Wisconsin

New Bill to Help Protect Teachers From Student Violence

Policy

There may be reason for hope for teachers feeling threatened or powerless against unruly students. A bill being introduced today by Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt would help protect teachers against student violence and give them more control over the classroom. Earlier this summer, Media Trackers was the first to report  on Green Bay Washington middle school teacher Kerstin Westcott, who resigned because of the unsafe and unhealthy environment at the school. Thiesfeldt pointed to the Westcott story in first speaking about the bill to Associated Press and with it he is aiming to protect and help teachers like Westcott by bringing order back in the classroom. In a release today, Thiesfeldt says the bill is a response to report by Dan O’Donnell, “Blood on the Blackboard.”

The bill includes several changes aimed at protecting teachers by notifying them of a students past violent behavior, and won’t penalize teachers if they leave because of an incident. It would:

  • Require law enforcement to notify a school when a pupil commits a felony or violent misdemeanor.
  • require schools to report physical assaults or violent crimes against teachers within 24 hours of being notified to law enforcement based on a request of an adult
  • require schools to notify teachers about information received from law enforcement prior to having the student in class as soon as practicable once they received notice.
  • Teacher ability to remove student from class for 2 days.
  • Teacher ability to terminate contract if victim of violent offense or physical assault
  • A school must provide assistance for leave and loss of benefits for public school employee victims of physical assault or a violent crime. 
  • creates a procedure for a teacher to request a suspension hearing if administration does not act.

 

While this new bill aims at protecting the teachers like Westcott who feel helpless against violent students, not all support this bill. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, a state teacher’s union, wrote in opposition of the bill to Theisdfelt saying they do not support it in its “current form.” They instead point to a similar law, the “Removal of Students from Class,” and how their members reported it is not being followed. Along with the complaint that the current law isn’t being followed they offer a number of other issues that they see with the bill including things like, it “infringes on student privacy rights, focuses heavily on out of school incidents, places little to on burden on parents or caregivers, and will disproportionately affect students of color.”

Instead of changing the bill, the WEAC offers a different solution, calling for better mental health services and counseling opportunities for students:

The need for mental health services for students was recognized by a small allocation in the passage of the State Budget in September. The best way to help students in need is to provide them with programs and counseling that keep them involved in their school community. The best way to protect teachers from violence is to enforces current law and provide effective strategies and resources for dealing with violent and disruptive children.

Westcott announced her resignation from Washington at the June meeting of the Green Bay School Board. She emotionally described stories of assault, inappropriate sexual behavior and drug use at the school. She said students were roaming the halls trying to enter other classrooms. Westcott said current disciplinary policy was going unenforced at Washington. Her statement went unnoticed for nearly a month, until it was reported by Media Trackers and radio host Jerry Bader.

Shortly after, other media outlets in Green Bay began reporting on Westcott’s story and Green Bay school administration and local law enforcement began announcing increased efforts to ensure the safety of staff and students at Washington. Several teachers in the Green Bay school district came forward and told us that they had experiences similar to Westcott’s. However, none were willing to go public out of fear for their jobs. Westcott resigned from the Green Bay school district and now teaches in Manitowoc.

 

UPDATE: Media Trackers Communications Director Jerry Bader interviewed Rep. Thiesfeldt who spoke of WEAC’s opposition and why this bill is necessary to help protect teachers like Wescott:

“What the bill is aiming to do in the wider sense, we have shortages of teachers in Wisconsin as well as across the United States, and there are a number of factors, but I think a large reason for it is that teachers don’t feel supported by their administration, and as seen by some of these reports they don’t feel safe in school. So why would our best and brightest want to go into education when they hear all of these stories going on? Subsequently our college education programs have seen shortages of enrollees, and hopefully this is going to change some of that.”

 

Thiesfeldt also spoke of the many groups who they reached out to in creating the bill, and the surprising difficulty he found in working with WEAC:

“We involved many stakeholders in our crafting of this bill, from law enforcement to the school administration, school boards, disability groups, and also WEAC. I guess probably the most stunning development in all of this was the difficulty in working with WEAC, and that they just simply would not give me an answer as to whether or not they were going to be supportive of this bill until the very end. Even to the point where they just refused to meet with me. The only conclusion I can draw out of this is that they set themselves up as being an organization that seeks the improvement of the work atmosphere for teachers, well this is definitely looking to do that, so it appears the WEAC is not particularly serious about supporting teachers who are having this difficulty and its more important for them to oppose a bill that has a republicans name on it.”

 

Thiesfeldt also stressed that the safety of both the students and teachers is equally important in creating the best learning environment, and that the result of these disruptive and violent school environments affect the teachers as well as the students:

“It’s almost like these teachers are experiencing PTSD for fear of having to go into that environment on a daily basis. I was a teacher for over 20 years and I was blessed to have a very positive situation that I was involved in, a supportive administration, and I could not imaging having to go into work with that, you would just dread going to work every day, and that’s not a good situation for the teacher, and it’s particularly not good for the students….”

“…School Safety, it’s not just for kids.”

 

The full interview with Representative Thiesfeldt can be found here:

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