Kansas teachers want more protection from student violence

WICHITA — Just a few days after this school year started, Dave Clark, then athletic director at Wichita West High School, was standing in a hallway when a fight broke out.

A school security officer had restrained a student, but the brawl continued. When another student jumped on the officer’s back and began punching him, Clark ran in to help.

“I got between the police officer and the mob,” Clark said. “That’s the last thing I remember, because I was knocked unconscious.”

Clark suffered a severe concussion and a torn rotator cuff. He was on medical leave for the rest of the school year, getting post-concussion therapy to manage dizziness and balance issues. But last month, after Clark had missed 180 days, Wichita replaced him at West High.

“I lost my career that I loved, through no fault of my own, by protecting the police officer and students,” he said. “So it is maddening.”

Dave Clark, shown here with members of the West High School baseball team in 2021, recently lost his position as West High’s athletic director after being on an extended medical leave for a concussion. He was injured while trying to break up a large fight involving several students and a school security officer. (photo provided by Dave Clark)

District officials won’t talk about the case because it’s a personnel issue. Clark hopes to get a teaching position, but he’s out as athletic director.

Over the past few years, schools across the country are reporting more incidents of student-on-teacher violence. In a recent nationwide survey, about a third of school leaders said they’ve noticed an uptick in physical altercations since the pandemic. And experts believe behavior issues could be worsening the teacher shortage.

But most states, including Kansas, don’t track teacher injuries. Although Wichita schools prepare students and staff members for intruders with active-shooter drills and yearly “Run, Hide, Fight” training, teachers said they don’t get instructions on how to deal with fights on campus.

Katie Warren, president of United Teachers of Wichita, which represents about 4,000 school employees, said teachers — particularly those in large middle schools or high schools — often serve as first responders. Most act on instinct to protect students or colleagues.

“These things happen so quickly,” Warren said. “It’s unfortunate when teachers are put in a spot where they have to intervene and could possibly end up really injured.”

Wichita schools use an approach called “restorative practices” to help students resolve conflicts. District leaders also limit out-of-school suspensions or expulsions, and last year they tried to scale back teachers’ ability to remove disruptive students from classrooms, arguing the practice could run afoul of special-education guidelines.

Terri Moses, director of safety services for the Wichita school district, said the most effective security measure in schools is prevention.

“If you start seeing that, ‘Hey, I can see that there’s some behavior over there that’s concerning,’ let’s intervene before it turns into a fight,” Moses said.

If a fight does break out, teachers respond differently depending on their instincts and abilities, Moses said.

She compared it to a motorist driving up to an accident: A young mother with an infant in the back seat might call 911 and keep driving, while an off-duty EMT might stop and render aid. Similarly, a teacher could step into a scuffle themselves to try to break it up, or they could use a radio or cell phone to call for help.

“You’ve got options in terms of how you handle those situations,” Moses said, “but you’ve always got resources.”

Clark, the former West High staffer, said schools don’t have enough resources when it comes to safety.

“We just don’t have enough security officers in our schools, especially high schools,” he said. “And I don’t know why we’re not having an open and honest dialogue about that. It seems to be swept under the rug.”

Stan Reeser, president of the Wichita Board of Education, declined to comment on Clark’s case and said he doesn’t have the expertise to address more general questions about on-the-job injuries. But he said board members “will always track with compassion” any issue of employee safety.

“The Wichita BOE was determined to keep school safety as a top priority in our newest strategic plan, which includes our students and definitely our staff as well,” Reeser said.

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KMUW, KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Suzanne Perez – Kansas News Service
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