Precinct 333

Monday, January 17, 2005

A Story That Frightens Me, Angers Me, And Saddens Me

When you work with adolescents, you realize that they can have attack without warning. It's not always possible to know what will upset a kid. You just hope that the attack is verbal, and it usually is.

Sometimes it isn't.

That leads me to the story of Lisa W. Rath, a teacher at King's Fork Middle School in Suffolk, Virginia. She was violently assaulted and seriously injured by a student on March 19, 2004.

On that Friday, more than 30 students filled Rath’s second-floor civics classroom for the last period of the last day of the week. When the girl entered, the hood on her black sweatshirt covered her head. Not appropriate, not in accordance with school policy.

Off, Rath commanded. The girl complied, but slammed her books on her desk, laid down her head and went to sleep.

Pick your battles, Rath thought. From her stool in front of the class, she began describing the differences between local and state governments.

Twenty minutes later, the squeal of the fire alarm interrupted Rath and woke up the girl. A drill. The students flowed to a stairwell.

Halfway down, the girl flipped her hood back up, as did several other girls.

Take them off, Rath ordered. All complied but the girl.

“I’m not taking my hood off,” Rath heard her mumble.

Rath reached out and pulled the hood down just before they exited the school. The girl spun around, drew back a fist and spat curses at Rath.

“I’m going to get you!” she threatened, inches from Rath’s face.

Another teacher quickly led the girl away. Rath shrugged it off. She needed to take attendance. She’d send the girl to the guidance office after the fire drill.

The all-clear soon sounded. Rath led her class to the door, and asked an office assistant to escort the girl to the office. While another teacher took over her class, Rath also started toward the office.

Almost immediately, she felt something strike her. The girl’s threatening voice was screaming and cursing in her ear.

She had broken away from her escort and attacked Rath from behind, raining blows on her head, grabbing handfuls of hair and pounding her skull against the wall.

Stunned, Rath curled up with her fingers laced across the back of her head, vainly trying to protect herself.

“I kept asking her to please stop,” Rath recalled.

The punching and hair-pulling seemed to last forever; it took a few moments for other teachers to wrench the girl, still cursing and threatening, away from Rath. Meanwhile, teacher Lela F. Joyner wrapped her body protectively around Rath’s head. Hanks of hair littered the floor. Blood smeared the wall.

Joyner pulled Rath into a nearby classroom and locked the door. She held Rath’s head as the injured teacher vomited.

An ambulance whisked Rath to the emergency room at Obici, where she had begun her day seven hours earlier. She arrived with a black eye, scratches on her neck and shoulder, contusions on her face and scalp, knots on her head and missing a contact lens. Quarter-sized patches of hair were torn from her scalp. Doctors discovered a partly torn eardrum, which would leave her with a permanent mild hearing loss.

Discharged from the hospital, Rath went to the courthouse and police station. The ferocity of the attack led to a felony charge of malicious wounding. Rath hoped authorities could force the girl into counseling. She didn’t want another teacher to suffer the same fate.

Rath has a kinder soul than I. She agreed to a plea bargain which kept the girl in the juvenile system, where there would be more appropriate counseling, educational, and rehabilitative services for the girl. I don't know that I would have that level of generosity. There is also a cost -- Rath is going to leave the classroom, and is currently applying to social work graduate programs so that she can go into counseling.

When you teach, you are defenseless. If an attack comes, you hope and pray that there is someone else to help you. Self-defense isn't an option. In the last four years I have known three teachers who have lost their jobs after being assaulted by students. Two had the audacity to physically strike, in self-defense, a kid who had assaulted them first. The third was labeled as unprofessional and insubordinate after leaving campus to seek medical attention for a ruptured eardrum caused by a student screaming an obscenity in his ear. All were given "take it or leave it" severance packages by their districts that included the threat negative references and the filing of action to have their certification revoked. None of the students involved received more than three days of in-school suspension, despite multiple witnesses in each case who supported the teachers involved.

So yeah, I'm frightened -- frightened that some kid will some day come after me for doing my job the way I've been told to do it.

I'm angry -- angry that such assaults happen and that the system is more concerned about protecting the kid than the teacher.

And I'm sad -- sad that good teachers like Lisa Rath are left so scarred by such events that they leave teaching.

How many more leave because something like this happens in their building, or in their district? How many more are discouraged from entering the field by such events? And what is the effect of such violence on every other student in every other classroom?


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons License.