Though relatively calm in recent months, episodes of violence against teachers by special-needs pupils seemed to spike last school year.
Incident reports from the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office noted at least six such pupil-on-teacher violent episodes dating back to December 2009:
• At Greenbrier Middle in December 2010, a special-needs pupil grabbed a teacher by the hair and pulled her across a classroom floor while punching and kicking her.
• At Greenbrier Ele-mentary, an 8-year-old jumped on a teacher’s back, choking her and pushing her head-first into a desk.
• A teacher’s aide at Westmont Elementary received a bite to the hand and blows to the stomach.
• At Euchee Creek Elementary, educators were struck when they tried to stop a special-needs pupil from escaping a classroom after an attack by that pupil on a classmate.
• Last month, a special-needs pupil at Stallings Island Middle School repeatedly kicked and slapped a teacher trying to escort him to the principal’s office.
Though all school-related violence is reported to the police, none of the educators mentioned chose to prosecute their attackers.
School system Director of Special Services Lisa Hill noted that the number of pupils turning violent is small when considering the system educates about 2,000 special-needs pupils.
However, Hill has said that violence did seem to be becoming more common.
“I feel like we’ve seen an increase in students with physical aggression, and I truly believe it’s a result of the closing of private or public facilities to help these kids,” Hill said.
Funding cuts to area psychiatric-care facilities left some pupils with nowhere else to go but public schools, Hill said. The lack of resources also made it more difficult to single out pupils with emotional disorders that make them prone to violent outbursts.
“We have to provide educational services to those students.” Hill said. “If they become so aggressive that we have to suspend them for a certain amount of time, then we do provide homebound services to those students.”
Pupils suspended for violence then are slowly re-introduced to the classroom, she said.
“Most often when we have that kind of incident involving a special-needs student, it’s ... a manifestation of their disability,” said Euchee Creek Elementary Principal Katy Yeargain, who was bruised in an attack last school year by a special needs student. “It’s not just a kid being bad.”
Another reason for the increase in incidents, Hill said, might be that the system last school year took on a more active role in educating pupils with emotional or behavioral disorders.
Previously, such pupils were educated by specialists with the Georgia Network of Education and Therapeutic Services as part of Augusta’s Sand Hills program.
The school board voted last school year to abandon that program in favor of one run by local educators.
Educators with the GNETS program had as much as 30 years experience working with special- needs pupils with behavioral disorders.
“Our teachers don’t yet have all of that experience under their belt,” Hill said.
“I’m certain we’ll see a decrease in incidents when we get more experience.”
Last year, behavior analysts from Atlanta visited Euchee Creek Elementary to provide feedback to teachers on how best to prevent outbursts, said Yeargain, who previously taught special-needs pupils.
Such pre-emptive steps, she said, are the best method to avoiding potential conflicts.
Progress has been made in curtailing violent episodes.
Few incidents of special-needs pupils attacking teachers or classmates were reported in fall 2011.
A new policy might also help limit the damage from an outburst, Hill said.
To comply with state law, each school in the county has a team of at least five educators trained in Crisis Prevention Intervention, a technique to calm down violent students without physical restraint.
When a pupil starts exhibiting aggressive behavior, that team is brought in to “de-escalate” the situation. All special-needs teachers undergo the training, Hill said.
“We’re working on academics, but we’re also working on teaching (special-needs) students how to handle situations appropriately, rather than having physical outbursts,” she said. “That is a tough job.”