Teachers Want to Stop Fights With Snapshots

Philip Rumore, the president of the Buffalo, N.Y., teachers union, is frustrated with the city school board's response to what he says is a rise in violence in the schools, so he wants to make sure they see what is really happening.

Rumore wants to arm every teacher in the district with what he hopes will be a weapon against violence -- a disposable camera, so they can take photographs to document any fights or other acts of violence that occur. He said any photographs would be turned over directly to the district administration to document incidents and help with any investigation, whether by police or the district itself.

The plan has not sat well with the school district, but Rumore said there has already been too much violence and too little response from the administration.

"It seems to me that the incidents of violence were more severe and the district really wasn't dealing with it," Rumore said. "When I talked about this they said, 'You're making the district look bad,' and I said, 'No, the violence is making the district look bad.' "

Buffalo Public Schools spokesman Andrew Maddigan said if there is a violence problem at the city's schools, having teachers snapping photos of incidents isn't going to help.

"It sends entirely the wrong message to students," he said. "It tells them, 'We expect you to misbehave.' To some students, it could be seen as a challenge, to see if they could get a teacher to pull out a camera. It also creates another barrier between the students and the teachers."

The district's lawyers are examining the legal issues that might be involved in having teachers taking students' pictures, and there are "major concerns regarding FERPA," Maddigan said, referring to the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which includes among its protections student privacy rights.

He said the district could lose federal funding if there were FERPA violations, and said the district could take action against any teachers who start photographing students.

"We have to tell our teachers that you're risking punishment," he said. "You do so at the risk of your career. We don't enjoy doing that, we want to be supportive of what they do, but we have to."

Buffalo has had some shocking cases of violence in the schools this fall -- including one incident in which a teacher who tried to stop a fight between two girls needed 16 stitches to have a gash in his face closed and suffered crushed nasal cavities, and another in which a student threw a 45-gallon trash can at a teacher -- but it is not the only city with such problems.

"Districts all over are having problems with students bringing what happens on the street into the classroom," Maddigan said.

In contrast to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice that found that school violence declined from 1992 to 2002, teachers, administrators and police from New York to Miami to California are saying that violence, some of it gang-related, is up this year.

At Wyandanch, N.Y., High School on Long Island, a vicious brawl forced administrators to close school for a day, and when parents complained at a school board meeting that the district overreacted by calling in police, the school principal revealed that a loaded gun had been found, apparently stashed by a student in a bathroom.

"Things were going to be so dangerous, that if I didn't get this under control or get somebody to get it under control, somebody was going to get seriously hurt," Wyandanch principal Larry Spruill said.

Thirteen students were arrested and 43 were suspended as a result of the fight, which school officials said involved 100 students and spilled from the cafeteria into the halls.

The fight broke out, even though school officials were aware of rumors that there would be a shooting at the school that day. School officials had taken extra precautions and checked everyone before they entered school, but couldn't prevent the brawl.

In Hartford, Conn., earlier this month, two students in one day were shot waiting for a school bus.

At Jordan High School in Los Angeles last month, for example, dozens of students got into a brawl during lunch, and it took some 60 Los Angeles Police Department officers and 40 school security officers using pepper spray to put an end to the fighting. Three days later, an estimated 100 students got in a brawl outside Manual Arts High School, and again it took dozens of police and even LAPD helicopters to restore order.

Students and teachers at Pinole Valley, Calif., High School told ABC News affiliate KGO-TV in San Francisco earlier this fall that they are so worried about violence that they say is spinning out of control, they fear their lives are in danger.

Major fights break out at least once a week at the school, teachers and students said.

"I've seen fights. I've seen people pushed into lockers. I've had verbal assaults directed toward me many, many times," said Caroline King, a teacher at the school. "I just have felt most times this year unsafe here on campus."

Pinole Valley school officials said some students have been acting up, but blamed it on the school's security staff being stretched thin because of budget cuts, and said more security officers were being hired.

In Baltimore, the city's schools have been hit by a rash of fires that police and district officials believe have been set by students. As of Nov. 12, there were 76 fires in the district during the first two months of classes. In all of last year, there were 168 fires in Baltimore schools.

The fires get students out of classes -- and sometimes shut down a school for the whole day. Because the district is operating with a $58 million deficit, security personnel have been cut, as have most extracurricular programs.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., the Criminal Justice Commission announced the creation last month of a special committee to focus on the issue of youth violence, after the killings of 15 young people in shootings over the past five months. At the meeting to announce the new committee, County Commissioner Jeff Koons called the amount of youth violence "shocking."

The Florida officials said they believe much of the problem is because of a new rise in gang activity, a problem that has been identified in Philadelphia, in Long Island, N.Y., and in Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif.

Officials at the National School Boards Association and the National Association of State Boards of Education did not return calls requesting comment on whether there is a rise in violence in and around schools this year.

Rumore said he has no doubts about whether there has been a rise in Buffalo.

"This year the intensity of the violence it seems has been greater," he said. "We've had some assault on teachers, but most of the injuries to teachers have been when they were trying to break up fights."

In one two-week period in October, 11 Buffalo students were arrested, accused of assaults, fighting or other violence in schools. Over the last month, Rumore said, another half dozen have been arrested in fights. In the first three months of the school year, three teachers were injured in incidents at one high school alone.

Part of the problem, Rumore said, is the "devastating cuts" in staffing over the last four years that have cost the district 300 teachers, counselors and other staff. The district also closed an alternative school for problem students, which he said forces the administration to put violent, disruptive students back in the classroom, where they cause problems for other students and teachers alike.

The district also has two "opportunity centers," where students receive counseling on anger management and proper behavior, but there is only space in those centers for 120 students.

Rumore said that is not enough, and despite the district's objections, he is going ahead with his plan. He said cameras would initially be given out to one faculty member at each school in the city, with instructions to only use them to take pictures of injuries to teachers, not of student fights.

But eventually, he said, the union would like to give one to every single teacher to be used to photograph fights or assaults as they occur.

"We've made it clear to Mr. Rumore that he does so without our approval, and we're consulting our lawyers about this," Maddigan said. "I'm concerned about the sincerity of the leadership at the teachers union. We do not consider this as being consistent with concerns about the safety of students and teachers."

But Rumore said that the safety and education of students is all he cares about.

"The district is furious with me because I went public with it," he said. "You need to do something about the violence in the schools, not just try to cover it up."