Classroom Beating: Florida Student Gets Pummeled While Teacher Sits Back

Growing number of schools instruct teachers not to stop fights without training.

November 30, 2010, 5:12 PM

Dec. 1, 2010— -- The pummeling of a Palm Beach, Fla., middle school boy by another student has infuriated the boy's family who say the teacher did nothing but sit by his computer while the fight raged in his classroom.

Video of the fight between Joshua Poole, 13, and his Jeaga Middle School classmate shows Poole swinging wildly as he is punched repeatedly before falling to the floor. The teacher's inaction was reportedly due to a school policy that staff can only intervene after undergoing training, according to the school district.

That type of "policy run amok" is a growing problem in schools across the country, according to Carol Kochhar-Bryant, a professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Education and Human Development.

"In the past there have been many families, if the child gets injured in any way by an intervention by a teacher, there have been instances where the teachers have been reprimanded," she said. "Those policies protect the school, they protect the teacher, but we are realizing now they don't protect the child in those situations."

Palm Beach County school district officials insist the teacher followed procedure during the middle school fight, which took place last month, and that he was not properly trained per district protocol to break up such altercations.

"When the students would not stop fighting, the teacher went to the hallway to get help," read a statement released by the school district. "Assistant Principal Brent Higley responded and helped stopped the fight."

Both students were discplined.

Poole's father, Clarence Poole told ABC's Palm Beach affiliate WPBF-TV that the fight came after previous incidents of bullying.

"It keeps happening, you know, the same thing," he told the station. "Somebody will just come up behind him and start brutalizing him. I send my kid to school to get educated, not to get killed. It's really bad."

The Pooles' lawyer, Craig Goldenfarb, said he planned to sue on their behalf, charging negligence on the part of the school district. Goldenfarb said Joshua would be seen by a pediatric neurologist for repeated headaches and blurred vision.

Marla Ruth Brassard, professor of psychology and education and director of clinical training at Columbia University's Teacher's College in New York City, said she's seen similar hands-off policies, but in places like youth prisons and psychiatric facilities.

Teachers, she said, "are entrusted by society to take care of children."

"If you have the adults ... vacating that responsibility, you have no one there to keep them safe," she said.

Expert: Zero Tolerance Policies Often Conflict With School Liability Concerns

The fight -- captured on another student's cell phone video -- came to blows only after minutes of taunting. Goldenfarb said the teacher should have stopped it before it ever came to physical violence.

"I think the teacher should be trained at least to intervene when children are taunting someone else," he said. "He was sitting at his desk on his computer is what my client tells me."

The parents of the other boy, classmate Adrian Thompson, told WPBF that their son had been provoked by Poole in the weeks leading up to the fight. But they, too, agreed that the teacher bore some responsibility.

"You're the adult," Mara Cornish told the station "You're supposed to stop it."

There have been other recent instances of student fights that have escalated after teachers, citing policy, backed off.

In November, an Alabama news station aired footage of a classroom fight between two boys during which the teacher, who initially appeared to be trying to diffuse the argument, walks away, even as one of the boys struggles to get up following a hard blow.

But there is the flip side.

According to media reports, a Florida teacher's jaw was discloated while he was trying to break up a fight this spring. And in June, according to the Boston Globe, a 65-year-old teacher collapsed and died after intervening between two high school students, a boyfriend and girlfriend.

Kochhar-Bryant said such hands-off policies have been building over the last several years, but the balance of liability concern and a zero tolerance toward classroom violence often conflict.

"Now you have crazy situations where kids are handcuffed," she said.

There are seeds of a turnabout, she noted, in larger, urban school districts where administrators have taken it upon themselves to draft a type of school safety policy that backs away from the idea that teachers shouldn't get involved.

"It's been slow to be implanted, I think," she said.

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