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OKC teacher safety put to the test

District officials says schools are safe despite reports of theft and assault that often accompany classroom disrespect.
by Tim Willert Published: October 21, 2013

The third-grader punched his teacher so hard it knocked a tooth loose.

Reeling from the unexpected blow, Eleanor Goetzinger was holding the boy and trying to bring him to the principal's office at Bodine Elementary School when his 200-pound father showed up.

“Let go of my son,” he yelled, barreling down a school hallway.

“He pushed me on my left shoulder and knocked me back with his son in my arms,” she recalled Thursday.

Goetzinger received a head injury in the May attack, one of dozens of student assaults on teachers over the last few years. She said she suffers from headaches, fatigue and short-term memory loss as a result.

“It's totally affected my life,” she said. “I can't read as much anymore. My balance is affected, and I have trouble going up and down stairs.”

Goetzinger, who now teaches at another school, says some schools in the Oklahoma City district are simply unsafe for teachers. She expressed her concerns about school safety to lawmakers and school board members after the incident, hoping to spark public debate.

“I want them to open up their eyes and really know what's going on in their schools,” she said.

Goetzinger, a 16-year teaching veteran of the state's largest school district, is not alone.

At Jackson Middle School in Oklahoma City, where the ratio of students to teachers in some classrooms is 40-to-1, decorum is a lost art.

Young teachers, some fresh out of college, fear for their safety and property.

“Many are gang members or their parents are currently gang members,” said a Jackson teacher who declined to be identified. “The kids threaten teachers, and the principal can do nothing or won't do anything out of fear.”

Recently, a female teacher at the school was threatened by a group of students and had her cellphone taken.

“To my understanding it was one-time event,” said Kathleen Kennedy, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma City Public Schools. “They were disciplined according to the student code of conduct.”

Reports of thefts and assaults against teachers, however, are not uncommon among the district's 17 secondary schools, according to Oklahoma City police records. The department assigns an officer to each middle school and high school in the district.

Since the start of the 2009-2010 school year, there have been 78 reports of students hitting teachers, including three so far this year, records show.

Over the same period, police received 330 reports of thefts in schools. This statistic covers larcenies and robberies, including cellphone thefts.

“I would say that teachers having cellphones or laptops stolen is not infrequent but not exactly common either,” police Master Sgt. Gary Knight said.

District's plans

Interim Superintendent Dave Lopez said Friday the district is seeking to hire a new human resources chief who will focus on school safety and security.

“I want to make sure we're doing every thing we can to mitigate the risk for either students or staff,” Lopez said. “Obviously, we can't have education achievement if we don't have a safe environment for students and teachers.”

Even the district's elementary schools, which are unstaffed by police, are not immune to safety issues facing teachers as the attack on Goetzinger illustrates.

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by Tim Willert
Education Reporter
Tim Willert is a native Californian with Oklahoma ties who covers education. Prior to moving to Oklahoma in June 2011, he was as an editor for in Century City, Calif., and reported on courts for the Los Angeles Daily Journal and...
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