It’s time for faculty to stand up, for their own safety! —by Robert Perrone & Annette Barfield

It’s time for faculty to stand up, for their own safety!

By: Robert Perrone & Annette Barfield

How many incidents of disruptive students will it take for the administration to realize that there is an imbalance in their approach to student rights versus faculty safety? How many shootings or threats of violence on Los Rios campuses have to occur to drive home the need for some urgency on the part of the administration to address the woeful lack of security at the colleges?

The story I am about to recount is just one faculty member’s experience, but, I suspect, many of you reading this have had comparable experiences, maybe not experiences that rose to this level of violence, but certainly experiences that could easily have ended in a similar place.

She has taught English in Los Rios for many years. In all those years she has never had to deal with a situation where a student physically attacked her or even threatened to physically attack her. This semester she is teaching an English Reading 10 course. For those of you who may not be familiar with this course, it provides basic instruction in improving reading comprehension, vocabulary development, dictionary skills, and word parts. Many people who take this course read at an elementary level, may be recovering drug addicts or alcoholics, or in some way have become capitalism’s collateral damage. While all of them are in the class to improve their lives, this does not mean that learning and the classroom experience will come easily. For one student, it was far from coming easily; she actively undermined any possibility of success.

The instructor noticed the student’s inappropriate behavior on the second day of class. The student would become disruptive during classroom assignments. She had no patience with the pace of instruction; it was much too slow for her and she couldn’t understand the instructor’s desire to bring all students along. The student used foul language and directed her anger entirely at the instructor. There were verbal outbursts, use of profanity, criticisms of the course, accusations that the class was “stupid,” challenges to the instructor’s authority, loudly talking in class to other students, blatant cheating during tests, and she would turn especially vulgar when asked to participate in group activities.

Any one of those behaviors should have sufficed to get the student suspended for a minimum of two class sessions, as per the California Education Code and the contract article on Work Environment and Safety (21.2.1). The instructor believed, mistakenly, that she was required to have thorough documentation—at least five day’s worth—before she could suspend the student. But how many of you know that you cannot simply suspend a student for one or, maybe, even two incidents of disruptive behavior? According to the Education Code (§76032-76033), “good cause” for suspending a student requires “continued disruptive behavior,” “habitual profanity or vulgarity,” or “the open and persistent defiance of the authority” of the instructor. (Emphasis mine)

Thus, although this instructor may have waited too long to act, based on her belief that she was required to have “thorough documentation,” she wasn’t that far off. She finally did remove the student after eight class sessions of tolerating this behavior. The instructor’s reluctance to use her authority to suspend the student was, also, in part, driven by a sincere desire to help this student be successful.

So, on September 21, the instructor suspended the student from class for two sessions. The instructor reported this to her dean. Although the student was scheduled to return to class on September 28, she did not return until September 30. That means she missed approximately four hours of instruction, out of a total of 54 hours. That’s more than seven per cent of total hours of class time. According to Los Rios Regulation 2222, Section 2.1, “A student may be dropped from any class when that student’s absences exceed six percent (6%) of the total hours of class time.” Based on this student’s in-class behavior, the instructor probably should have dropped the student after the student failed to return to class on September 28. But, she didn’t.

Before a student returns to class after a suspension, the student is required to meet with the instructor. On September 30, the student had every intention of returning to class without meeting with the instructor. However, as is her practice, the instructor was standing outside of the classroom door, greeting students as they enter. Standing outside the classroom door, the instructor welcomed the student back to class and told the student that the two of them should talk before she could return to class. The student became very loud and vulgar, so loud that students and instructors started coming out of other classes. The student said to the instructor, “You do not want to make me mad,” and “My momma told me if I get really mad, to walk away.” The instructor nodded in agreement. However, the student became angrier and stormed down the hall, yelling.

The instructor went into the classroom, but about ten minutes later the door opened and the student barged in. The instructor told the student she couldn’t come in the classroom and to please go out to the hallway. The instructor followed the student out to the hallway. By this time the dean, an office assistant, and other instructors were on the scene. The dean tried to intervene. The instructor had her hand on the door to the classroom and could see the student’s face begin to shake. The student grabbed the instructor at the shoulder and punched the instructor in the head, face, and shoulder. Another student pulled the aggressor off, at which point she ran away. Even with the police actively looking for her, she has yet to be found and arrested.

Some lessons to take away from this incident

  • The most obvious lesson is, as much as possible, use your authority to remove the student after the second incidence of disruptive behavior. Even though the Education Code uses language like “habitual,” “persistent,” “continued,” do not be reluctant to challenge the meanings of those words. The Union will defend your right to do so.
  • Warn the student after the first incidence of disruptive behavior.
  • Do not allow yourself to be intimidated.
  • Alert your colleagues to students who exhibit even one incident of disruptive behavior. Some of them may now have the student in their classes or may have had the student in previous classes.
  • Be aware of the classes around yours and who the instructors in those classes are.
  • Here’s another obvious lesson—the District is woefully unprepared to handle these types of situations. Procedurally, a student must be removed from class more than once in a single class in a single semester before a more rigorous process of return is activated, before the administration gets more involved.
  • That unpreparedness includes a lack of phones in the classroom; “panic buttons” that don’t work when the computer has gone into “sleep” mode (you have to log back on before pressing the “panic” button); and, no door locks.
  • A more conspicuous police presence might help. The District appears reluctant to pay a competitive salary to their police officers. Some officers have left the force to join police forces in surrounding jurisdictions that offer better compensation.
  • And, a recommendation—require students who have been removed from class the first time, to speak to a designated resource person with a background in counseling or psychology before returning to class. This person would make recommendations based on the interview/discussion with the student, including that the student seek continued professional help before returning to class. If this had been done in the above incident, the physical attack could have been avoided.
  • Hire a mental health professional, preferably someone with a psychology background, for each college.
  • Create a Student Emergency Response Team and offer a course that will train students how to react in emergency situations. This will increase the number of people on campus that know what to do when emergencies arise.

Sure, students do have rights, but our right to a safe working environment needs to take precedence over any student right, because a safe working environment for us is a safe learning environment for our students. It was obvious that the student who assaulted the instructor was disrupting the learning environment for the students in her class. After the student was suspended, the instructor reported that the learning environment changed dramatically and progress during even those three days was measureable.

Annette Barfield is a counselor at Sacramento City College and Robert Perrone is the Executive Director of the LRCFT.