Teachers Share Powerful Stories of Classroom Violence, Diminished Learning with Lawmakers
Connecticut teachers Danielle Fragoso, Jennifer Reynolds, and Cindy Mazzotta prepare to testify before lawmakers about their experience with aggressive student behavior.
February 22, 2019
At a public hearing of the legislature's Education Committee today, classroom teachers—along with CEA leaders and staff—gave powerful testimony urging lawmakers to address the crisis of violent student behavior in rural, urban, and suburban schools throughout the state.
They asked their legislators to support a bill—House Bill 7110 An Act Concerning Enhanced Classroom Safety and School Climate—that would require schools to help students exhibiting extreme behaviors, provide increased student supports and teacher training, and address children's mental health and social-emotional needs.
More than a dozen teachers and CEA staff testified in person at the hearing, while over 100 others submitted written testimony describing behaviors that continually render their classrooms unsafe and inhibit learning for all students.
Schools held hostage
In compelling testimony delivered at the hearing, Danbury fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Reynolds, a 19-year veteran, pointed out how "a single student's disruptive behavior can hold an entire school hostage." She described a school repeatedly in lockdown because of a dysregulated child roaming the halls as well as an entire grade level trapped in their classrooms because of a violent student outside their doors.
"We have had children bring hunting knives to school, hurl metal desks and chairs, threaten their classmates, and shove elderly or pregnant teachers," she recalled. "I have had years where 75 percent of my day was taken up by a troubled child in my classroom. Every child that I teach deserves a full share of my time—every single one. But how can children make the necessary growth when their teacher is too busy running interference? The measure of a good day is no longer about learning. The measure of a good day now is that no one was injured or assaulted."
By the numbers
CEA Vice President Tom Nicholas described to legislators some of his experiences as a school social worker in Manchester.
Students as young as five are biting, kicking, punching, throwing items, urinating on teachers, spitting at classmates, and lashing out in other destructive ways that put them and their entire classrooms in danger, CEA President Jeff Leake told the committee.
"They are coming to school with complex needs, and schools don't have the resources to address the root causes of these incidents."
School social worker and CEA Vice President Tom Nicholas described how last school year, in just one month's time, he had been hit and kicked no less than 15 times, had a student threaten to kill him with a gun, and fractured three vertebrae trying to protect a student who had run outside the building.
CEA's Robyn Kaplan-Cho provided highly detailed accounts of both disruptive student behaviors and disrupted learning that is reaching epidemic proportions.
"It can take up to three hours from the time a classroom is cleared to settle back in and begin learning," she explained. "This is trauma, not only for the disruptive child who is clearly crying out for help but for the other children in the classroom as well. How many children continue to languish in their classrooms?
Kaplan-Cho urges the Education Committee to pass a bill that would create safe learning environments for students and provide much-needed support for those with behavioral issues.
She noted that the proposed bill does not call for disciplining or punishing children with behavioral issues but simply getting them the help they desperately need.
A handful of lawmakers on the committee acknowledged that they've been privy to information about the problems CEA teachers and staff described—and even experienced them in their own school districts.
"I'm an elementary school parent," said Representative Jillian Gilchrest. When her first-grade daughter was in kindergarten, she told Gilchrest matter-of-factly one day about a classmate who "got naked again," prompting the teacher to remove all other students from the classroom.
Kaplan-Cho nodded. "Disruptive classroom behavior has become so normalized that parents rarely even hear about it because kids aren't talking about it at dinner. That alone is a reason for change."
Representative Vincent Candelora also shared, "I've had a number of elementary teachers reach out to me. I was a little taken aback. These educators are devoted to their classroom, and I 100% believe they care deeply about the children."
Swept under the rug
East Hampton first-grade teacher Cindy Mazzotta told lawmakers she and her colleagues have witnessed a "tremendous change" in student behavior over the last four years of her 19-year career as a teacher.
Mazzotta described starting the current school year with "20 bright-eyed students who were ready to learn." Soon after, she realized two of her students had severe behavioral issues. When she approached her administrator for help, she was told, "Everyone has challenges."
The following day, a student pushed her so hard she fell backward, injuring her back and causing her to miss weeks of work. Mazzotta was reassigned as K-1 interventionist and forced to leave her classroom behind.
Cry for help
Unlike many teachers throughout the state, Madison high school special education teacher Danielle Fragoso says she is supported by her administration and encouraged to speak out to protect her students and her colleagues.
"During my 15 years in Connecticut classrooms, I have been stabbed in the back with a pencil, requiring medical attention. I have had to run across four lanes of traffic chasing students who fled the building. I have had to pull a student off another child who was being choked. In our classroom kitchen, an agitated student kicked a paraprofessional in the stomach, thrusting her three feet back onto the floor. My fellow teacher and I tried to restrain him, but he pulled away, punched me in the eye, and eventually lunged for a large knife. I held his hand as he tried to stab us. He was shouting that he wanted us dead and asking why it was so hard to take down two women. After 15 minutes, we finally got the knife away, and he ran. Luckily there were two of us, or the outcome would have been much different. My only thoughts were of my students and hoping none of them would get hurt."
CEA President Jeff Leake told lawmakers that the proposed legislation, "Will help us to achieve the safe, welcoming, and inclusive learning environments that we know all of our communities expect as they send their children off to school."
Fragoso implored lawmakers to take action.
"Being attacked or threatened in one's workplace should not happen anywhere, especially in a classroom environment, where we want our students to feel safe and loved. We need systems in place not only to help teachers who are fearful of reporting incidents of threats, and to ensure that they are protected and heard, but also to provide supports and treatment to the students who need help."
HB 7110 includes a prohibition against discrimination or retaliation against any individual who reports or assists in the investigation of a disruptive or injurious incident. It also requires that a meeting be conducted with the affected teacher to discuss and determine the steps and interventions necessary to support both the student and the teacher.
"These pieces are key," explained Leake, "as too many of our teachers have been pressured to not report or tell others of the incidents that are happening in their classrooms," "This legislation will help us to achieve the safe, welcoming, and inclusive learning environments that we know all of our communities expect as they send their children off to school. This is urgent. This trauma in our classrooms is serious and real. Another year of doing nothing is not acceptable."