How Dangerous Is Teaching in U.S. Schools?

ByABC News
August 3, 2001, 4:29 PM

Aug. 6 -- It's the kind of story that grabs headlines. Four elementary school girls in Hamilton County, Ohio, are due in criminal court today for allegedly pouring drain cleaner into their fifth-grade teacher's water bottle.

The longtime teacher, Nancy Wynette, never drank from the bottle. And it's a good thing prosecutors say the concoction would have killed her. The incident last May shocked local authorities and parents who asked why the girls, ages 11 to 13, would attempt such a thing. According to the school principal, one girl said Wynette was picking on her.

The near-tragedy in Ohio comes as the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, has begun including a $150,000 benefit in its life insurance policies for teachers who are slain at work. And in Florida last month, 14-year-old Nathaniel Brazill was sentenced to 28 years in prison for gunning down his teacher last year.

Despite shocking news stories about violence in schools, though, school safety experts say such incidents are rare. It's actually quite safe to be a teacher.

Since 1992, 20 teachers have been slain at school or school-related functions, according to the National School Safety Center. Of those, five deaths were at the hands of family members or acquaintances who came onto school property.

After Columbine, Worries Prevail

School violence just seems more prevalent these days, experts say, because those incidents that do occur are so egregious and shocking that they generate a lot of attention.

"A few decades ago, in the '50s, it was a sudden shock that kids were disobedient to teachers," says Paul Kingery, director of the Hamilton Fish Institute. "Then it became foul language and physical assaults, and now it's shooting teachers or even trying to poison them." The latest trend, Kingery said, seems to be bomb-making and bomb threats.

Bombs were involved in the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in April 1999 that left 15 dead and spawned numerous copycat threats at other campuses. After Columbine, schools ratcheted up security measures as teachers and administrators became even more sensitive to the mental and emotional states of their students.