A Case for Classroom Safety

Lincoln Teacher Supports Need for Bill to Protect All from Classroom Violence

Amy Jewell recalls the attack as swift and unexpected.

Over four years, the student had transitioned to Lincoln Southwest High as Jewell built a trusting, solid relationship with him.

Jewell teaches students with disabilities who are often unable to care for themselves. Her co-teacher’s students are more independent, but not quite on grade level.

“When you work with students with significant disabilities, you build relationships with them,” she said. “He was doing really well. We just didn’t have the behavioral concerns we once did with him.”

That changed suddenly on a Tuesday in February 2019. The students had finished a big group lesson and the co-teacher had returned her students to their classroom through a connecting door. Meanwhile, the student had left a pencil and papers on the floor. Jewell asked him to put them away. He was unhappy with the request yet did as asked and returned to his classroom.

Then Jewell heard “a ruckus.”

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought it would have been this student. We hadn’t had any problems with him all year,” she said.

She stepped into the adjoining room and found the student pounding fists on a wall repeating “I’m going to slit her throat.” When the co-teacher asked what he was talking about, he pointed at Jewell. As Jewell tried to talk to him, he walked to her, pulled back his arm and punched her hard in the side of the face. Her head swung back and he hit her again, this time in the back of the head. He shoved her aside and left the room.

Classroom Safety Bill

Far too often in classrooms and hallways across the state students lash out at other students or at teachers and staff, threatening to injure others or themselves. Uncertain about state discipline parameters, and with different policies and varied levels of administrative support from district to district, educators are frequently and understandably hesitant to step into situations that might require the use of physical intervention.

Jewell was injured at the same time that Nebraska state senators were considering a bill that would allow school personnel to use physical intervention to safely manage the dangerous behavior of a student until the student is no longer a danger to themselves or to others. The bill would require that school districts have a policy on how and when a student can be removed from class. The policy would state how and when a student may return to class via a clear and consistent process.

LB147, the Student Discipline Act, was stuck in committee for most of the 2019 legislative session. It cleared the committee hurdle near the end of the session and is ready for action by the full Legislature during the session that begins on Jan. 8. 

While the bill does not address the need for more mental health professionals in schools or the funding issues that would put more paraprofessionals in classrooms where more trained adults are needed, it would help standardize what educators can and cannot do and codifies case law giving them protection when they do intervene. 

“LB147 would do much to make our classrooms and schools safer for students and teachers,” said NSEA President Jenni Benson. “We will do all that we can to see it through to passage.”

Unprotected and Scared

Jewell has been hit and kicked by her special education students in the past but this incident was different. “When I have been assaulted in the past, it has been by an individual with severe disabilities who can’t control and doesn’t understand what they are doing,” she said. “He punched me like an adult male would punch someone in a bar fight.”

Afterward, Jewell was checked out by the school nurse and declined treatment. Her principal, program coordinator and even a district official checked in on her.

By Saturday, Jewell’s jaw was still sore and she began having headaches, so she visited a doctor. Slowly, the incident began to take an emotional toll, coming to a head the following Monday. At a meeting with her co-teacher, her coordinator and district officials, she was told the student could return to his classroom following a five-day suspension. She also learned that while the student had said he was sorry, he admitted that he might hit her again.

“That was when I really got upset. The meetings should have stopped and he should not have come back to our classrooms, let alone our school,” she said. School officials initially proposed a shortened day for the student, reading and math only, in the room of Jewell’s co-teacher.

“There was nothing to stop him from coming over and hurting me again or hurting the students in my classroom who are in wheelchairs and unable to defend themselves,” she said.

Jewell asked to move to an unused room on the far side of the building. She was settling in when a close friend and co-worker stopped to check on her. That’s when Jewell broke down, cried and realized she felt unprotected and unable, emotionally and physically, to argue for that protection.

The friend’s reply? “You are a member of the Lincoln Education Association. You need to let them know,” said Jewell. “That’s when I was put in touch with Mandy.”

Serious Consideration

NSEA Organizational Specialist Mandy Faripour told Jewell that she deserved to be back in her classroom and should not need protection from a student in her classroom. A meeting was quickly arranged with district officials. Faripour pointed to a clause in the LEA-LPS contract that mandates final plan approval by the teacher involved in such incidents.

“I can’t tell you what a comfort it was with Mandy there reassuring me,” said Jewell. “She immediately went into action and things started happening. For that I will be forever grateful.”

With Faripour’s help and insight, Jewell returned to her original room. The student moved to a room on the far side of the building, two teachers working at his side. Jewell received a schedule of his daily movements.

Jewell is proud of Southwest’s special education program and the relationships that have been made with parents and students. She was pleased with the support of her principal, supervisor and security officials and the way the situation was resolved in her interest. She was also thankful for her LEA/NSEA membership.

“Mandy helped me accomplish what needed to happen in order for me to feel safe moving forward.”

Jewell said LB147 requires serious consideration.

“I think legislation would be great if there was something in place to protect teachers in the event this happens again. Because it will happen again.”