, the gun could have been real." He placed the student on probation, ordered him to do community service, and maintain at least a C average.

Document Everything

The Illinois Education Association to which I belong has prepared a checklist of actions that can be taken if you should become a victim of violence while at school.

  • Know collective bargaining agreement (if your state has bargaining rights).
  • Know the school board policy provisions regarding school violence and discipline.
  • Seek medical treatment and preserve evidence of injury.
  • Get assistance from your Association and police.
  • File criminal charges.
  • Preserve evidence, get witness statements, and maintain records of the incident.
  • File a workers compensation claim for medical reimbursement, temporary and permanent disability.
  • Seek an injunction or order of protection.
  • File a civil suit for personal injury or property damage.
  • Submit an insurance claim for personal injury or property with school district, state board of education, homeowners and union liability insurance.

Again, these steps aren't appropriate in every situation. Though state laws vary, you do have the right to defend yourself. But be careful. You do not have the right to go on offense.

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.