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March 18. 2012 10:39PM

Reports of attacks in Manchester schools spark concern

MANCHESTER — Since the beginning of the school year, police have responded four times to city high schools to investigate reports of someone having a weapon on school grounds. There were 21 reports of simple assault during that same period, as well as 20 reports of disorderly conduct and 11 reports of criminal threatening.

At the city middle schools, there were 40 reports of simple assault since school started in September and 11 reports of criminal threatening, according to data submitted to the Board of School Committee last week by the Manchester Police Department.

Although this data includes incidents when school was not in session, including weekends, and may include reports involving people who are not students, the information still sparked concern among board members. The question was raised why so many serious incidents have been reported to police, but only one discipline case has come before the board's Conduct Committee this school year.

School Committee member Jason Cooper, a former prison guard, was concerned with not only the number but the degree of injuries to teachers noted on a February workers' compensation report. Twenty-two of the city's 48 workers' comp claims that month were reported by the school district and include students biting, spitting on and pushing teachers, as well as teachers being injured breaking up fights.

“I got hazard duty pay and I didn't get beat up as much as some of these teachers are,” said Cooper.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Brennan said most of the incidents were altercations reported to the police School Resource Officers, or SROs. Though he didn't specify a number, Brennan said there were many that involved students with disabilities, such as a teacher injured while restraining a student.

School district policy requires all injuries caused by students — whether accidental or with intent — be reported to the SROs and recorded as a potential workers' compensation claim. Because of this, a range of incidents shows up on reports — from stopping student fights to accidental injuries.

Board members and Mayor Ted Gatsas still questioned whether all incidents were being reported and if discipline enforcement was being followed evenly across the district. Gatsas noted that in a walk-through at a city school recently, he saw a student wearing a baseball cap — a violation of student dress code. He said he saw the hat ignored by three teachers before a fourth told the student to remove the cap.

Last week, the school board voted to send a letter to principals at each school, reminding them of the importance of staff following all school policies. The letter is similar to one sent by the previous board in October 2011, reminding principals that school policy required them to report all injury incidents between teachers and students to the Police Department.

Brennan said he has no evidence this policy is not being followed.

The district is continuing to provide more training for teachers, especially those who work with students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, in hopes of avoiding violent altercations.

“The point of the training is to de-escalate the problem,” said Brennan.

Regarding the lack of students before the Conduct Committee for expulsion, Brennan said he makes the decision as to whether discipline cases go before the board.

“We do have students who are habitual offenders who have made it to this office,” Brennan said. But in some cases, Brennan either extends the suspension or refers the student to an out-of-school discipline program, such as YMCA's STRIVE, which teaches students better behavior before returning to school.

Brennan said he has no evidence that serious infractions are going unpunished or under-punished.

“We have very safe schools. Thousands of students go to school every day without fear,” said Brennan.

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