A Minor Offense?

by David Sisler

Last week this newspaper detailed attacks on "the popular get-tough attitude adopted by [public] schools in recent years." Several months ago, education writer Bill Varian described incidents of violent behavior which are on the increase in local public schools. The warning that something is very wrong, is muted by the cavalier attitude signaled by Dr. Rush Utley, principal of Richmond County's alternative school.

Dr. Utley reportedly said threatening teachers is a minor offense (emphasis mine!). Students who commit "a miniscule" misdeed, and are then disciplined by being sent to alternative school, "don't even have any business going to the office," he said.

Threatening a teacher is a minor offense? Who does Dr. Utley think he is kidding? What if he were the teacher threatened? I'll bet the mortgage it would then no longer be a minor offense.

To verbally threaten a teacher should result in an immediate expulsion from school, any school--including alternative school--for a period of one year. To add physical force or intimidation to that threat should net the guilty student an immediate trip to court with the charge of assault and battery. Conviction should result in a mandatory jail sentence, either in a youth detention center, or if the convicted student is over 16, time in the county jail.

To threaten the life of the President of the United States is a felony--and should be. To threaten the life of a postal worker is a felony--and should be. Why is threatening the life of a school teacher a minor offense that may not even merit a trip to the principal's office?

Being a school teacher is a tough enough job. I know, because I taught 10th grade world history 25 years ago. Back in 1969, respect for teachers was taught, parents supported teachers, discipline was maintained, and a teacher's word was respected, not automatically challenged as it often is today.

Seven years ago, a friend of mine, in another state, asked me to take her classes for a week while she attended an out-of-town conference. The first day, the first period of the day, I stood in the hall watching the young people juggle books and each other as they paraded to their classes. When the bell rang, I followed the last of my students into our room and said, "Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats please."

A girl, all of about 14 years old, looked at me and said, "Oooh, I'm scared of you!"

I will be the first person to admit that there are times when my patience is not only short, it is non-existent. But I remember how, some 30 years earlier, my schoolmates and I responded the first day to a new sub. So I asked one of her fellow students to escort her to the office and everyone else to take their seats.

"The next one of you who opens his or her mouth will join that young lady in the principal's office," I said.

A boy in the second row looked at his friends on either side of him and then tried to show me his tonsils. When I asked, he said he knew where the office was and followed his classmates. The test of the new substitute was over.

That afternoon, two girls brushed against each other at the pencil sharpener. Before you could say, "McGuffey's Reader," they were on the floor and one girl was trying to flatten a lump in the tile with her classmate's head. Five days later, I put school teaching on my "List of Never Agains."

If I had ever forgotten, and I know I had not, I learned a lesson that week: teachers who stand competently before our young people every day need to be honored, not demeaned, supported, not disparaged, and protected, not threatened.

Rick McDevitt, president of Georgia Alliance for Children, said, correctly, the solution is to address problems before they arise.

But once the problems get into the school--and unless you have been living under a rock recently, you know problems exist--they must be immediately dealt with. There can be no waffling. It starts by realizing that labeling threats against a teacher as a minor offense is courting the day when a teacher will be killed in the classroom.

If the advocates of weakening tough disciplinary procedures succeed, and a teacher dies because of it, those proponents of permissiveness should stand before the judge as co-defendants. They may not have pulled the trigger, but they will have loaded the gun.


Published in the Augusta Chronicle 12/3/94

Copyright 1994 by David Sisler

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