Feature

Acts of Aggression

Recent threats and violent actions against school leaders have some taking precautionary steps in the workplace by RUTH E. STERNBERG


It was just supposed to be a handshake. But when James Adams reached out to greet the man who said he was an old friend, he received gunfire.

Larry Shelton, a former employee of the Lee County, Fla., school district--a man, it turned out, with a host of financial and personal problems--took a pistol out of the pouch he carried, aimed the barrel at the veteran school superintendent and squeezed the trigger six times. Then he left the district's central-office headquarters in downtown Fort Myers and turned the gun on himself.

No one else in the school district's central offices was hurt in the Feb. 7, 1994, shooting, which fatally wounded the 58-year-old Adams. The tragedy stunned everyone in the school district of 65,000 students and sent shudders through his colleagues nationwide.

"There weren't any threats,'' recalls Ande Albert, who then served as the district's facilities manager. "There was absolutely no reason to believe this could happen, and no one could have anticipated it occurring. They didn't know one another. The gentleman was kind of striking against the organization.''

Bryce Cummings (left), was more fortunate last year when he encountered the wrath of an angry community member. Cummings, who retired in July as superintendent of the tiny Mooresville, N.C., Graded School District, located 25 miles north of Charlotte, was talking to the district's elementary school curriculum coordinator. Midway through the meeting, the father of a high school student who had been suspended for selling drugs rushed past the secretary and burst into Cummings' office.

"He came in swinging and hitting and attacked me in the chair,'' Cummings says. "I blocked most of the blows. I finally got to my feet and when I finally came back at him, he ran out making statements like, 'I'm going to kill you.' I had cuts, one above my eye that was swelling pretty bad. I had several bruises on my forearms [and] several cuts on my left forearm from his fingernail.''


Contentious Encounters
Sadly, such acts of violence and threats of bodily harm against superintendents and other school leaders, while still rare, dot the landscape today and raise some fundamental questions about safety and security among top decision makers.

Superintendents don't expect their days to erupt in violence, but the climate surrounding school administration seems to many to be perceptibly different these days. School leaders say they have noticed a greater tendency toward verbal backlash, even abuse, from some adults when they disagree vehemently with a decision or a personnel move. Today, a disgruntled employee or a disagreeable parent is almost as likely as a rebellious teen-ager to lash out at the superintendent or principal.

Some assailants are defending their children, whom they believe to have been unfairly disciplined by school officials. Some are employees objecting to work-related disciplinary measures or dismissals. Some are individuals acting out a rage that seems perfectly permissible under the rules of the Jerry Springer Show.

"This whole thing in America today, so many people are living at a level of frustration and they honestly believe that they're never responsible for what they do,'' says Peter Blauvelt, director of the National Alliance for Safe Schools and former head of security for the Prince George's County, Md., schools. "No one wants to take responsibility for being a poor employee or that their kid screwed up. We've got the stage set for unreasonable acts of aggression.''

Over the past year, aggressive acts and threats of violence have shown up in districts of all sizes and in various types of locations:

* In March, Carol Parham, superintendent of the 74,000-student Anne Arundel County schools near Annapolis, Md., received death threats laced with racial epithets after she announced plans to temporarily relocate a group of children from a mostly white school to a predominantly black one while a new school was being constructed.

* During the same month, Rosa Smith,
(right), superintendent of the
65,000-student Columbus Public Schools, one of the largest districts in Ohio, received threatening mail and phone calls after suspending without pay two principals suspected of doctoring invoices to fund a colleague's retirement party.

* In May, a teacher in a small North Carolina school district, upset that she had not been rehired, tracked the assistant superintendent to his home and shot at him in his driveway, barely missing him.

* In January 1999, Steve McIntosh (left, center), superintendent of the 575-student Iron County C-4 School District in Viburnum, Mo., sat in his office catching up on paperwork on a wintry Sunday afternoon when a parent, accompanied by his teen-age son, barged in and assaulted him. The father was upset because McIntosh had called his home to ask about the boy’s possible involvement in an incident in which several students used vulgar language.

"I was caught off guard," McIntosh says. "He sucker-punched me and knocked me down. I was bleeding. He knocked my glasses off. He pinned me up against the copy machine. ... I was scared to death because he was making threats. I didn't know if he was going to kill me or what he was going to do. His son just stood there and watched.''

Caused by Stress
Even in the small district of Rainier, Wash., which serves 950 children, Superintendent John Dekker is aware of increasing tension in a town where folks tend to know one another.

"We have not seen the assaultive and threatening behavior from our students, but we have noticed an increase in aggressive behavior of the adults we work with,'' he says. "In the verbal behavior, it's almost an anger-to-rage kind of behavior.''

He blames the increasing burdens people face in their homes and professional lives.

"I think we have more and more families under more and more stress,'' Dekker says. "Both parents are trying to meet the demands of their workplace as well as issues with their kids in school discipline and attendance. And nobody's home to monitor those things. They have to take time off of work, and that puts them in a financial bind.''

Fred Yancey, superintendent of another small Washington state district, the 240-student Mary M. Knight School District 311 in Elma, says he constantly thinks about the effects one of his decisions might have.

