Based on recent developments both in the N.H. Legislature and in the Keene School District, there are two points of agreement about student violence against teachers and others in public schools. First, all think it should be taken very seriously. And nobody is sure how much of it is taking place.
Beyond that, at least in the Keene School District, there’s not much agreement between those responsible for assuring safety in the Keene schools — the school board and the administration — and those on the front lines of experiencing student violence — the teachers and staff — about how effectively concerns are being addressed.
On Nov. 1, a joint legislative study committee chaired by Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, submitted its report on violence and other problematic student behavior in the state’s public schools. Although its charge included studying the causes of dangerous behavior and how best to prevent it, the committee encountered a lack of reliable reporting, data and analysis that stymied its search for solutions. One example it cited was that while Department of Labor statistics show a doubling in reported assault cases against school employees from 2015 to 2018, figures collected by the Department of Education were significantly lower.
Given the unreliability of available information, the committee focused much of its attention on recommendations to shore up and encourage consistent reporting and data collection of student-violence incidents. While the lack of reliable statewide information to better understand root causes and formulate solutions is frustrating, here’s hoping the Legislature acts promptly on the recommendations so that it can identify more comprehensive solutions expeditiously.
Meanwhile, a disturbing standoff, with roots in the issue of student violence, that boiled over early this fall between the Keene School District and the union representing its teachers, remains unresolved. The immediate dispute relates to the disciplining of two teachers, Keene Education Association President William Gillard and KEA member Bonny Nadeau LaRocca, under a federal student-privacy law after they communicated their safety concerns to some parents and others. The state Public Employee Labor Relations Board will have to sort out whether the disciplinary action was warranted.
But more broadly noteworthy is that, even though both the KEA and the district acknowledge there’s been an increase in reported workplace injuries, the district seems almost dismissive about the increase, attributing it not to what the union calls “ever-increasing incidents of student violence,” but to efforts to standardize the process for reporting workplace incidents. At an Oct. 8 Keene school board meeting, Chairman George Downing counseled patience, saying that more time is necessary to collect the data before figuring out what steps to take.
Further complicating an understanding of whether the union’s concerns are warranted is that the reported workplace injury statistics — which indeed show a striking increase from 15 in 2016 to 92 in just the first half of this year — do not show how many of the injuries resulted from student violence. The district apparently has this information, but when The Sentinel requested a breakdown of the overall data by injury type, the district denied the request, claiming its statistics are somehow “information of a pooled risk management program” and “proceedings and records of the department of labor” that are exempt from disclosure.
Both Downing and Unit 29 Superintendent Robert Malay say safety concerns are taken “very seriously,” and Malay says the district has addressed most of the safety-related issues uncovered in a Department of Labor inspection earlier this year, which included reports of teacher injuries from student actions at three Keene elementary schools. Even so, there’s a disturbing gap between the school board and administration’s approach of waiting to see better data and the immediate concern of teachers who, even if they don’t have hard data to cite, feel themselves increasingly exposed to student violence against them.
At the Oct. 8 board meeting, at which several members of the public spoke about school safety issues, Gillard presented recommendations developed by the KEA for improving safety for students as well as teachers and other employees, and Downing pledged only that the board will be taking the comments of those who spoke at the meeting into consideration. Even if the board and the administration do indeed take workplace safety concerns seriously — and we have no reason to doubt they do — and they also would prefer to await better data, they would do well to engage seriously with the teachers about their concerns and their recommendations.
Yes, the disciplinary action dispute may add an element of discomfort to the discussion. But neither the district nor the teachers and students will be well served if the staff believe themselves to be at greater risk in showing up at work and that their concerns and recommendations aren’t being heard.