In Arkansas, Teachers Wrestle with Issues of Breaking up Fights

FAYETTEVILLE - Fayetteville High School social studies teacher Steve Adams let administrators handle a school fight he witnessed in August.

Adams, worried he might accidentally hurt the students, focused instead on keeping more kids from joining the fray.

"Some of the students are as big as men," the 6-foot, 3-inch, 290-pound Adams said. "No one is training teachers as of yet to be martial arts experts." A growing number of Arkansas high school teachers are taking a hands-off approach to student fights. That's because school leaders across the state are concerned by students who seem to be growing more violent with their fists and makeshift weapons.

Teachers are being told to defer to principals and school resource officers during the scuffles.

School security experts say the public often associates school violence with shootings, like those at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and Westside Middle School near Jonesboro in 1998.

But Patrolman Johnny Foster, a school resource officer at Fayetteville High School, said that as far as school violence is concerned, he spends almost all his time looking for students who are pushing and shoving each other.

The no-contact approach marks a shift from the past when football coaches and math teachers were expected to hurl themselves into brawls.

"Teachers traditionally break up altercations, but in today's environment, they are much more leery and cautious," said Sgt. Cecil White, a school resource officer at Springdale High School.

That's led to a shift in attitude toward teacher involvement, said Eric King, a school resource officer in Conway and president of the Arkansas Safe Schools Association.

Most resource officers and school administrators King meets say they tell their teachers to steer clear of student dust-ups and to call for help.

"The rule of thumb is they don't want teachers to get involved because they don't want them to get hurt," King said. "When it becomes physical, nine times out of 10 there is a lot of anger tied up in these things." The association is the only organization in Arkansas that represents school resource officers. A school resource officer works for a police department but is responsible for law enforcement in a school.

School fights are growing less common across the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But educators and school resource officers are still concerned.

Cpl. Russ Humway, a school resource officer at Jonesboro High, said some female students wear fight "uniforms" that include grubby sweat pants, multiple rings and pulled-back hair.

Humway headed off a planned fight between two boys last week. He confiscated a 12-inch wrench and an aluminum bar stolen from a vocational laboratory.

"This was a war club," Humway said.

Fayetteville High School Principal Jim Price said his school doesn't have a policy that forbids teachers from intervening in student fights. However, his strong preference is that teachers don't get involved.

But no administrators expect teachers to stand by and watch as students hurt each other.

"If a teacher feels comfortable separating students, that's perfectly acceptable," said Randy Bridges, the Fort Smith School District's director of student services. "My fear is the longer you let a fight go, the greater the chance it could escalate." Kristen Gould, attorney for the Arkansas School Boards Association, said there are several legal and financial issues that might push administrators to tell teachers to stay out of fights.

Arkansas Annotated Code 6-17-1209 states that teachers who are injured while intervening in school fights are eligible for a leave of absence with full pay for up to one year.

If teachers are hurt breaking up a fight, school districts must also provide workers' compensation.

"We have heard reports that individual teachers have wished a student fight would break out because it was their plan to throw themselves in the middle of it to be off work for one year," Gould said.

But Dan Marzoni, president of the Arkansas Education Association, said that scenario is "ludicrous." "That paints a picture of a teacher who doesn't care," Marzoni said. "I don't know anybody who thinks like that." School districts and their employees are mostly protected from civil suits due to Arkansas' tort immunity laws.

But employees are vulnerable to criminal prosecution for unlawful actions during the course of a fight, Gould said. Teachers facing criminal charges must pay for their legal defense, and they are reimbursed by school districts only up to $5,000 if the charges are unfounded, she said.

King issues misdemeanor citations to students who strike other students. He tries to keep teachers out of student fights for the students' sakes, he said. If a student strikes a teacher, it's an automatic felony charge.

Police arrested a student at the sophomore center in Rogers on Wednesday on a felony battery charge after police said the boy punched Assistant Principal Gary Orr in the face.

Alvin Lievsay, superintendent of Huntsville Schools, tells teachers to stop fights this way: Tell the students by name to quit and then contact an administrator for help.

The next step is up to the teacher, Lievsay said.

"That sounds nebulous, but it's pretty much a judgment call," Lievsay said. "If I had a couple boys wrestling around on the floor, I wouldn't expect a female teacher to jump into the wrestling match."

This article was published 10/23/2006