New State Law Has Educators Feeling Uneasy : Violence: Questions of fairness are raised less than 2 months before legislation takes effect requiring teachers be given names of violent students.
Anew state law requiring school officials to warn teachers about students with violent behavior is confronting educators with thorny educational issues and administrative problems in Los Angeles and some neighboring districts.
Adopted in response to the stabbing of a Sylmar teacher last year, the legislation was intended to help by providing teachers with the names of students who have physically harmed or attempted to harm another person. But less than two months before notification is to begin, the law is raising questions about fairness to students and how teachers will respond to the new information.
“The Legislature after a while may find this law is too unwieldy and may create more problems than it’s solving,” said Don Bolton, head of student attendance and adjustment for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “I’m not going to say it’s bad legislation yet. No one has really thought through the ramifications of this thing.”
Los Angeles school officials also said the district probably will not complete the massive amount of work necessary--compiling court and law enforcement records and tracking enrollment of its 610,000 students--to meet a July 1 deadline under the law. The statute, however, requires only that districts make a “good-faith effort” to have a notification system in place by then.
School districts in Glendale, Burbank, Las Virgenes, Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley say they will have an easier time creating a notification system, but have many of the same concerns about its effect.
The law was approved after Cynthia Edwards, a teacher at Olive Vista Junior High School, was stabbed March 6, 1989, by a student whom Edwards was going to send to the principal for using profanity in class. As Edwards wrote a referral slip, the 15-year-old boy plunged a three-inch knife into her shoulder.
Edwards said later she was not aware that the boy had been transferred at least twice for disciplinary problems.
State law at the time gave school districts the option of notifying teachers about Juvenile Court convictions. Los Angeles school officials rarely provided the notification, arguing that the need for disclosure was outweighed by a desire to protect student confidentiality. The teachers union, United Teachers of Los Angeles, has contended that administrators also believed the information would prejudice instructors against students.
Under the new law, administrators are required to notify teachers about students in their classes who have been accused or convicted of violent behavior--defined as injuring or attempting to injure another person--in the past three years. The district will use police, court and campus security records as resources.
As districts move to comply, educators are unearthing a number of conflicting views. In Los Angeles, district officials have been meeting to address those issues and hope to finish by summer.
High on the list of concerns is the possibility that students will be stigmatized for an act of violence--which could be as minor as a fistfight--and will suffer in the classroom.
“A student could be doomed before he can go to class,” Bolton said. “Everybody thinks this law deals with hard-core criminals.” But it also deals with students who commit a single act of violence “in the heat of passion, and it’s going to follow them for three years,” he said.
James Catterall, an expert on dropouts and associate professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education, predicted that “a few teachers and students will be protected by the availability of this information and some students may get extra help from informed teachers who care.”
“But I think it far more likely that students ‘labeled’ as violent offenders will be short-changed because of prejudices,” he said. “I favor an environment in which optimistic assumptions about students are made. If teachers are warned that a student has had trouble, they may assume that it will happen again, the youngster may sense this as the school’s assumption about him, and he may proceed to live up to the expectation.”
But other educators argue that knowing students have been in trouble might prompt teachers to go out of their way to help them.
Harriet Perl, a retired Los Angeles school counselor for teachers injured by students, said accusing instructors of being unable to give students a fair education was “downright near libelous.”
“Ninety percent of teachers who were hurt by kids think it was their fault,” Perl said. “Amid their tears, they would say over and over again ‘I’m sure there was something I could have done that would have prevented this.’ ”
A related issue is the decision to label a student as “violent.” If the law required reporting students convicted of violent acts only, the definition would be simple. But under the law, district officials are required to judge if any incident reported in police, court or campus records they possess is violent enough to warrant notification.
“If there’s a fight, does that qualify?” Bolton asked. “Kids fight all the time,” Bolton said. “Knocking you down the stairs--do you have to see blood, broken bones? Does it meet the test of the law?”
Gary Hess, student services director for the Glendale Unified School District, said officials are worried about making a premature judgment and ". . . two years later there’s this big sign on this kid saying he’s a violent student and that’s not true.”
Los Angeles administrators are also debating the amount of detail to release about a student’s violent behavior. The law gives wide discretion in that area. The district is weighing three factors: details wanted by teachers, the effort required to dig up the information and fairness to students.
Teachers want specific information to keep false impressions from forming and to help them decide how to treat each juvenile.
