Eye on Education

When classroom violence breaks out, how can a teacher respond? Rules and protocols vary

The work of educators is sometimes disrupted – and school employees injured – by unruly students and classroom violence.

In November, a Bullard High School student in Fresno Unified School District allegedly assaulted a teacher and a female student: The teacher was hit on the head and shoulder, and the student was struck on the chin.

Some incidents are captured on video. In late September in Fresno, two Roosevelt High School students severely beat another student in an English classroom. A school resource officer broke up the fight after a teacher couldn’t.

At the same school earlier that month, a student punched a substitute teacher several times, then followed the teacher as he walked out of the classroom.

Similar stories, caught on video and seen across social media, play out in schools across the country, raising questions about teacher training, classroom management, student conduct and campus safety.

In California, safety protocols vary, and teachers are expected to adapt to their district rules, according to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Teachers are not required to pass a safety test or course to receive their credentials, university education professors say. They are taught generally how to create a positive classroom environment, how to set student expectations early and how to respond to student behaviors to prevent disruptive situations.

“I don’t know what you can do with anyone to prepare them for something” like classroom fights or teachers getting assaulted, said Darrell Blanks, assistant professor of education at Fresno Pacific University. “You can teach them to respond in a way that doesn’t make the situation worse.”

Beyond that, safety-specific training is up to each school district. And some Valley districts do offer training to help teachers protect themselves and others from violence in the classroom.

Class management

At Fresno Pacific and Fresno State, students learning to become teachers take a classroom management course that focuses on how to engage students from pre-kindergarten to high school. That means creating a class plan, rewarding students for doing what is right and having consequences for those who do wrong.

It’s about responding to students who are off-task in a respectful, non-demeaning way and finding out the best way to help them, Blanks said.

Speakers or psychologists work with teacher candidates on how to interact with students who have behavior issues. And student teachers are placed in real classrooms so they can learn firsthand from master teachers how to react to students who are chronically misbehaving, professors say.

Teachers who work with kids that have aggressive behavior issues receive a little extra training on how to interact with students, such as not facing off against the student, said Colleen Torgerson, a professor of education at Fresno State.

Past California teaching standards did not highlight ways to handle behaviors, Torgerson said. “We wrote it into our program    because one of the things first-year teachers say is that they want more support in that.”

Fresno State students in professor Kimberly Coy’s classroom management course spoke recently about how the class and their student teaching experiences are preparing them to lead their own classes.

“If you have poor classroom management, then kids are more likely to be off-task, get in trouble, which ends up with more discipline,” said Fabio Linares.

Having a management plan “shows how prepared we are,” said Yureli Mandujano. “You have to set all these structures in place; without this structure we lose it. All these different things you do in the classroom so you can keep them in line.”

But what happens if a student gets violent?

“If you’re asking if we teach how to restrain a student or how to break up a fight – no,” Coy said. “We do understand teachers are first responders for sure, but they are generally first responders in things like bee stings, or peanut butter allergies.” Educators don’t expect violence, she said, “because it really doesn’t happen often, and if it does the school is set up to handle it.”


In the event of a student altercation, teachers are given specific instructions that are reviewed at the start of the school year and occasionally through the year.

Fresno Unified spokesman Jed Chernabaeff, in an interview after the second Roosevelt High fight, said teachers and staff are instructed to call an emergency line that is directed to the front office when fights happen in the classroom. That phone has a special ring to signify an emergency.

In addition, professional learning opportunities are available for school personnel, the district said in a statement.

Nonviolent crisis prevention intervention training is offered at least once a month, Chernabaeff said. Mandujano, the Fresno state student, said she voluntarily took the training when she was a substitute teacher. She is now an intern.

“You can tell parents, ‘I took this program and know how to handle certain situations,’ ” said Mandujano, who learned how to use her arms for blocking techniques and what to do if punched by a student.

“If you’re on campus and you do see a fight, it allows you to intervene.  That’s the way I prepared myself for what you’re supposed to do,” Mandujano said. “It was very helpful.”

Crisis Prevention Institute training is a system of verbal and physical intervention techniques adopted by many school districts nationwide to safely control a situation. The Tulare County Office of Education offers the full training course and recertification three times a year.

“There are holds involved in this training as a last resort,” said Tiffany Stark, program manager. “We are trained in what we consider to be the safest types of holds for situations when students are in danger of harming themselves or others.”

For example, Stark said, teachers learn how to block a student’s kick or force a student to stop biting or pulling hair. “It’s best to be trained in the safest strategy or intervention as possible,” she said.

In Clovis Unified School District, Liberty Elementary School principal George Petersen provided a look at what teachers are told to do if students clash.

Administration is contacted immediately. Teachers use proximity, a loud voice or a whistle to end a dispute. Students are immediately removed. About 99.9 percent of the time, this works, Petersen said.

If the altercation progresses into a fight, the staff member puts his or her body between the two combatants if they are small, Petersen said. In the case of physically large students who may cause harm, staff is told to wait until administrators arrive.

If the fighting continues, administrators can attempt to restrain and remove students, Petersen said. This has never happened at Liberty.

Sanger Unified teachers have radios to call campus supervisors, trained in nonviolent crisis intervention, and security to assist if there is a problem with a student “so it’s not all on one person to stop a fight,” said Dennis Wiechmann, supervisor-child welfare and attendance.

The districts provide students with academic, social and emotional counseling to help keep their frustrations from growing or getting violent, district officials say.

“There’s always going to be the routine kind of information shared with staff about working with kids that may be agitated or potentially get into an altercation and how to resolve that,” said Eduardo Martinez, Sanger’s associate superintendent of administrative services. But, he said, “the greater emphasis has been on intervention and prevention.”

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