Painful Lessons

Painful Lessons

Run-ins with students take toll on teachers, city finances
FEB. 16, 2014

Jennifer Jones’ school day started with her standing in front of her class of third-graders at Harford Heights Elementary, and it ended with her flat on her back in the East Baltimore school’s hallway.

She lay there surrounded by colleagues and students at dismissal time, injured by a boy who grabbed her leg and pulled it out from under her. His resolute stare, she says, was as frightening as the assault on that day in January 2013.

Soon she was on a stretcher, headed to Johns Hopkins Hospital, hoping she would not be paralyzed.

Jones is one of hundreds of city educators whose violent and traumatic encounters with students have led them to seek — and often receive — compensation for mental and physical injuries, a Baltimore Sun investigation of workers’ compensation claims has found. Those claims provide a behind-the-scenes look at violence that is rarely documented in school system reports.

School employees report more injuries than those in any city agency except the Police Department. In the last fiscal year, more than 300 claims were related to assaults or run-ins with students — more than a third of the school system’s total claims.

And such claims are costly. School employees account for an estimated total of $4.6 million in medical bills and other costs related to workers’ compensation claims in that year, according to records obtained by The Sun in a Maryland Public Information Act request.

For officials in city government, the school system’s claims signal a troubling pattern of teachers being attacked or serving as buffers in fights.

Examine the 200 most expensive claims from 2013 in this interactive database.

For teachers like Jones — whose workers’ compensation payout will total an estimated $20,000 — the claims reflect a part of the job that leaves them feeling less like educators and more like punching bags.

“Every day it hurts like hell, and my life is forever changed,” said Jones, 31, who remains out of work and is fighting to obtain other benefits. “I can’t walk my dogs. I can’t do laundry. You eventually start to give up on the dishes. Every time I think about it now, I think the same thing when I was laying on the floor: Why?”

The school-related payments are a significant part of a large and growing expense for taxpayers, who foot the bill for workers’ compensation payments for medical bills, lost wages and permanent disabilities that can stretch for years.

Local governments and insurance companies in Maryland blame high costs on a variety of factors, including fraud, a higher ceiling on payouts and changes in state law that favor public safety workers.

Baltimore spent $49 million last year on workers’ compensation awards, a steady increase from $44 million two years earlier, even as the city’s workforce shrank, and officials expect those costs to rise for the next decade. In addition to payouts for new and old claims, the costs include fees for attorneys, private investigators and the company that administers the city’s program.

For area counties, the expense is far lower but still reaches millions of dollars each year. Baltimore County, whose workforce is slightly smaller than the city’s, paid about $11 million last year.

Baltimore’s budget director, Andrew Kleine, said the city is considering major changes, including a push to limit costs by reducing payouts for workers who are absent because of injury. Outside auditor KPMG estimates that Baltimore’s workers’ compensation system owes $161 million in current and future costs, up from $146 million last year — money it has not set aside.

Jennifer Jones
Teacher at Harford Heights Elementary School
"Employee was trying to keep disruptive student from entering the classroom when he grabbed her leg. [She] fell, injuring her back."
PAID TO DATE:   $12,007
Photo by Kim Hairston
Every day it hurts like hell, and my life is forever changed. I can’t walk my dogs. I can’t do laundry. You eventually start to give up on the dishes. Every time I think about it now, I think the same thing when I was laying on the floor: Why?
"Every day it hurts like hell, and my life is forever changed. I can’t walk my dogs. I can’t do laundry. You eventually start to give up on the dishes. Every time I think about it now, I think the same thing when I was laying on the floor: Why?" - Jennifer Jones
Photo by Kim Hairston

“It’s huge,” Kleine said.

Hundreds of the claims filed since 2011 involved assaults on educators, according to a review of city data. In claim summaries, they described the incidents in graphic terms:

“Student grabbed a [cord] around my neck, pulled so hard it broke, slapped my face, hit my chest and bit my left and right arms.”

“Employee was escorting student from the room, student slammed door hitting her in the abdomen. Employee is pregnant, went into labor.”

“Employee alleges breaking up a fight between students, he turned his upper body, feet were planted, fractured leg.”

After hearing descriptions of injuries reported by teachers, Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said, “That sounds like exactly what’s going on, every single day.”

She added, “The emails to me are constant about teachers being victimized. In some situations, it’s like we’re going into a combat zone, and all we’re going to do is provide an education.”

