As her name was called, the slight woman rose from her seat and made her way to the podium.
Visibly nervous, she cleared her throat before speaking into a microphone to Gwinnett County school board members gathered for their regular meeting.
“My name is Jen Guyre, and I’m the teacher who was stabbed by a student in my classroom.”
Spectators — educators, parents and other interested parties — fell silent. Cell phone activity ceased as Guyre recounted the day, Oct. 22, 2018, when a boy twice her size in her eighth-grade language arts class lunged at her with a butcher knife.
Guyre had come to the meeting with a purpose: to urge the school board to prohibit middle schoolers from carrying backpacks into classrooms. Had such a rule been in place, she said, she might have seen her attack coming.
Across the nation, educators, police and lawmakers are struggling to implement policies that increase safety in schools. But a 20-year string of mass shootings has largely focused attention on one scary scenario — that of the alienated student with a gun firing on classmates and staff, often indiscriminately. Threats and violence on a smaller scale, against teachers, often go underreported, misreported or completely ignored, school experts said.
Student discipline reports for Gwinnett County Public Schools, the largest system in the state, showed 80 incidents of abuse or threat against school employees in the third quarter of the 2018-2019 school year, said Sloan Roach, school district spokeswoman. The same time period a year ago showed 99 incidents.
In a U.S. Department of Education survey three years ago, 10% of public school teachers said they had been threatened with injury by a student during the past year, and 6% said were actually assaulted. The survey didn’t ask about threats from parents.
While the survey numbers might be alarming to some, they’re probably understated, said national school safety expert Ken Trump. There’s an incentive for school systems to downplay incidents: Some schools have enough trouble attracting qualified teachers; they don’t want to make it even more difficult, he said.
That stance makes it harder to find solutions, Trump said.
Georgia Department of Education keeps stats on incidents of violence in schools. It does not, however, differentiate between victims, making it hard to figure out how frequently teachers are the targets.
But a video of a Rome Middle School teacher being kicked and punched by two students went viral in 2017. In a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the Clarke County School District in 2015, a middle school teacher said she was constantly called profane names by students and had school supplies thrown at the back of her head. In Donalsonville, a parent was caught on camera beating, kicking and hitting a teacher with a custodian’s broom in 2014. And, in 2008, a parent and student were arrested in Atlanta for throwing a teacher to the floor and stomping her.
“Any assault against a teacher or other employee should not be glossed over lightly. Sending disruptive students to the front office sometimes becomes a revolving door, emboldening some students to become more aggressive,” said Charlotte Booker, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.
Like any employer, schools are tasked with ensuring a safe environment for their teachers and staff, said State Superintendent Richard Woods. “And just as with student safety, a comprehensive approach is needed. Physical barriers can help but ensuring a positive school climate and an environment of respect matters, too.
“At the state level, we encourage all school districts to put procedures in place to ensure a safe and supportive environment for everyone on their campuses, and we’re here to provide resources as they engage in that work.”
‘I saw blood’
It was at the end of the class period at Trickum Middle School when the teenage boy beckoned Guyre.
“He told me he had a surprise for me. He rummaged around in his backpack for a minute or two, as if it was difficult to get the thing out.”
Guyre, 29, waited patiently because she didn’t want him to think she didn’t care. Only in her second year of teaching, she had worked hard to build a rapport with her students.
Like many adolescent boys, this one was sometimes shy around her but had started to come out of his shell — raising his hand more often in class. When she didn’t call on him as often as he liked, he began to retreat a little.
“It’s a delicate balance, teaching kids who are so full of hormones and doubt about themselves,” said Guyre. “I try to use my own experiences and my own insecurities to relate to what they’re going through.”
Guyre didn’t see the knife at first -- but she felt the pressure more than pain.
“It was almost like being punched,” she said.
The students who saw it said they thought it was a gag knife -- maybe like one used in plays.
“At first, I didn’t realize that I’d actually been stabbed,” she said.
The student stepped toward Guyre and showed her the knife with her blood on it.
She was wearing a blouse with a fitted camisole and other layers underneath. When she looked down at her clothes, and began searching for evidence that she’d been wounded.
Then she saw the hole in her breast. It was slowly seeping blood.
Still stunned, she couldn’t quite figure out what was going on until the boy grabbed a female classmate and held the knife against the girl’s throat.
