When the Treat is not so Empty: Safety in an Academic Setting

01May06

Critical Issues in Education

A— pushed himself away from the table, picked up his chair and yelled, “I’m going to bash your face in with this chair.”

A— was threatening another student, R—. Both were third-grade students, and this incident took place in an at-school after-school program they were both enrolled in. The after-school day was almost over and all students were engaged in some form of “choice activity.” A— and R— were making Lego structures at one of the tables towards the center of the classroom. A— was a very big kid—not overweight, but solidly built. One would have assumed that he was at least a year older than he actually was if going based on looks alone. R— was much smaller, incredibly quick, and seemed to enjoy provoking his classmates. Usually, the disruptions were minor, but if for some reason they were not caught early enough, they could quickly get blown out of proportion.

R— lurched towards A—, knocked down the house A— had built out of the Lego blocks, and kept repeating a simple “Oh yeah? Oh yeah?”

One after-school teacher was quickly making his way across the classroom to A—. The other teacher was approaching from the other side of the classroom to intervene with R—. The 13 other students in the after-school classroom had already left their chairs and had formed a semi-circle around their two classmates. No one was saying anything. They were all looking on equally as surprised by the event as the two classroom teachers were.

Why were they surprised? Everyone there knew that R— caused classroom disruptions regularly with his provocative behavior and everyone knew that A—, while generally quite polite and cooperative, had a very quick temper. In retrospect, they should have been surprised that it had not happened earlier on in the school year. By this point there were only two more months of after-school before summer break came and this was the first somewhat serious threat that this classroom had so far.

R— and A— were out of the classroom within a minute, but it felt quite a bit longer to everyone who was there. It seemed like the months of creating a safe, fun, learning environment had been shattered by a single fight over some Lego blocks. The teachers and the students were all unsure about how things would turn out.

While this incident was relatively tame in comparison to the incidents which occur much more frequently in certain schools or school districts, it is still a significant one to recall because of the intervention which occurred following the incident. Immediately upon removing both students from the classroom, the teacher with the more cooperative student, A—, walked with the student to the after-school program’s office. On the way, this teacher stopped at another classroom and said calmly to one of the teachers that his help was needed in another classroom. This allowed the students to be kept supervised while their teachers were escorting their classmates to the office and filling out the incident report forms which would be given to the parents when they came to pick their children up.

The teachers also took a moment to have each child talk—separately from each other, for they were still itching to attack each other—and find out what they wanted to say about what had happened. The stories were interesting. R— had very little to say except that he was just “joking” with A— when he had called him certain names, and he did not know why A— was threatening him. A— said essentially the same thing, but also that the provoking had been going on constantly during the school day earlier and that it made him mad that he was doing the same thing in the after-school program too.

Over time, there was much more that happened as a result of this incident. The after-school program was fortunate to have two counselors available for the students. Both went to the classroom the day following the incident to talk to the students about how the felt about threats and violence in general. A lot of the students were able to explain what they liked about the after-school program—there is so much violence in the world around them that one of the goals of this after-school program was to provide the students with an environment in which they can feel completely safe. While this incident did take them by surprise, they were happy to welcome A— and R— back in.

A— and R— met a couple of times with the counselor, and the counselor also set up what she called the “Boy’s Group” for a group of five boys. This group met once each week for about an hour, and included both boys who were typically considered “troublemakers” as well as boys who were well behaved. The objective of the group was to make sure that the children were able to identify their emotions and be able to express what they are feeling; when the students were better able to identify the root of their frustrations, they were less likely to act in an aggravating manner. The results were mostly positive. R— kept taunting his classmates for the remainder of the year during the school-day, but seemed to have a more positive attitude at the after-school program. A— began to try to be better at identifying his emotions. Because this was still difficult for him, he asked one of his teachers to give him a non-verbal cue—like the teacher scratching his own chin—to signal to A— that he needed to calm down.

This incident ended positively and by comparisons to the other dangers children face daily it was quite small. Part of what led to a somewhat positive outcome (it would have been ideal if R—’s more constructive behavior could be observed in all his actions) was the quick response and the accepting environment. The students did not get off easy; their daytime teachers and school administrators were involved and, much to the disappointment of the students, their parents were involved too. People were given a chance to process what happened, and although both teachers needed to leave their class towards the end of the day—which can be one of the most disruptive times of the day—there was sufficient staff and sufficient cooperation between the staff that someone else was able to step in and supervise in a very short period of time.

The staff present at this after-school program also knew the students very well. There were two teachers for every 15 students, so there were lots of opportunities for one-on-one work. Along with the safety factor, a lot of parents also mentioned that the level of individual attention that their children got was one of the motivating factors sending their children there. Many of the students want to return to the after-school program each year because of the structured support that it provides them.

One factor which should still be worked on at this particular school is the relationship between the daytime teachers and the after-school teachers. Although quite welcoming, it is also obvious that the daytime teachers have an overwhelming amount of work that takes away from time that they could be sharing information and concerns with the after-school teachers. Often what seems to happen is what someone might consider a mutual “pat-on-the-back” for work well done. In the transition period between the school day and after-school, teachers would often try to relate anything that the after-school teachers should look out for that may be carried over from the school day. These messages usually involved things like students getting into trouble at reading time, students getting into a fight during lunch, or students being sent to the school’s office because of classroom disruption. On this particular day, the teacher had not noticed anything different between A— and R—, although several of the classmates did talk to the after-school teachers later about some of the things R— had said to anger A—.

One thing for certain is that both students appreciated the second-chance. Although A—’s temper would flare up at the beginning of the school year, the biggest concern was the language usage. This incident marked the first time that he really threatened someone, and had gone so far as to have had the chair in his hand, ready to carry out his threat. The incident seemed to have left him quite shaken up as well, and he expressed to one of his after-school teachers that he was “glad the other kids don’t all hate me now.” R— was a bit more stubborn with change, but when he saw that everyone was friendlier towards him when he stopped teasing everyone and trying to hurt their feelings, he really made an effort for the last two months to modify his behavior.

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