"[Employee] states student pushed towards him, punched him in left eye, glasses flew off, has eye laceration, dizziness, blurred vision, ringing ear."
"Student not in my class came forward to me and jabbed me in the jaw."
"[Employee] alleges that a student grabbed her face and dug his nails into her face, causing scratches to her face."
"[Employee] alleges [she] attempted to contact the student's mother and he punched her right cheek and scratched her right arm and elbow."
"She was working on a computer and a student threw a chair hitting her on the back and head."
"A student got angry and threw a desk at another student but hit [employee] in the chest."
"Student in a rage and threw a chair and desk at employee. Also kicked in the back. Injured right hand."
"[Employee] alleges a student threw a desk at her, striking her right hip and right knee, causing pain."
"[Employee] alleges while breaking up a fight between students, one student punched her chest where a defibrillator was inserted."
"[Employee] alleges he asked student for ID, who did not have it. Student grabbed him by legs, tackling him to ground and robbing him of tickets."
"[Employee] alleges a student got angry with her for taking his cell phone and started hitting her repeatedly and pushed her against the locker."
"A student brought a basketball into class and refused to put it in his locker. He threw the ball and hit me in the head."
"[Employee] alleges he was performing cafeteria duty when a student walked up to him and stabbed him in his left upper arm."
"Escorting student to main office from classroom. When walking from the classroom she kicked me in ankle. In office she kicked me in knee and hit face."
"Parent became defensive when asked to leave cafeteria for her threatening behavior. I was pushed and slapped on left side of face."
"[Employee] alleges she escorted a student from the room. Student slammed the door, hitting her in the abdomen. [Employee] is pregnant, went into labor."
"Student came behind her and pulled her arm back while snatching a cell phone from her hand and stating, 'Give me the phone, bitch.'"
"[Employee] alleges, while teaching, student shoved her backward. The student also threw a pencil at her, striking her left forehead."

Kimberly Lewis, who oversees the school system’s human capital office, attributed the high number of claims to the fact that its 13,000 employees make up the largest share of the city workforce. She described the workers’ compensation expenses as “the standard cost of doing business.”

School officials also said in a statement that workers’ compensation claims do not “provide reliable information about the work environment” and are not designed to provide “reliable” information about school safety.

The altercations and assaults category is “too broad” and can include incidents such as an employee and student having “accidental contact in the hallway,” the statement said.

Interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards said the district does not draw hard conclusions from workers’ compensation claims because they “do not afford an opportunity for the district to do our investigation of whether or not there’s been an incident.”

That doesn’t mean the district dismisses the fact that teachers sometimes face dangerous situations, she said. Though teachers receive training about handling fights, school police can help as well.

“We need to make sure that as a community, we are teaching children how to respect themselves and other people,” she said.

Suspension data are a more reliable gauge of school safety and student-teacher relations, Edwards said.

In the last school year, the district logged 873 suspensions for physical attacks on staff — nearly triple the number of workers’ compensation claims labeled altercations and assaults.

“We know that’s not what teachers signed up for,” Edwards said. “They want to go into a school where they can be in a healthy, respectful environment, and we have an obligation to help them create that environment in our schools.”

‘Epidemic-like’ fighting

City government officials say that as they look for ways to trim workers’ compensation costs, they have urged the school system to help reduce expensive injuries — which usually result from educators breaking up fights, confronting disruptive students or being attacked.

Of the system’s anticipated $4.6 million bill for the last fiscal year, the city has paid out about $2 million so far for injuries that range from assaults to accidental falls. The largest single category: assaults and altercations. The city anticipates paying $1.4 million for claims in that category; it has already paid out about $615,000, records show.


Douglas S. Kerr, who oversees Baltimore’s risk management office, said city officials track the assault and altercation data and provide it to school administrators. The city handles workers’ compensation claims for the school system and sees a sharp uptick in costs during the school year.

“We offer assistance with training, anything we can do to cut down on these claims, because it is one of their top causes of loss,” he said.

Of the school district’s 866 workers’ compensation claims in the last fiscal year, 293 were labeled assaults or altercations, and eight were referred for criminal charges. The highest award for a teacher injured in school was an estimated $192,793 for a man who reported that he fractured a leg while breaking up a fight between students; $44,822 of that claim has been paid, city records show.

About 45 more claims related to fights or interactions with students were listed in other categories; the city estimates that those claims will cost more than $270,000.

For instance, a fall that cost about $1,500 was summarized this way by a claimant: “Two students were fighting and they fell on teacher, and all fell on top of an overhead projector injuring [teacher’s] neck, shoulder, and upper back.” In an “overexertion” claim, for which the city has paid roughly $21,000 of an estimated $33,000, a teacher injured her knee breaking up two fighting students.