"When I deal with a discipline issue, in the back of my mind is the thought, 'Is this going to be the one that will come back in and blow me away?''' he says. "We're way beyond 'Father Knows Best' and the world is happy and cheerful. ... I think in society as a whole, parents have abdicated responsibility in giving control to children at a very young age. They say, 'My kid doesn't want to do that.' Well, what made you give your child that personal power?''

Yancey hasn't been the target of a physical attack, but he is ready. "I keep a bullet-proof vest behind my door,'' he says.

The shots that killed Adams in Lee County, Fla., weren't fired at him because of any decision he'd made or a matter pertaining to the school district itself. The gunman, who worked as a special education teacher in the school district, was lashing out at someone in charge, says Albert, the former assistant superintendent.

"He was broke, basically bankrupt. We didn't fire him. He quit. He went to apply for unemployment and found he couldn't get unemployment when he quit.

"I don't see this as a matter about violence in school. It's society. It didn't matter that Jim was superintendent of schools. He was the CEO of the organization.''

Fearing Fallout
It is difficult to quantify trends in violence against administrators because few surveys have attempted to document all types of incidents. The National School Safety Center, based at Pepperdine University, compiles a list of school-associated violent deaths gleaned from news reports nationally.

The center has logged 269 shootings and other attacks that occurred in schools between 1992 and 2000. Most involved students against students. Some involved teachers. Only six listings described attacks against superintendents or principals.

A school social worker, Charles Jaksec in Tampa, Fla., says he has found evidence of a growing concern about verbal assaults against school leaders (see related story). Jaksec asked 301 administrators in 191 schools of the Hillsborough County Public Schools, one of Florida's largest with more than 163,000 students, to recall situations in which they felt threatened. Nearly 71 percent cited occasions when parents or guardians threatened them, usually by telling them they would take the matter at hand on to some higher authority. About half of the administrators said they had been the targets of profanity.

Around the country, school administrators, especially those who have encountered threatening situations or been victims of assault, report they now think about the ways their decisions might come back to haunt them later, especially as they deal with an increasingly critical public.

Rosa Smith, who had worked as an administrator in Minneapolis and Beloit, Wis., before coming to Ohio, says she always took for granted her role as a front-line representative of the school system answering to members of the public.

"People are always talking about you or maybe might say something that's not complimentary. But I never felt vulnerable. I actually never thought about it very much,'' she says. "In Columbus, the people here are friendly. They come up to you.

"We went to the movies and this gentleman all but ran down the stairs to say something to me. It was something positive, but it's that kind of thing I never thought about.''

Now, Smith has extra security lights at her house. For a couple of months, she had a full-time bodyguard, but public pressure forced the school board to remove the costly extra protection. However, the board hired a consulting firm to study the layout of the central office to make it more secure. A key-punch system now prevents non-authorized people from walking in off the street.

David Larson, despite his 6-foot, 210-pound frame, took to carrying a cellular phone and pepper spray on his nightly neighborhood walks for a time last year after a former employee of the Middletown, Conn., schools, where he was superintendent for eight years, was calling his home with threats. An educator of 29 years, he now directs the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

"He kind of went off the deep end,'' Larson says. "He would show up at board meetings. ... We installed video cameras and buzzer systems in the entrances of all our (district) buildings.''

Some school leaders say they have learned to watch people for threatening body language. "You learn to look over your shoulder," says Cummings, superintendent in Mooresville, N.C. "You say, 'I'd better watch that door.' ... The police chief brought me a can of Mace and I keep it in my desk drawer.''

Jaksec, who surveyed the administrators in Hillsborough County, Fla., on their hostile encounters, believes many school administrators take the stresses that come with their jobs for granted. Over time, principals and superintendents tend to forget about their encounters with community members if they don't result in violence. Run-ins with parents and employees often are discounted as part of the job.

Cleveland-based security consultant Ken Trump, who speaks nationally on school safety issues, believes administrators tend to shy away from talking about these events because they initially don't seem serious and because any discussion about spending money to safeguard a district's top-paid school officials often becomes politically charged.

"The public and those within the district tend to look at it as, first of all, their focus is on the children in the buildings,'' Trump says. "If we do anything to upgrade the central office, we're going to have to do it in the buildings first or we're going to get attacked politically.

"Then there's the false sense of security and denial. It's never happened before. This is an office environment, and if there's anything with an irate parent, it'll be buffered at a lower level,'' he adds.

Most people view schools as welcoming places, not highly secured fortresses. They can't imagine having to take security measures.

"We're so offended to have that culture in our schools,'' Trump says.

Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, says boards of education often have to wrestle with issues involving safety, even as they strive to maintain an open atmosphere that invites participation.

"We are public officers and we should welcome the public. But we should also protect the public,'' she says. "We don't want to discourage people. We want to encourage them to be an active part of the public schools.''

Last year, the school board in Cerro Gordo, Ill., banned a parent from school property after she produced a toy gun and a knife from her blouse during a board meeting. Two courts upheld the district's right to maintain a safe environment by blocking her access.

