by Dianne Hermann
On July 4th a Kindergarten teacher in Albi, France, was stabbed to death in her classroom by the parent of one of her students in front of all the children. It was the last day of school.
French President Hollande expressed outrage over “this abominable drama.”
French authorities and a regional teachers union spokesman were quick to point out that this tragic and unprovoked attack was an isolated incident. The 47-year-old parent had been released from a psychiatric hospital in March. After her arrest the attacker was assessed by psychiatrists and found to be suffering from “severe mental problems in the form of delirious notions of persecution.”
There are many troubling indicators that even if this incident was isolated, it should not have been unexpected. Robert Couffignal of the regional teachers union told the Associated Press in a telephone interview “the larger problem for schools in this region and around France is tension over economic decline and lack of job prospects for young people, especially those from poor or immigrant backgrounds.”
Wow, that kind of sounds like the same problems we have in America! Economic frustrations often manifest itself in violence against teachers and others in positions of authority.
And to underscore the issue, a French study just released on Thursday reported that, although violence against teachers is rare, teachers in France are threatened and insulted twice as often as any other profession.
France’s National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE) released the results of its study just one day before the kindergarten teacher was tragically murdered. It found that a whopping 12 percent of French education workers had been the victims of threats or verbal abuse and nearly half of French principals had suffered from harassment during the 2012-13 school year. As an American educator, I can confirm the increase in threats and insults against teachers.
France’s Education Minister Benoit Hamon said, “(The murder) highlighted the need to improve security in schools.” American schools have been grappling with school violence after a series of horrific school shootings and stabbings including Columbine High in Colorado, Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut, and Franklin Regional High in Pennsylvania.
In fact, the first recorded school shooting in America happened in 1764 when four Lenape Indians shot and killed a Pennsylvania teacher and an estimated 10 students. More recently, nearly 300 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their schools by militant Islamic extremists.
Finding a root cause or a common denominator for school violence has proven elusive. Even as a teacher I am not in a position to, not do I have the expertise to, attempt to postulate a reason or proffer a solution. But I have found some enlightening, albeit disturbing, information.
The Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR), an international mental health watchdog organization, reported last month that 34 people (mostly students) who perpetrated school shootings or committed violent acts in schools around the world were either under the influence of, or experiencing withdrawal from, psychiatric drugs. In addition, Dr. Joseph Glenmullen of Howard University warned that the use of antidepressants might explain the spike in school shootings and suicides.
Many people are quick to blame guns for school violence, but other weapons such as knives and homemade bombs are often used when guns are not available. So why are children around the world, not just in America, so violent?
Last November the Josephson Institute on Ethics released the results of a 2012 survey of 23,000 high school students across the U.S. One-third said violence is a big problem in school. Here are some of their findings: 50% of the boys surveyed said they had hit someone in the past year because they were angry; 39% of students admitted that they had bullied, teased, or taunted someone in the past year; and over half said they had been bullied, teased or taunted in a way that seriously upset them.
Equally disturbing is what high school students said about alcohol. Two-thirds of students and three-quarters of seniors reported having easy access to alcohol.
On the flip side, the same high schools students listed their top five preferences for ethics and morals as 1) being treated with respect, 2) having good moral character, 3) treating others with respect, 4) helping others, and 5) having trusting personal relationships.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Youth Violence statistics show that the youth homicide rates have “declined substantially” since the mid-1990s, although in 2010 homicide was still the leading cause of death in American youth aged 10 to 24.
Students attend schools in their high-crime, high-poverty neighborhoods where they spend hours watching TV or playing video games glorifying violence. They are routinely confronted with illicit drugs and alcohol, subjected to bullying, victimized by physical and sexual abuse, and prescribed mood-altering drugs. Is it any wonder the violence spills over into schools?
I already told you I don’t have the answers. But Friday’s tragic events show that school violence is not just an American problem, it’s an international problem.
So maybe we should listen to the students themselves, who listed among their top ethical priorities – being treated with respect and having trusting personal relationships.