11 Investigates surveyed Pennsylvania teachers: 77% say they have faced violence from students

PITTSBURGH — Violence against teachers is forcing some out of the profession and causing others to consider finding a new career.

11 Investigates teamed up with our sister stations across the country to ask teachers about student violence, what is fueling it and possible solutions.

The responses from teachers in all grade levels and geographical settings are undeniably troubling. While teachers who have had a violent encounter might be more willing to take the time to complete a survey, we heard from more than 8,000 teachers in 34 states.

Seventy-one percent of teachers surveyed said they’ve been subjected to physical violence by a student at least once. Among Pennsylvania teachers surveyed, 77 percent said they have been subjected to physical violence by a student. More than half of respondents, 4,000+ teachers, said it has happened “more than once” or “many times.”

When asked if they have been subjected to verbal abuse by a student, 96 percent of Pennsylvania teachers surveyed said yes. 92 percent said it has happened “more than once” or “many times.”

Most respondents teach elementary school, and most described the school they teach at as suburban.

More than 1100 teachers opted to tell personal stories. More than 100 of those were Pennsylvania teachers. Here’s some of what they said.

A high school teacher at Ligonier Valley wrote, “We had a teacher that was violently attacked. Her jaw was broken and she has required numerous surgeries.”

A New Kensington-Arnold teacher wrote, “After tapping a child on the shoulder and asking them to stop talking I was punched in the back as I walked away. The fourth-grade boy ran up behind me and punched me in the back in front of the entire class.”

A Gateway High School teacher said he was punched by a student trying to fight someone else. “I had to teach my next class with a swollen and split lip. Throughout my lesson I was spitting blood in the garbage can,” he wrote.

A Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher wrote, “I should not need to learn how to put on a tourniquet as professional development.”

You can read dozens of responses from Pennsylvania teachers here.

Channel 11 reported earlier this year when an 18-year-old PPS student was arrested for punching, wrestling to the ground, choking, throwing and assaulting a total of four teachers in one school incident. 11 Investigates reported in April that the charges were dropped after Pittsburgh school police officers and the victims failed to show up for two court appearances. The felony charges have since been refiled.

Some of the most serious incidents of violence against teachers have made headlines around the country but teachers say they are being injured much more often than the public, and even their school communities, are made aware of.

Survey respondents said the situation went from bad to worse after the pandemic. Eighty-four percent said students are less likely to respect teachers’ authority now. Most respondents said it is also harder to connect with students now.

When asked what would improve teacher safety the most, more than half of educators surveyed support zero-tolerance policies over adding additional police officers or counselors. Thousands of teachers also said they would welcome de-escalation training.

That said, many survey respondents referred to student mental health needs and the lack of enough counselors and mental health resources as a “crisis.”

Two-thirds of teachers surveyed blame lack of parent involvement or discipline as one key factor in student behavior, outweighing things like social media and cell phone use.

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“It just became more difficult, taxing and tiring,” said Fabyonne Williams, a former Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher.

Williams resigned from the district and left the profession in 2022, after 25 years as a PPS teacher. The job she called her lifelong dream ultimately became a job she hated waking up for and that left her feeling burnt out, emotionally drained and depressed.

“It was heavenly. But then it transitioned. School politics, community, just the divide was drastic, the different level of parenting, the different level of just everything,” she said.

Williams said the job changed, especially in the last several years as students’ behavioral issues and parents who were either disconnected or disinterested in the educational success of their students made her role incredibly difficult.

She said in many schools like the ones she taught in, violence is out of control, and chaos in the classroom has made learning extremely challenging for all students.

“There’s a plethora of reasons that teachers are getting out of the profession. It is not safe. It is not fun. It is, you know, you’re not teaching,” Williams said. “A teacher should never have to secure themselves from an angry parent. Our secretary at one of our schools has a baseball bat under her desk, because she’s the first line.”

After retiring, Williams said she feels like a different person.

“I see the lights again. Like I think the light in my eyes had dimmed. I woke up and was just miserable,” she recalled. “I found an inauthenticity in getting up in the morning and going to work and then getting up Sunday morning and going to church. Like which one am I?”

Physically, she did not get out unscathed.

In 2015, she had surgery to repair a wrist injury she sustained breaking up fights between students.

That experience is not uncommon. Just this year, Channel 11 reported a McKeesport teacher dislocated his shoulder while breaking up a fight between teen girls.

A third of survey respondents said they were injured intervening in a fight between students.

Williams said her husband, a retired Pittsburgh police officer, worried about her safety.

“He always said I did more policing than he did,” she said.

11 Investigates took the results of our survey to the largest teacher union in the state.

“I think this is something that across the nation we’ve seen school violence as an epidemic,” said Aaron Chapin, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

“Since COVID, I think they’ve been pushed to the limits. They’ve been stretched thin. We have shortages.”

He said the tens of thousands of teachers that belong to his union are concerned about school violence in all its forms. So much so, the union launched a school violence task force within the last year.

“We need to address it as quickly as possible. There is no time to spare,” Chapin said.

He called for state governments to invest more in education and send more resources, like mental health support, to schools. Chapin believes Governor Josh Shapiro’s proposed budget is a step in the right direction but more help is needed.

“If we look at his proposed budget for the ‘24- ‘25 year, there are great increases in basic education funding. Governor Shapiro has proposed almost $2 -billion, and he recognizes that this needs to be like a seven-year investment in our schools,” Chapin said. “Some of that money is devoted to mental health in our schools… We know he recognizes that help is needed right now.”

Sixty-seven percent of Pennsylvania teachers surveyed said they have considered quitting or retiring because of violence against teachers.

“They cannot protect themselves. How many people are going to put themselves subject to that?” Williams said. “I have a friend who left and is working at Burger King, a teacher! And there’s nothing wrong with Burger King, and she is a manager. However, she left a lucrative career to work at a fast-food restaurant.”

If you’re a teacher and want to share your story, you can contact Investigative Reporter Jatara McGee by emailing jatara.mcgee@wpxi.com.