And such incidents can leave other scars. One teacher filed a claim for psychological stress after witnessing a student assault another; the city has paid $2,300 of an estimated $9,050 for it.

Kerr said that in meetings with school system officials, the city’s risk management office has questioned the protocol for teachers dealing with fights.

“I don’t think they have anything set in writing,” Kerr said. “I just think the teacher knows that’s what she should be doing. The question is: Is there another way to handle a situation like that, to where they’re not going to get hurt?”

Union officials said teachers are trained in workshops on safely intervening in altercations. And Edwards said the district has begun emphasizing to teachers that they should rely on trained professionals, such as school police, to handle situations.

Thompson Guerrier, a para-educator at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, said teachers have little choice but to intervene.

One of his claims stemmed from breaking up a minutes-long fight between two young boys that spilled from the classroom into the hallway. It would be one of at least three fights he broke up that day, he said.

“There were staff who would see the fights and walk the other away. I couldn’t. We are adults, and they are minors. I do not have that kind of heart — to stand by and let them kill each other,” he said.

Guerrier, 45, said most of his time in his fourth-grade special-education classroom last year was spent pulling students off each other, and this year is no different.

Sometimes the strains to his back, neck and elbow were instant, Guerrier said. At other times, he said, he didn’t feel the pain until he couldn’t get up from bed the next morning. He’s undergoing physical therapy for sharp pains and weakness in his shoulders, back and neck.

A workers’ compensation commissioner recently ruled in favor of a claim Guerrier filed; he said he was hurt restraining a fighting student who threw a desk and chair at him. Records show that claim’s bill reached $16,195 in the last fiscal year.

But he was denied compensation for a separate claim in which he said he was injured breaking up another fight; he is appealing that decision in Circuit Court. He also is appealing a claim related to an assault in December 2012.

While workers’ compensation filings in city schools depict the most violent setting in the area for teachers, nearby districts are not without their own problems. Baltimore County has recorded teacher injury claims in recent years, as has Howard County, which is consistently ranked as one of the best-performing districts in the state.

Thompson Guerrier
Para-educator at Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School
  • "Alleges punched in head by student. Incident but no injury."
  • "Student approached pushed table into [his] left middle finger."
  • "Breaking up a fight. Injury to right hand/wrist, back."
  • "Restraining child/student thre desk/chair. Injury to back and right hand."
  • "Kicked and punched by student - left shoulder."
  • "Breaking up a fight between students - left shoulder."
PAID TO DATE:   $5,798
Photo by Kenneth K. Lam
I would break up fights three to four times a day. There were staff, even the principal, who would see the fights and walk the other away. I couldn’t. We are adults, and they are minors. I do not have that kind of heart — to stand by and let them kill each other.
"I would break up fights three to four times a day. There were staff, even the principal, who would see the fights and walk the other away. I couldn’t. We are adults, and they are minors. I do not have that kind of heart — to stand by and let them kill each other." - Thompson Guerrier
Photo by Kenneth K. Lam

Treated like instigators

Although city government officials say they encourage employees to report every injury, no matter how minor it may seem, teachers say the practice is not encouraged by school administrators.

Once an incident report is filed, some teachers say, they find they are treated less like victims and more like instigators.

“When I was breaking up fights, at first, I was told to take care of myself,” Guerrier said. “But when I started filing incident reports, I was a troublemaker. You file a lot of reports, and it reflects poorly on the school — it is considered the most dangerous school. And no principal wants that.”

Amy Sumor was encouraged by her union representative to file incident reports to her principal last year after she walked away bruised from students swinging fists at Augusta Fells Savage High School in West Baltimore. But she says she was met with resistance.

In the first fight, she didn’t think that a punch to her chest, which she said “knocked the wind out of me,” required her to go to a clinic, let alone pursue a workers’ compensation claim.

But when she turned her report in, Sumor said, she was surprised that she was interrogated by the principal and told that the school “had witnesses” who could challenge her account of the incident.

“I was absolutely appalled, that I just ended the conversation,” recalled Sumor, 41, a teacher of seven years who now works at another school.

The principal declined to comment.

A month later, when she tried to stop another altercation and a girl slammed into her, Sumor said she met the same resistance.

City workers’ compensation records show that the incidents involving Sumor — for which she did not attempt to collect compensation benefits — happened in March and April. Medical reports were submitted to the city in June.

“I thought that the school not wanting to report it was more dangerous than actually being struck by the child,” Sumor said.

English, the union leader, said teachers try to steer clear of drawing the ire of their principals and the central office.