“If the person is using the gun to steal, to assault another gang member, if the gun was used among family members--all that has different meanings to me,” said Reseda High School instructor Mark Valenzuela, who said forcing teachers to deal with violent students but also limiting the information they get is wrong.
“If he held a gun to his mother, he has family problems. He would need loving, a non-threatening type of person. If he used a gun in a gang situation, I would see that as something that’s not too abnormal in terms of gang behavior. If they robbed a bank, I would be on guard for myself.”
But in many instances, those details are not readily available, Bolton said. Unlike police and campus security reports, court conviction notices will not have crime details.
Los Angeles school officials do not know how many incidents they would have to deal with. But in the 1988-89 school year, the district suspended 20,419 students for causing an injury or threatening or attempting to do so. And in Los Angeles juvenile courts last year, prosecutors filed 30,000 cases.
Providing teachers with full details about incidents raises other concerns for Leo Lowe, assistant superintendent for Las Virgenes Unified School District. “Is there no protection for the student? I just shudder to think about the concerns of confidentiality. It’s awfully hard to prevent people from talking. I don’t want the youngster to be picked on for any reason.”
Other instructors said providing details about student behavior also raises a longtime, vital concern: Teachers need training in averting confrontations with violent students. Information about a student’s past serves little purpose, they said, unless teachers know how to respond.
Although the district provides classes on how to identify gang members and drug users, district officials said budget constraints have prevented them from offering training in dealing with violent students.
Not many teacher training institutions offer such training, either. “Education tends to lag far behind in terms of what the needs are,” said Ron Stevens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, an Encino-based organization that works with school districts and law enforcement agencies to present training on dealing with violent students.
Two years ago deans from the nation’s top nine teacher training institutions identified managing disruptive youths as one of the major needs in schools, Stevens said. He said he knew of only a handful of institutions offering courses on dealing with violent students, although the number is growing.
“What do you do when a youngster brings a weapon into your class?” he asked. “What do you do when you’re confronted with two or three gang members? I don’t think there are many teachers anywhere trained to handle them.”
Edwards said that in the absence of training, she developed her own rules based on experience.
“I didn’t let students get too close to me, come up to my desk,” she said. “It really deprived me a lot. The closer you get to a student, the more you can help that student and gain their confidence. If I get back to the classroom, they would never get close to me.”
Another question school districts face is whether instructors--fearing harm to themselves and their charges--should have the right to refuse to teach disruptive students. Some teachers said that transferring disruptive pupils to teachers who can handle them would help ensure that all the students concentrate on education.
Fran Crystal, a special-education instructor at Marshall High, was mugged at knifepoint 20 years ago. Her fears from that experience remain. “I just feel personally I can’t work with a violent child,” she said. “Having been a victim of a violent crime, I can’t put myself in a fearful situation again.”
But Crystal said if forced to accept violent students, she and other teachers will try to be fair to them.
Others teachers, however, believe instructors who want to refuse violent students should turn to another profession.
Los Angeles district teachers can now suspend students for a maximum of two days or request a transfer. But in both cases, the principal has the last word.
Bolton said refusals will “undoubtedly arise,” but he does not believe teachers should have the right to turn students away. “We have an obligation to educate youngsters until they’re declared exempt. Principals are upset because now they’ve got another problem: They’ve got to go one-on-one with teachers.”
Aside from the issues involved, the district has the practical problem of creating a mechanism for tracking students and their behavior. The difficulty, school officials said, is that the district has no central data system to track all students and their schools.
“They just have a massive records problem because they have so many kids,” said Phil Kauble, a consultant with the Los Angeles County Office of Education,
Early this year, after being hampered by lack of money for 10 years, the Board of Education allocated $11 million and began setting up the index.
It is not expected to be complete until next year, however, and that poses a problem for the district. If officials don’t know what schools some students attend, some teachers will not be notified.
“If we don’t have a central index, we would be lucky if 50% of the notifications will be made,” said Joe Fandey, an administrator with Student Attendance and Adjustment. “We will have to work exceedingly hard and have a great deal of good luck to meet that July 1 deadline.”
Los Angeles teachers union officials said they are not surprised the district sees problems in the law because administrators are more concerned with protecting student confidentiality than the safety of teachers.
“The school district is trying to make it sound as complicated as possible with the intent of denying as much information to the teachers as possible,” union President Wayne Johnson said. “I know they never wanted the teachers to have that information and a law isn’t going to change their position.”