“He yelled for everyone to stay where they were, but it was the end of class. A lot of students had already left the room or ran out for help when they saw what happened,” she said.
‘I must have been in shock’
Each room in Trickum Middle has what the school calls a “panic button.” Guyre was too far away to reach it. And she was calculating how to keep the other students safe.
Ignoring her own predicament, she talked soothingly to the student, telling him to let the girl go.
“I don’t know how I was so calm,” she said. “I must have been in shock.”
In little more than a minute, the school police officer and administrators had the situation under control.
Guyre believes that if the student hadn’t been allowed to carry his bookbag from class to class, he wouldn’t have been able to conceal the weapon. Gwinnett County doesn’t have an across-the-board policy about students and bookbags. And in metro Atlanta, the regulations vary, with some schools requiring backpacks to remain in lockers during the school day.
Ultimately, the issue isn’t about backpacks, said the school safety expert Trump. Creating a culture of respect for adults and school personnel, he said, will go much further than any prohibitive measures, such as keeping bookbags in lockers.
“It should be obvious that physically harming a teacher or a support staff is against the rules and almost all schools have that outlined in their handbooks or codes of conduct,” he said. “But it has to be more than a written regulation. It has to be something that’s expected and enforced.”
Teacher advocates say attacks on educators are among the most underreported acts of violence at schools, and the least likely to have something done about it.
If a student threatens a teacher, the student should be disciplined; if a student lays hands on a teacher, the student should be expelled, Trump said.
Mostly, teachers must feel that if they are threatened, the school system will respond, said Trump. Schools can’t be more concerned about their reputations than their employees, he added.
“There has always been a concern about possible underreporting student discipline data to the Georgia Department of Education because schools are rated on safety,” said Booker. “Having accurate measurements would help policymakers determine what resources are necessary to avoid the next incident.”
Trump also recommended that schools add training for all personnel in de-escalating tense situations.
“There’s training to learn how to manage behaviors with your tone of voice, concise language, body language, even positioning of furniture,” he said. “Just as an office worker shouldn’t worry about their physical safety at work, teachers shouldn’t either.”
A positive impact
Even as Guyre was on the stretcher en route to the hospital, she was thinking about the next day at school and how she’d address the incident to her class.
But she didn’t come back the next day.
The knife had punctured a lung and was inches from her heart. The doctors had to attach a tube to drain fluid and kept her hospitalized for a week to avoid infection or other complications.
Guyre was away from work for three weeks.
While convalescing, she received stacks of get-well cards and letters from students — even those she didn’t know. Her reputation as a trusted, caring educator had spread throughout the school in a small amount of time.
The student who attacked Guyre was sentenced recently in juvenile court, but the proceedings and the outcome aren’t public information. Neither are his school records. To this day, Guyre has no idea why he attacked her. She said some of his writings were dark, but he never gave any indication that he’d harm her.
Gwinnett County won’t say if he’s still a student in the district, but officials said that typically students found guilty of injuring teachers are expelled.
Guyre always loved teaching. Even though she began her college career with a minor in theater, she naturally gravitated toward education.
Anne Locke Ridgway, who mentored Guyre through her year as a student teacher and first year out of college, wasn’t surprised that her friend was ready to come back the next day.
And she’s not surprised that Guyre wants to find a way to prevent such incidents from happening.
School system officials found her story compelling and are impressed with her “resilience and her love of teaching and her students,” said Gwinnett Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks.
“We are always open to hearing what people think, and we will consider her suggestion as we continue to look for ways to address school safety,” he said.
Gwinnett County Public Schools cares about its employees, said Roach, the system’s spokeswoman. “Our staff members are professionals and should be treated as such. Regardless of intent, it is never appropriate for students to abuse, threaten, intimidate, or cause harm to our employees. This is why we have specific discipline rules that focus on this type of misbehavior, as well as defined consequences for students who intentionally harm an employee.”
As the school year winds up, Guyre is glad to be back and said she doesn’t fear her students or feel unsafe in her school.
“I’m teaching the same students in the same classroom. I’m determined not to let one person ruin it for me or the students I’m responsible for,” she said. “Unless you’re a teacher you probably don’t understand it, but there’s a feeling you get when you’re moving around the room watching the kids and you can see the learning.”
Sometimes, Guyre still tears up a little reading the cards.
“My strength and courage showed the kids how to work through something like this,” she said. “… I came into this profession to make a positive impact, and I think I have.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.