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9OYS Investigation: Assaults on TUSD teachers

Posted at 7:23 PM, Sep 28, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-29 16:05:31-04
Nearly two dozen teachers and staff have come forward with claims that more lenient discipline practices to reduce suspensions and expulsions have led to more assaults against staff at all grade levels over the past few years. The stories they've shared are very similar. They feel their hands are tied and the district doesn't support them, but fear retaliation if they speak up publicly. 
 
Except one. 
 
Celeste Aho is a kindergarten teacher and she said goodbye to TUSD after 17 years though she had planned to stay on a few years more before retiring.
 
"I just knew that my time with TUSD was over," she said. "It was just unbearable."
 
Because of an unexpected twist, she said, that changed the course of her teaching -- positive teaching, incorporating restorative practices that had earned impressive accolades especially her last few years. Aho had been nominated for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science.  And parents nominated her for Teacher of the Year -- accomplishments that led to a classroom visit from Superintendent H.T. Sanchez.
"He wrote about what he saw and commented if all the expectations in this school were what I had for my students how great the district would be," she said.
 
But those high expectations took a dramatic downturn, she said, after TUSD rolled out relaxed discipline practices district-wide. And some of her students took advantage of it.
 
They became increasingly "disrespectful," "violent" and "uncontrollable." For example, she battled an extremely defiant kindergartner, who was "choking, slapping, punching and kicking, cussing students out," she said.
 
Students assaulted her two or three  times a day for an entire year. And when she stepped in to protect them she was pushed and slapped. And one time she tried to stop the kindergartner who was swinging a metal object above his head "and with that momentum, he plowed into my shoulder and punched me with much force. "He connected right where my collar bone connects to my shoulder. He had torn my rotator cuff," she said. A painful blow that required surgery.
 
She learned during a parent conference even the principal had been punched. The parent said "Her son is a typical 5 and 6-year-old and that there is nothing wrong with what he doing, at which point the principal chirped up and said there is no other 6-year-old in this school that thinks that they can punch the principal. So he himself was also getting punched."
 
I know what you're thinking. They're just little kindergartners. Why couldn't Aho just give a stern warning or detention to let them know there are consequences for their misbehavior. She said she used to do that, but she wasn't allowed. Two principals at two schools told her "no negative consequences" and one told her to "lower her expectations." Aho said, "There was to be no lunch detention and no negative consequences and that it was to be only positive consequences. Positive reinforcement."
 
But it wasn't working, she said. A veteran TUSD counselor, who's worked at several schools, told KGUN9 that restorative practices are "not usually facilitated correctly as designed and restorative practices are only as effective as the follow-up." Experts in restorative practices confirm: follow-up is critical as well as tracking and analyzing data, like physical assaults.
 
We know of at least two dozen former and current TUSD teachers and staff from all grade levels that have been punched, hit, slapped, shoved, put in a choke hold -- all assaults that rise to the level of "aggravated" assault when the victim is a "teacher or any school employee on school grounds" according to state law and TUSD policy.  We know that after cross-checking records provided by police officers assigned to schools, the SROs, with school incident records, some assaults on staff were not reported.
 
We checked with the district to find out the number of assaults on staff over the past two years, but we didn't get a number. TUSD responded: "There is no existing document that reports the number of employees, or in particular teachers, who are listed as victims in student assault incidents."
 
We made the same request to all Tucson-area school districts.
  • Amphi reported 15 staff assaults -- only two were general education students.
  • Marana -- 1 assault.
  • Sunnyside reported -- 2 assaults. 
  • Vail - 0 assaults.
The veteran counselor wrote: "When your data shows you don't have any problems then there is no need to give you any additional support or resources. Aho said her "hands were tied" and  she had nowhere to turn. She said she learned too late that she could have done something, such as file a complaint with OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).
 
"Being cussed at, threatened, physically assaulted are not part of your job description," Aho said.
 
We reached out to OSHA. A spokesman says teachers can file a complaint to request an inspection when they believe there is a serious hazard or OSHA standards are not being followed. A spokesman says if staff fears retaliation, the inspectors use practices to keep information and identities confidential.
 
So this highly successful teacher left the district earlier than expected and still worries about her colleagues who remain in the trenches in TUSD. "I continue to hear my colleagues who have days where they do not want to go to school because children are hitting them and they're being bitten and they are just so depressed. That saddens me because the teachers I know are great teachers," she said.
 
We reached out to TSUD about the assault allegations and they responded with this: 
 
Tucson Unified does not treat an assault on a teacher or staff member differently than one on a student---they are equally important. We follow the Guidelines to Students Rights and Responsibilities (GSRR), which follows state law. Teachers and staff DO have the discretion to decide how they want to proceed if they suffer an assault. In many cases, the staff member prefers to work out the issue with the student and family rather than turn a child over to law enforcement action. We honor and respect the decisions made and work to support our staff and student. 
 
As we continue to work on the new Code of Conduct (which will replace the GSRR after approval by the court) we are focusing on this school year rather than looking back at the past. We understand and respect Ms. Aho's right to speak with KGUN 9 about her experiences as a teacher with us. However, Ms. Aho has not worked for the district since May of 2015 and can't speak about current practices. We encourage any current staff member who has concerns regarding student discipline on their campus to reach out to the Superintendent's office at 520-225-6060. 
 
Stefanie Boe
Tucson Unified School District
Director of Communications and Media Relations