How Dangerous Is Teaching in U.S. Schools?

ByGeraldine Sealey

Aug. 6, 2001 -- 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.

More than any other highly publicized school violence tragedy, Columbine fueled the public perception that our schools are dangerous places to be. According to a Justice Policy Institute report last year, seven out of 10 Americans said they believed a shooting was likely in their schools.

A year after Columbine, the shooting death of Lake Worth, Fla., teacher Barry Grunow at the hands of Brazill renewed those worries.

Killed in the Line of Duty

Jerald Newberry, director of the NEA's health information network, says the union's decision to provide a slain-teacher benefit stemmed from the deaths of Grunow and William "Dave" Sanders, the only teacher to die at Columbine.

"When firemen are killed, people turn out in the streets in a parade environment to show their respect, but we don't have that kind of ceremony in place for a fallen civil servant in the schools," he said.

When union officials checked with their insurance companies, they found out offering such a benefit to teachers wouldn't increase premiums because the incidents are so rare.

Indeed, according to the Justice Policy Institute, there is only a one in 2 million chance of being killed in a U.S. school. Still, experts say, many of the nation's teachers must contend with violent and aggressive behavior every day in the classroom.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, from 1994 through 1998, teachers were the victims of approximately 668,000 violent crimes, which include rape or sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault and simple assault. About 80,000 of those were serious violent crimes.

More Than Just Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic

What drives aggression in the classroom, experts say, is what happens after the school bell rings. Parental involvement in the lives of youth has continued to decline over the years, they say. Violent TV and video games, drug problems and neglected mental and emotional disorders also contribute to unruly behavior among some school kids.

Numbers of students diagnosed with "special needs," which can range from learning disabilities to emotional disturbances, have ballooned in recent years — and they are the children most likely to display aggressive or violent behavior in the classroom, experts say.

While students' needs are growing more complex, teachers and administrators are often hamstrung in their efforts to help, they say. It is common for the mental health counselor per student ratio to come in at 1 per 1,000 in schools.

The demands of juggling traditional duties — the three "R's" — with the additional burden of helping kids with conflict resolution, manners and communication skills, is a harrowing aspect of the classroom for many teachers, experts say.

"Schools are like widget factories," Kingery said. "You can only go so far until you see the whole thing fall apart at the seams."

In the end, says Bob Duffy of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, solving the problem of school violence must involve parents and the entire community.

"Schools are safest when there's a greater amount of parental and community involvement in the schools and keeping neighborhoods around schools safe," he said. "We need to look at the entire picture."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events