D.C. Teachers Alleging Assaults by Students Find Themselves Under the Microscope by School Officials

During school construction, Woodson Academy was moved into Brown Middle School. Some blame discipline problems on crowded conditions.
During school construction, Woodson Academy was moved into Brown Middle School. Some blame discipline problems on crowded conditions. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 13, 2009

Woodson Academy teacher William Pow had just finished writing on the blackboard one January afternoon, he said, when he turned to face his algebra class and saw the textbook "Mathematics in Life" hurtling toward his head.

He ducked, he said, but it caught him in the neck and shoulder. His colleagues at Woodson have not been as lucky. English teacher Randy Brown said he was hit just above the left ear by a book thrown by a student last month. He was treated for a concussion and said he has since suffered from headaches and nausea.

"They think it's a game to hit people in the head," said Brown, who, like Pow, has not returned to school.

They say the 260-student ninth-grade academy, housed at Ronald H. Brown Middle School in Northeast Washington while a new Woodson High is under construction, is overcrowded and dangerous. Brown and Pow count five other teachers or administrators who they said have been attacked this academic year, including one who was pelted by textbooks and another pinned to a desktop and choked. Other teachers, Brown and Pow said, are routinely subjected to verbal threats of violence.

Pow's and Brown's claims about safety and discipline issues are the kind that have long been a source of tension between D.C. teachers and school officials. They involve classroom and hallway incidents in which staff witnesses are often rare and available accounts are frequently contradictory. It is hard to confirm all of the teachers' allegations and determine whether conditions at Woodson are better or worse than at other D.C. schools. But the fact that Pow and Brown are willing to go public provides an unusual window into the problems facing teachers and staff at the academy.

By the teachers' account, students at Woodson are high school freshmen stuck in a middle school, angry at their overcrowded classes and who take that anger out in the classroom.

Principal Darrin Slade said he knew of three student assaults on staff members this year. He said the teachers were distorting the situation to deflect attention from their own professional shortcomings.

"These are disgruntled teachers in the process of being terminated," he said. "We have one of the safest ninth-grade programs in the city."

Pow acknowledged that Slade has placed him on the "90-day plan," an intervention program requiring teachers to eliminate deficiencies or face dismissal. Brown said he is not on the plan.

Two other Woodson Academy teachers who said they were assaulted also agreed to discuss their experiences with The Washington Post, but they asked for anonymity because they feared losing their jobs if they spoke negatively to the media about D.C. schools.

Teachers who complain or eject too many students say they are tagged as weak in "classroom management" by administrators determined to keep a lid on behavior issues. Slade wrote in his guide to teachers that any instructor who refers students to his office every day "will risk placement on some type of improvement plan," a probationary status such as the 90-day plan.

Erich Martel, a member of the executive board of the Washington Teachers' Union and a social studies teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School, said at a D.C. Council hearing Wednesday that the situation at Woodson was "an example of blaming teachers for student violence."

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