Extreme & Violent Student Behavior Pushing Iowa Teachers to Breaking Point

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DES MOINES, Iowa -- Iowa teachers tell Channel 13 they are so overwhelmed by extreme violent behavior they have reached a breaking point.  They asked us to share their stories so people will understand what happens inside classrooms.

Ashlee May teaches second grade in Des Moines.  She said, “Most people, I don’t think, realize kind of what’s happening.  We get screamed at and cursed at daily.  I’ve been stabbed with a pencil before.”

Police reports back her up.  They contain stories of children ages 10 and younger throwing chairs, punching teachers in the face, and leaving bruises on instructors.  May considers herself lucky.  “In terms of what other teachers deal with, I think I’ve been kind of blessed because I’ve never had to go to the hospital.”

A teacher whose identity we concealed based on her fear of retaliation from administrators for speaking out told us children “get in the faces of the teachers.”  She said she hears things like, “Get out of my way, you (expletives).  You can’t do anything to me.  I’m not going to get into trouble.  You’re going to get into trouble.  All kinds of intimidation.”

May said, “There just comes a point where you’re just so worn out emotionally, and physically, and mentally that you just can’t do it anymore.”

May is leaving her second-grade classroom in Des Moines next fall to take a job in the suburbs.  But experts say that doesn't mean violent outbursts won't follow. It can happen anywhere.

“In every state in the country,” said Mary Jane Cobb.  She is the executive director of the teachers union, the Iowa State Education Association.  “And (this type of violence against teachers) is not an urban issue or a rural issue.  It’s a school issue.”

Cobb said teachers have been sounding the alarm privately about extreme behavior for years.  She said they regularly have to stop instruction and escort well-behaved children to safety in the hallway while a student having an outburst destroys the classroom.  May said that can go on undeterred for as long as an hour.  Teachers are instructed not to place their hands on students unless the child becomes a safety threat to themselves or others.

Cobb said, “What you’ve just described is very frustrating.  That’s what they call a ‘room clear.’”

We took these frustrations directly to Des Moines Public School District's superintendent, Dr. Thomas Ahart.  “(Addressing this behavior) is actually at the top of our priorities, and we’re actively working on plans for next year.”

Ahart said he understands the problem.  He said his district’s 2,800 teachers are dealing with a lack of mental health treatment options, and the issues are showing up at school.  He said they result from “all the gaps in our social fabric that schools are more and more expected to take on.”

Ahart says teachers are tasked with types of nurturing that have never been asked of them, that they weren’t trained for, and state lawmakers haven’t budgeted for.

“Obviously, I can’t mention names, but there’s a family on the south side (of Des Moines) who desperately wants to get services for their son, but there’s at least a two-month wait.”

Iowa State Department of Education Director Ryan Wise acknowledged that extreme behavior is a statewide issue. He said he hears it from teachers he visits every day.  Wise said, “I’m the parent of a fourth-grade son and a seventh-grade son, and unfortunately they’ve had these situations happen in their classrooms where they’ve had to leave (as the result of a ‘room clear’).”

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds recently signed children’s mental health legislation.  Wise is optimistic it will quell the problem, but he’s also advocating for more options for teachers to deal with extreme behavior.  Wise said, “We’ve already gone through the first step of noticing rules around seclusion and restraint that better define the guidelines.”

When asked if she thinks the day-to-day behavior situation in Iowa classrooms can improve, she said, “Yeah.  I think it has to get better.”

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