Amy Sumor
Teacher at Northeast Middle School
Sumor filed medical reports, which did not incur any costs, in fiscal year 2013. She filed a claim last November after a student jumped on her foot and forced her to rely on crutches for walking.

This claim was too recent to be included in the records The Sun received.
Photo by Lloyd Fox
I didn’t want to press charges, because it wasn’t malicious. I thought that the school not wanting to report it was more dangerous than actually being struck by the child.
"I didn’t want to press charges, because it wasn’t malicious. I thought that the school not wanting to report it was more dangerous than actually being struck by the child." - Amy Sumor
Photo by Lloyd Fox

“Some just don’t want to report,” English said. “Some report it just because they have to, and they don’t want anything out of it. Some don’t want to take the wrath of their principals.”

Several teachers who filed workers’ compensation claims declined to be interviewed for this article, saying they feared retaliation.

Interim superintendent Edwards said the district needs to work with principals on handling teachers’ injuries. She said that there’s a bit of a “toughen up” mentality that sometimes eclipses sensitivity.

“We need to do a better job of helping principals understand the process is in getting staff the assistance they need once an incident occurs,” she said. “We need to be reinforcing high standards of respect in our schools, and no adults should feel like it’s OK for a kid to cross that line with them.”

Student impact

Injured teachers say that for all the consequences that can come with reporting incidents, they are baffled at the lack of repercussions for students.

That still bothers Jennifer Jones — even more than the back pain that she says gnaws at her every day.

The third-grader who attacked her in January 2013 had been standing on desks and throwing chairs in her colleague’s classroom. After spending time with the assistant principal, he was sent to his classroom to retrieve his belongings for dismissal.

The banging and expletives ringing through the hallway drew Jones out of her classroom to help the boy’s teacher calm him down. First, he rammed into Jones’ stomach. Then he knocked her to the floor.

“It was treated as an accident, not as an assault,” she said. “He wasn’t suspended; he didn’t even get detention. I just wanted an apology and wanted him to understand the consequences of his actions.”

Jones says when she returned to work, she was taunted by the boy, who bragged about how he “put Ms. Jones out.”

Teachers say that such responses result from a districtwide campaign to lower suspensions, which has put pressure on principals and given some students free rein.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the principals’ union, defends their response. He says principals sometimes try to help teachers with classroom management, which can be construed as ignoring their plight.

“No principal is intimidating any teacher for recommending a student for disciplinary action,” Gittings said. “The only time a principal would probably discourage a teacher from removing a disruptive child would be in the case of a teacher that has very limited management skills.”

Edwards said the discussion about using suspensions as a last resort has been muddied. “Although every incident does not warrant a suspension, every incident does warrant an adult holding them accountable,” she said.

The teachers union believes the district’s code of conduct, which requires principals to take several steps before suspending a student, has resulted in a lack of consequences for students.

And teachers say students take notice of the use of suspension as a last resort.

“They’re not stupid; they know exactly what’s going on,” said Guerrier. “You tell them you’re going to call the principal, and they laugh at you.”

Insult to injury

Teachers who choose to pursue workers’ compensation claims can face an uphill battle. That’s evident, teachers and their attorneys say, when teachers take the stand to plead their cases.

Veteran teacher Bruce Gayle filed a claim in May alleging that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of mental and physical abuse from students, and some parents, during the 2012-2013 school year, when he taught technology at Frederick Douglass High School.

“I was told they were going to get me, hurt me, come to my house,” Gayle, 59, testified in November in a windowless hearing room at the compensation commission’s downtown Baltimore offices.

“Who was ‘they’?” asked Commissioner Kimberly Smith Ward.

“Students,” Gayle replied.

Gayle listed a series of incidents: “There was a chair thrown from the back of the room to the front of the room.” “I was punched.” “I was pushed in the doorway numerous times.”

Gayle, who has taught for two decades, said the final incident came in March, when a student pushed and threatened him in the cafeteria.

He said he went to see Principal Antonio Hurt, who told him he would recommend Gayle’s termination for poor teaching performance. (Hurt, who did not testify at the hearing, referred questions to the school system, which said it would not comment on personnel issues.)

That day Gayle went to a psychiatric hospital, and in the months since, he has received mental health treatment while seeking work, he testified. His lawyer, Gary Berger, told the commissioner that doctors diagnosed Gayle with job-related PTSD.

A lawyer for the city, Lawrence G. Giambelluca, challenged Gayle’s claim.

He asked about several episodes in the teacher’s life — the death of his 3-month-old daughter in 1997, substance abuse problems he had after her death, and his father’s suicide — in an effort to establish what he called a “clear history” of pre-existing mental health conditions.

