KOLD INVESTIGATES: Assaults on teachers in southern Arizona

Data shows nearly 400 assaults on teachers in greater Tucson school districts

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - There have been hundreds of assaults on southern Arizona teachers in recent years.

If that doesn’t surprise you, the reasons behind it may.

KOLD Investigates requested the number of assaults on teachers during the last two school years for a dozen districts across southern Arizona.

These are situations where a teacher is hit by a student and law enforcement is notified.

Four of the five districts that reported zero such situations in the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years are outside Pima County.

  • Benson
  • Catalina Foothills
  • Nogales Unified
  • Santa Cruz Valley
  • Sierra Vista

Flowing Wells Unified School District had just one, according to Superintendent David Baker. At Sunnyside Unified, administrators noted seven separate incidents. SUSD Director of Public Information Marisela Felix said six of those situations were incidental.

Incidental contact is when a student doesn't intend to hurt an educator but does so anyway, like if one kicks a teacher while being restrained or throws something across the room and inadvertently strikes a teacher.

Multiple districts could not pinpoint just how many were incidental, but believed they made up a good percentage of assaults.

In some cases, the assaults could be the result of repeat incidents by the same student.

Looking Beyond The Numbers

Tamara Crowley, Director of Public Relations for Marana Unified School District, said numbers alone can lead to the wrong impression.

There were 28 assaults on teachers at MUSD schools, but that doesn’t mean 28 different students or teachers were involved.

Only one of those 28 incidents involved high school students.

That’s not unique to MUSD.

Seven of the eight assaults at Vail schools happened at the middle-school level.

None of the 11 incidents involving students from the Sahuarita Unified School District were in high school.

Just a handful of the 34 assaults in Amphi Public Schools occurred at high schools, but only one year of data was provided.

Tucson Unified School District

Several elementary and middle schools in the Tucson Unified School District recorded more assaults on teachers than entire school districts.

Doolen Middle, Henry Elementary and Vail Middle experienced 23, 26 and 43 assaults. In three separate incidents at Doolen and Vail, records show students were arrested.

Overall, there were more than 300 assaults around the district.

Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said they can’t all be attributed to it, but most of them are in special education classrooms.

"We really don't have assaults in the movie sense of the word," he said. "We don't have a lot of cases where it's an actual, premeditated vicious assault that might take place."

Trujillo described Doolen and Vail as campuses with some of the larger special ed populations in the district. He said students and staff there "simply don't have the resources."

Ideally, there would be more one-on-one support from psychologists, social workers and teacher aides.

“We have to take on the challenge of doing better and being more effective with our special education services,” Trujillo said. “Our students are counting on us to do that.”

The superintendent said some potential relief for Doolen and Vail would be opening smaller special education programs at other middle schools. It could reduce class size and provide students with more individual attention.

Addressing The Problem

Jennifer Arenas-Cardenas, a certified school psychologist in SUSD, serves Ocotillo Early Learning Center.

She credits the district’s effort to have a psychologist on nearly every campus for minimal assaults.

"That really is testament to the work we're doing here at Sunnyside, that we're doing something right," she said. "We don't have everything. We don't have all the answers and there's room for improvement of course."

Before she was in a support role, Arenas-Cardenas worked as a teacher in another district. She echoed Trujillo's belief that schools around the state need more support staff.

“With increase of trauma we’re seeing students that are coming in who have experienced trauma out in the community and that’s kind of playing out in the classroom and they’re reliving that trauma and sometimes it can be pretty violent,” said Arenas-Cardenas.

Special Education Vacancies

Tucson Unified faces a challenge with qualified educators, let alone the supporting positions around them.

Trujillo said TUSD has done better filling open teaching positions, but roughly half of the current vacancies are for special education.

"Better is not good enough," he said. "You need to hit 0 teacher vacancies. And though we've done better district-wide in all the other subject areas, the special education teacher continues to be elusive."

The superintendent said he can't cut resources or staff somewhere else, because everything is already lean. A cut that would benefit special education would only hurt another area of TUSD and the students it serves.

Trujillo looks to state lawmakers for a solution. He believes the current formula for funding special education services in Arizona is broken. It's a matter of considering public education as an investment or a tax burden, according to the superintendent.

“It’s that fundamental question that our legislature ultimately has to answer,” he said.

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.