A local union member pulls into the parking lot of the Syracuse Teachers Association union headquarters. It is 5 p.m. on a late fall weekday and already darkness is in command. He gets out of his car, takes a few steps, gets back in his car, and waits.
He works as a school sentry. It's his job to maintain order and protect the well-being of students and educators. He didn't expect to be so shaken by the school violence he sees.
He gets out of the car again. Should he go in? Or just go home? He goes in — to the inaugural gathering of a newly minted Work Support Group for STA members who've been affected by student bullying, violence and physical harm. He knows he needs support and he's not alone: 57 percent of Syracuse TA members say they have been threatened by disruptive students; 36 percent say they have been physically assaulted, according to a 2016 survey. Most assaults take place in classrooms. One in five respondents say they experience psychological trauma.
"I knew how bad it was in my building, but I didn't realize it was pervasive in other buildings," says Bill Scott, a social worker who is a vice president of the 3,000-member STA.
A 2018 survey of Buffalo Teachers Federation members shows similar trends of disruptive behavior by students.
More than 30 percent of Buffalo teachers say disruptive student behavior is out of control, according to the survey (www.btfny.org/press/disruptive_behavior_results_2018.pdf). The 3,800-member BTF has since passed a resolution seeking to establish a standing Teaching and Learning Environment Committee made up of parents, teachers and administrators to find solutions.
BTF President Phil Rumore says the survey "is cause for great concern ... Everyone should be shocked and concerned with the results and teacher statements." He commissioned the survey after asking about 150 building representatives if disruptive behavior is a problem. "Almost every hand went up," he says.
In Syracuse, Scott formed the support group to help educators after the union joined NYSUT's Local Action Project, a three-year program for local unions to improve their internal and external communication and community outreach. The STA survey was completed by NYSUT's Research and Educational Services department.
"There are things we need to do as a union," he says, things like ensuring a safe working environment and addressing the emotional needs of teachers, who tend to work in isolation within their classrooms.
"Working in a building where there are perpetual crises can take a toll. Our bodies are not wired for constant stress. Emotional wear and tear is cumulative ... I don't know if there is anyone acknowledging that for teachers," Scott says.
Teachers, he says, are known to take medical leaves because of mental and/or physical impacts of violence. Last year a substitute teacher was stabbed three times while trying to break up a student fight.
Scott's new, no-cost, union-wide group began meeting monthly in October and now convenes every two weeks at members' request. It's a place for members to share grief and pain, and to learn. Topics include getting to know the student population and what it means to work with a traumatized child. Another session focused on how stress causes depression and anxiety and can determine how/why your body responds in certain situations. Members learn healthy coping mechanisms and strategies for self care and bring up subjects they need to talk about.
Scott believes the district "set the bar really low" in allowing poor behavior to continue in order to avoid reporting suspensions or having certain schools listed as "persistently dangerous" by the state.
Similarly, more than 80 percent of the BTF survey respondents believe disciplinary actions and suspensions are inconsistent and underreported in the city's schools.
Meanwhile, in both cities, disruptive students are not getting the support and intervention they need. Resources are spread thin and schools have too few social workers, counselors and psychologists for students.
"The earlier we start identifying students and families in crisis, the better chance we have of correcting disruptive behavior," Rumore says. "If the problem is not solved soon, the issues will increase in frequency and severity. There is no one answer to this."