One in a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area
Long after the school day ended Wednesday, Todd Larche was sitting in Washington's 7th District police station being fingerprinted and charged with misdemeanor assault for striking a student.
The 18-year-old student was also booked on the same charge after an altercation at the D.C. Alternative Learning Academy, police said.
Todd began as a special-education teacher at the Southeast Washington school last month after Katrina flooded out his life and swept him and his wife and family north from New Orleans. Every day, he's prayed before classes: "Lord, let me have a non-negative eventful day, a positive day." But Wednesday, it was not to be.
The details are hazy. The police report contains only the barest description. Neither the student nor his mother could be reached yesterday for their version of events. And officials at the school declined to comment on specifics of the incident.
Todd says there had been horseplay between a couple of students in the hallway -- running and swinging belts.
"Son, you almost hit me in the eye," Todd remembers saying. "I was trying to de-escalate the situation," he says. And it was done, he thought. Except later, he says, the student motioned him over in the cafeteria. "He said in a respectful manner, 'Can I have a word with you?' " remembers Todd. Here comes the apology, Todd thought. Instead, Todd says the boy leaned close and threatened him.
He took it as a death threat. He went to the school office and the student went outside. He feared the boy had gone to get a weapon and asked school staff to call the police. The student returned and, according to Todd, bumped him, put his fingers in Todd's face and cussed.
Then he says he saw the student's hand moving down. "At that point, the only thing I could see was my two children and their daddy losing his life," says Todd. "I felt threatened, and no way out. I'm assuming he's coming out of his pocket with a razor or knife." So Todd tried to push him off and hit him in the face, he says. Both suffered minor injuries.
The police were called and Larche and the student were arrested. Later they were both released. A court date has been set for Jan. 3.
Academy Director Victor Reece says Larche has been put on administrative leave. The boy is expected back in school today. Reece says he feels bad for all involved. It's the first time a teacher has struck a student in the 21/2 years he's been there, but he acknowledges incidents of aggressive behavior by students. "It's a school for emotionally disturbed adolescents, so there is some physicality. It's unfortunate that the situation happened, because Mr. Larche is an excellent teacher. I understand the challenges of working with our population and I understand the stress he's under, but there are things in place to deal with students that exhibit that type of behavior that young man exhibited."
In New Orleans, before the hurricane, Todd had worked with troubled elementary-age kids for eight years. Babies, he called them. When he took the job here last month, Todd quickly learned that the older students at the D.C. Academy were going to be tougher to handle and told himself he was going to have to be patient.
Todd Larche says it wasn't the stress of his life displaced from New Orleans. He didn't just snap. "He's an adult, too," says Larche of the student. "It's not a matter of me hitting a child." But he is also reeling. He feels so bad for that student and the other students he bonded with, brought in empanadas for -- and two dozen doughnuts on Monday, the same day a school counselor left a message saying what a great job he was doing and how well he was relating to the kids.
"They've got such beautiful faces and such precious skin, but you look at their bodies and they've got scars," says Todd. "In my genuine heart I felt that there was no other way out, and no help coming," he says tiredly. He says he's always tried to be a good man, a standup guy, and he is dispirited, discouraged, disillusioned because he's landed in this place. Disillusioned, especially, with telling his story in public.
Wednesday, his wife, Michele, spoke with someone from the school who gave her sketchy details -- a belt, an altercation -- and listening on the line, she was stunned and afraid. Her newborn boy was fussing in the background. Yesterday, she said her feet will never be steady under her again.
"I went to the mall yesterday morning. I was feeling happy, walking through the mall with the baby. I picked up a couple of things for Christmas. Then I get home and this happens. I just can't get normalcy, I can't get a routine," Michele said.
It's been three months since the storm hit the Larches, but it seems as if the illest Katrina winds continue to blow.
To see previous articles in this series, go to www.washingtonpost.com/afterkatrina.