Albert, former Lee County assistant superintendent in charge of facilities, says he often thinks about the conversation he had with Jim Adams a few days before the superintendent died. The men were talking about building security after hearing of a shooting at a superintendent's home in Georgia.

Adams considered making changes in traffic flow and monitoring of visitors, but Albert recalls him saying, "It's a public building. Don't worry. What are they going to do?''

Today, the Lee County central office has a buzzer that visitors must use to gain admittance. Visitors can't just come in and wander around anymore. They come in through one main entrance and approach an information desk and a receptionist directing visitors.

"You are routed through the building with an appointment or a need to talk to someone specific,'' Albert says. "You don't just walk through the building.''

Every school district employee has a security code, allowing the system to record who enters and exits and when. Many also have been trained in security procedures.

"You need to know who's around when you need help,'' Albert says. "It's especially true on the weekends. The building is locked on the weekends. You have to have a code.''

And he adds: "People need to be careful where they park. They need to park close to the building, especially at night. I go out and go through our parking lot, and when I see people's cars I know I'll call them and remind them about being careful when they leave.''

A Call for Training
When he's brought in by school districts as a consultant, Trump advises school administrators to carefully assess basic items such as doorways and traffic patterns.

"Central offices should be treated as any corporate office," he says. "In a larger district, you may want a security person. Visitors should be greeted. A receptionist should call and contact the person where these individuals are supposed to be going. I look at the locations of the higher-risk offices, the superintendent's, the treasurer's, the personnel office. Even just having applicants coming in. Heaven knows who those individuals might be. You might consider having personnel enter from outside and have a separate area or a separate counter.''

Kevin Dwyer, who just finished his term as president of the National Association of School Psychologists, believes training in handling conflicts wouldn't hurt either.

"It's always confusing to me that we have skills we teach kids, teachers and parents. We need to make sure people in administrative responsibilities have those same kinds of skills," Dwyer says. "We don't do enough on managing interpersonal behavior and understanding the motivation behind why people are doing what they're doing and ways to change that, ways to address that in a positive way. This whole business of mediation is like an in-service program. And even if it is taught as a course, it's not practiced. It's harder to implement that than the teaching of algebra."

Ed Richardson, superintendent in Chelsea, Mich., takes considerable precautions since the shooting death of his predecessor, Joseph Piasecki, in December 1993. Piasecki was killed by a gun-toting high school science teacher during a disciplinary hearing on complaints he had harassed some female students.

As a result, Richardson often conducts personnel hearings away from the school district. "They sometimes meet off campus, at local hospitals or restaurants, to remove them from the office area,'' he says.

After each personnel matter, Richardson says, "we try to find out who the friends or other supervisors are and have them call the person after they meet, just to ask, 'Hi, how are you? Can we do anything for you?'''

For several years following Piasecki's death, Richardson dispatched police to follow administrators home after they dealt with sensitive personnel issues. "We don't do that every time. Only when we really are concerned,'' he says.

When a parent recently threatened one of the district's principals, Richardson handled it himself. "I met him on the sidewalk. I shook his hand so I got a chance to see what he was doing with his hands. I got a chance to see his other hand.''

Additional security measures include hanging visitors' coats and other outerware to ensure nothing is concealed beneath them. "And we make sure everybody else is aware we are dealing with an employee who may be difficult," Richardson says. "If they choose to leave, they can leave.''

Radical Self-Protection
Rich Voltz, superintendent of the 1,200-student Sullivan, Ill., schools, finds video cameras an important security investment because the tapes can remain on file for months and serve as a record of events.

"Look at what's happening today,'' he says. "And I'm only in a rural district in east central Illinois.''

But Voltz hasn’t been able to forget the day in October 1985 when a former student came to the high school to confront him while wearing a head-to-toe Ninja costume and waving a 3-foot-long, double-edged sword. Unable to find Voltz, who was in a classroom evaluating a teacher, he briefly took a guidance counselor hostage before another teacher talked him into dropping the sword.

On another occasion, Voltz was alone in a school locker room with a junior high school boy who pulled a knife on him.

As a result of these dangerous confrontations, Voltz today believes superintendents should be trained to use and allowed to carry firearms on the job and off. "It's a real radical idea, but an officer might not be there when you need them,'' he says.

Despite the changing climate in and around schools, most educators who seek advanced certification in educational leadership receive no training in how to handle unstable personalities or diffuse explosive situations involving angry parents. Graduate school courses focus on politics and union negotiations, says Terry Orr, a professor of educational administration at Columbia University's Teachers College. But the day is coming, she predicts, when safety and security and mediation skills will be added to the requisite coursework for graduate degrees at schools of education.

"More and more programs require conflict resolution--understanding the dynamics of conflict and how to work through it,'' she says. "Not only has decision-making brought the community in, but it also involves staff. You've got a lot of different perspectives that have to be negotiated. So the superintendent moves to a much more facilitating role.''

Ruth Sternberg, a free-lance writer, covers education for The Columbus Dispatch, 535 W. 3rd Ave., Columbus, OH 43201. E-mail: rstern@dispatch.com