25 Investigates: Educator survey reveals prevalence of violence against teachers is a ‘crisis’

71% of Massachusetts teachers say they have been subjected to violence by a student at least once, according to an exclusive survey conducted by 25 Investigates. The CMG Investigative Teacher Study was a collaboration among CMG stations from Florida to Georgia to Ohio to Washington that reached 8,296 educators in 34 states. More than 1,100 shared stories about their personal experiences.

25 Investigates worked with the Massachusetts Teachers Association and heard from 1,061 teachers here in the Bay State alone.

34%, or a third of teachers who responded, said they’ve been subjected to violence by students more than once.

93% said they’ve been subjected to verbal abuse.

25 Investigates and the CMG Investigative team worked for months to anonymously gather data and identify trends in violence against teachers to reveal how safe teachers feel in their classrooms and schools.

Some experts say what our survey uncovered reveals a crisis in education and teachers under attack.

How safe do Massachusetts teachers feel inside their own classrooms?

National data from the CMG Investigative Teacher Study mirrors that of Massachusetts teachers; 71% of respondents overall say they’ve been subjected to violence by students. 54% of respondents overall said it’s happened many times or more than once.

Overall, 60% of teachers who responded said they at least sometimes feel afraid to go to school. Though 67% of Massachusetts teachers who responded said they generally feel safe in their classrooms, 64% overall.

“We’re only talking a small percentage of the school, 2% of the school maybe, they go unchecked. They rule the roost. They get to do whatever they want,” said Cliff Canavan, a 22-year veteran teacher at Brockton High School.

Canavan, who’s also a coach, says he intervened in a fight between a group of girls in December 2022 when he realized one of his student-athletes was getting seriously hurt.

“There’s one of my athletes on the ground, sitting on her butt unconscious, just getting kicked in the head, repeatedly unconscious,” said Canavan.

He says he tried to pull the girls apart.

“And as I’m holding her arms and escorting her off to the side, another girl,…came running up behind me and full-on body-checked me, and I had no idea what’s coming. And it sent both of us into a metal rack.”

During the fall, Canavan suffered two broken bones in his wrist and tears around his thumb.

He said the video of the violence was posted to social media within minutes.

“This is a big concern, for our members. And they have been quite vocal about it for the last two years,” said Deb McCarthy, The vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

“But that sense of feeling unsafe as an educator is something that I think we all feel,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy believes the student aggression teachers are facing can be directly tied to over-testing and budget cuts.

“We need to address the fiscal cliff that many districts are experiencing right now in a time where educators are saying over and over again that we need more counselors, we need more librarians, we need busses for afterschool programs. We need recess.”

When we asked teachers what has the biggest impact on student behavior, 64% of Massachusetts teachers who responded said a lack of parental involvement and discipline. Nationally it was 66% percent.

“We have other kids that come in whose parent we can’t reach. We try to call them. They won’t answer the phone,” said Brockton teacher, Canavan.

…I don’t think it’s because parents aren’t doing their job. I do think that many parents, working a lot more than they would like to. And I think that these are tough times. I would love to see more connection between the schools in the community,” McCarthy said.

That sentiment was echoed by Susan McMahon PH.D., Professor of Clinical and Community Psychology and Associate Dean for Research at DePaul University.

“I don’t think we can just blame parents,” McMahon said. “I think schools need to find even better and more creative ways to get parents involved so that they can play meaningful roles in their children’s schools.”

McMahon is also the chair of the American Psychological Association task force on violence against educators and school personnel and is considered among the leading experts in this area.

“I think it’s certainly a crisis in our country because of the extent to which, and the amount in the number of teachers who are experiencing these kinds of issues. It’s pretty prevalent”, McMahon said. “I think we need to have tracking of the issues so that we know how to address them.”

Though McMahan did add the caveat it’s possible people who experienced violence would be more likely to complete the survey. But she says though we’re hearing from teachers, this should be relevant to students and their families.

“If people are finding it’s not a good place to work, then certainly it’s not a good place for students either.”

What happens if we don’t address teacher concerns around violence?

“You will have educators …leave.,” said Deb McCarthy. “There is a crisis.”

According to the survey, 61% of Massachusetts teachers have considered retirement.

Including Cliff Canavan, but he’s not going anywhere yet.

“I absolutely love what I do for a living and love the students that I work with,” he told anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh.

And he says he loves the school where he too was once a student.

“I want to protect that 95% of the kids do the right thing. And to do that, you need to have teachers that are willing to stay and put in the hard work necessary to make that happen,” Canavan said. “If some of us aren’t willing to speak up about what’s actually going on in the school, nothing’s going to change.”

25 Investigates wanted Acting Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Russell D. Johnston and Massachusetts Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler to be a part of this conversation. For more than a month, their offices told Kavanaugh that no one was told no one was available for an interview. We shared with both offices the results of our survey.

25 Investigates received the following statement:

“No student, teacher, staff member, or family member should have to fear for their safety when entering a school building. Massachusetts offers school districts a variety of trainings and safety resources and DESE will continue to collaborate with our partners in law enforcement, mental health, and other areas to make schools supportive environments for all who teach and learn there.” – Russell D. Johnston, Acting Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The Department does require schools to report all incidents of violence involving students and to indicate whether the violence was against a student or a member of the school staff.

So, what are the possible solutions? On Friday, Kerry Kavanaugh is sitting down with a group of local teachers to talk about what they think needs to happen to keep everyone safe in our classrooms and schools.

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