Education professor: Student fights place teacher in unsolvable dilemma

There is no safe, legally immune way to stop fights if verbal interventions fail, he says

I wrote recently about the risks that teachers face in deciding whether to intervene in student fights. My column came in response to an Atlanta Public Schools teacher being injured after he attempted to break up a slug-fest. Frightening student video -- shown above -- captured a Douglass High School freshman repeatedly punching the prostrate teacher in the head.

In my column, I asked whether colleges of education prepare teachers to deal with classroom violence. And what do teachers do if they feel a student is truly in danger of serious injury if they stand back and wait for school security to arrive?

Several teachers who teach in trailers said it would take the school’s lone security officer several minutes to respond,  which is enough time for a student to be hurt. Some teachers detailed the injuries they sustained in breaking up a brawl, which led them to never do it again.

Among the many responses was this excellent column from education professor Bryan Sorohan of Gainesville, Ga.

By Bryan Sorohan

You’ve hit on one of the many areas in which teachers are placed in an unsolvable dilemma – student fights. The teacher is responsible for the safety of all students, including the violent ones. Yet, intervening in a fight can place the teacher as well as the students involved (plus possibly bystanders) in physical danger.

We’ve seen teachers injured trying to intervene with violent students, but teachers, family, students, and schools would have to live with the physical and emotional consequences of non-action that led to serious injury or death. And please don’t make me laugh by claiming that a teacher who failed to intervene would not be subjected to lawsuits and excoriated in the press if a student died because of her non-action.

No, at schools of education we do not spend much time talking about how to safely break up fights between students beyond verbal commands. That’s because there is no safe, legally immune way to stop one once the situation has escalated beyond the teacher’s ability to verbally intervene.

My first teaching job was in a psych hospital, and we were trained in physical crisis intervention, which did not keep me from being slightly injured several times in subduing a violent patient (although it taught me how to keep the patient from being injured).

Possibly because of that experience, when I taught in a public school, I used to jump between fighting students very frequently. I was fortunate not to be badly hurt on a couple of occasions. Once a paraprofessional in our school’s Emotional Behavior Disorder classroom was badly beaten by students and resigned, and he was a former college football player.

Now, as a teacher educator, I tell my student teachers (who are mostly young women and not physically imposing) that they have a responsibility to intervene in fights up to but not including physical involvement. But that approach risks having a fight get so out of hand that students can be injured.

We’ve seen media circus coverage when a teacher tried to use pepper spray to break up a fight, so I tell them not to do that. But what does a 110-pound woman do when she is teaching in an isolated classroom and two 180-pound male students get into a fight?

I don’t know what the answer is, because students have been getting into fights since time immemorial and will continue to do so long after we’re gone. My thinking is that there needs to be a legal definition of what constitutes reasonable intervention by teachers (which could then be taught in schools of education), and teachers who meet that definition in a situation should be immune from liability, much as they are immune to liability if they are properly enforcing a school’s discipline plan.

However, students who attack or deliberately injure teachers should at a minimum be subject to expulsion and criminal action, and their parents should be held legally liable. Teachers, especially in middle and secondary school, face this issue every day.