Jonathan Lasson
School Psychologist
"Alleges he was restraining a student from jumping out a window and injured his left thumb."
PAID TO DATE:   $26,547
Photo by Kim Hairston
That child didn’t want to hurt me. But what you deal with on a daily basis is kids who can be assaultive.
"That child didn’t want to hurt me. But what you deal with on a daily basis is kids who can be assaultive." - Jonathan Lasson
Photo by Kim Hairston

Giambelluca, with the firm Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, also asked Gayle about poor evaluations he received at City College, where he taught until 2012, and at Douglass during his year there.

Giambelluca called as a witness the school system’s labor relations manager, who criticized Gayle’s classroom performance. “It was a disservice to the students,” the manager, Jerome Jones, said after describing a class in which Gayle’s students seemed disengaged.

Weeks later, Ward ruled in Gayle’s favor. That means the city will pay him almost $8,000 for lost wages between his firing and the start of his unemployment payments.

The city will cover the PTSD treatment “for as long as he’s got it,” Berger said, noting that Gayle could seek money for permanent psychological damage, which could total thousands of dollars.

Gayle declined to comment. But Berger said his client felt vindicated.

“How pleased can you be?” Berger added. “It’s still a lot of stuff that comes with it — a lot of anxiety.”

Jones is navigating the bureaucracy of the workers’ compensation process, fighting for benefits, after the city abruptly stopped paying her salary and medical costs associated with her injury.

Records show the city has paid about $12,000 for her claim, and expects to pay a total of $20,000.

Her benefits stopped after the school system sent her a letter May 28 telling her not to come back to work because she had missed so many days since returning in March. In June, a spinal specialist confirmed that she was not ready to return to work.

She had used up her sick leave and used borrowed days from the union’s sick-leave bank that ran out at the end of December.

She recently received a new diagnosis of herniated disks, and will go back before the workers’ compensation commission to seek health benefits and coverage to see two specialists for the injury.

“I hope I can go back into the classroom and meet the demands of being a teacher, because I cannot effectively teach from a chair with a cushion,” she said. “But how are you supposed to heal if you’re so stressed out about bills?”

'You just do your job'

Many teachers say that the satisfaction of helping students outweighs the occupational risks.

When school psychologist Jonathan Lasson saw a young student with emotional disabilities lunge toward a second-story window after repeatedly screaming, “I want to die,” he reacted quickly.

The student at Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary was halfway out the window when Lasson pulled him back. Lasson, 43, tore tendons in his thumb, and in December had his second surgery, which allowed him to bend his left index finger again.

So far, city records show, Lasson’s workers’ compensation claim has an anticipated cost of $39,289, of which the city has paid $26,547. More than a year after the incident, Lasson describes his recovery as an “ongoing struggle,” and he still attends occupational therapy three times a week.

But the pain of his injury isn’t what has kept him up at night, said Lasson, who has been a school psychologist for 14 years. It’s the mental toll.

He used coping methods he would recommend to a client involved in such an incident. He stood by the window to re-create a positive experience. He focused on why his job is important.

See the entire Sun Investigates: Workers' Compensation series

“Oftentimes, when a child is successful at committing suicide, the first question is, ‘Where was the psychologist?’.” he said. “And those stories get more attention than when we save a child.”

Lasson said in his work with emotionally disturbed students, the vast majority are respectful and remorseful if their behavior veers off-track.

“That child didn’t want to hurt me,” he said. “But what you deal with on a daily basis is kids who can be assaultive.”

He added, “Do I think, on a conscious level, that when I went to work, that it could be my last day on earth? No. But … you never know. And the guilt that happens when you don’t do something is worse than the guilt when you do. So you just do your job.”

Like Lasson, other teachers say the risk of injury doesn’t curb their desire to be in the classroom.

“Paper cuts should be the extent of my injuries, not a busted foot,” Sumor, the former Augusta Fells teacher, said as she limped around her home with a crutch and a boot recently.

She said a student jumped on her foot in November to prevent her from having his name written on the board for misbehaving; she has filed a workers’ compensation claim associated with that injury. Sumor left Augusta Fells and now teaches at Northeast Middle.

Sumor, who left a 10-year career in the nonprofit sector to teach, said she feels a loyalty to her students. But she said the district has created a culture where students “rule the roost.”

“They deserve a teacher who could be anywhere else and chooses to stay with them,” she said. “They’re smart, but they’re not learning because they can’t stay in the classroom, in their seats … and the school system can’t keep their teachers from being injured.”

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