CONCORD — An impromptu debate Tuesday between a disability rights expert and a school superintendent underlines a persistent controversy over how far a teacher can go to physically control a misbehaving child.
House Education Committee Chairman Mel Myler, D-Hopkinton, brought to the Committee Studying Violence in New Hampshire Schools a tale of injuries he was told about from kindergartners Michael, who punches and pinches with reckless abandon, and Matthew, who throws things in class.
“The teacher told me her classroom daily has to shut down three to five times due to the behavior,” Myler told the panel, declining to identify the town or school building where these multiple incidents occurred over the past month. “Last Friday, Michael began to pin the teacher against the wall and hit her and pinch her. She has the marks to prove it. She has not had the administrative support she needed.”
Disabilities Rights Center policy director Michael Skibbie said a 2010 law on restraints updated in 2014 gives teachers the right to take by the arm and remove a troublesome student from the classroom.
“The notion that schools must be emptied when a single child acts out; that may be the rule being imposed by school districts but that’s not the law,” Skibbie said.
But Bow Superintendent of Schools Dean Cascadden said immobilizing a child to take them out of class is a restraint that’s not allowed unless that child is at risk of causing “serious bodily harm.”
“If I pick the child up and try to move them, that is a restraint,” Cascadden said.
Skibbie answered, “That is not a restraint.”
Cascadden countered, “When the child starts pinching me, what do I do? What do I tell the kindergarten teacher to do?”
Skibbie responded, “You can hold onto their hand as you are moving them.”
“We are afraid to do this,” Cascadden said.
State Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, chairs this study committee and said this is one of many issues the panel will explore as it confronts the view of observers that in recent years there has been a growing number of violent incidents in public schools.
Since 1994, the state has had a Safe School Zones Act that requires the reporting of any “theft, destruction, or violence” in school to a supervisor and eventually to law enforcement.
All school district administrators need to compile an annual report to the Department of Education on any “assaults” in school, but Kahn said his committee reviewing those reports is convinced many incidents are never revealed.
“You have a handful of schools saying they have had a first-degree assault but a whole host of other schools saying they had nothing at all,” Kahn said. “It’s just not credible.”
Myler said it’s unacceptable but not a surprise many who prepare these reports leave out incidents.
“Obviously, nobody wants to report that they have a violent school,” Myler said.
Kelly Untiet, administrator of the Department of Education’s Office of Social and Emotional Wellness, told the panel there’s no way of knowing if those reports are accurate.
“We collect them but to my knowledge we do not have anyone analyzing the data,” Untiet said. “I have been with the agency four and a half years. We hear the behavior of students is reaching a level that school districts feel desperate about how to respond.”
Rudolph Ogden, deputy labor commissioner, said school districts must report work injuries to his agency and that would include anyone hurt in assaults.
“This type of issue is something that is new; talking about this as a workplace safety injury is somewhat new,” Ogden said. “It is easier to go into a place and say wires shouldn’t be hanging than to go into a workplace (after a school assault) and ask what kind of training has occurred, what kind of staff ratio do you have.”
Esther Dickinson, a staff lawyer with the National Education Association of New Hampshire, said many teachers remain worried about intimidation or sanctions from superiors if they do report an injury.
“We have been told the reason they aren’t reporting an injury is because they haven’t been protected,” Dickinson said.
The NEA urged Kahn’s committee require rules on how to punish districts or school administrators that violate reporting requirements.
The union also proposed this statement of purpose for the committee’s final report:
“The Legislature finds that acts of violence against school employees is a serious issue; that violent acts and injuries are under reported and in some cases as cited by the Department of Labor have been discouraged from being reported by employees and that better proactive safety procedures should be developed by schools and communicated to employees,” the NEA recommended.
State Rep. David Doherty, D-Pembroke, chairs a different working group recommending changes in the Safe Schools Zone Act to give greater guidelines for school boards about short- and long-term suspensions or expulsions of students for bad behavior.
Doherty said key changes (HB 677) would involve parents earlier in this process while giving local school districts the authority to override these guidelines on a “case-by-case basis.”
“I think this is a very positive step for schools in New Hampshire,” Doherty summed up. “Does it mean everything is going to be perfect and every student will be treated the same? No it doesn’t, but we think the broad outline of this bill will move educators and parents to look at their own local policies.”