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.
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.
Her alleged attacker, Nsilo Hunter, 36, of Oklahoma City, was charged with assault and battery upon a school employee, a misdemeanor. His next court appearance is scheduled for Oct. 30. Attempts to reach Hunter for comment were unsuccessful.
Hunter entered the school through a door Goetzinger said was off limits to parents picking up their children after school.
“There are some elementary schools that need a police officer, maybe not all of them,” she said. “They need to look into those high crime areas.”
Kennedy, the district's executive director of communications, said district teachers and students are safe and their concerns are addressed, first by school administrators and then by district officials if the issues are not adequately resolved.
“We strive to make our schools the safest place possible for everyone who enters the door,” she said. “When someone knocks that out of balance then it's up to administration and building leadership to access the problem and provide a solution.”
Others familiar with the urban school district say young teachers are ill-equipped to handle the rigors of working classrooms filled with students who come from broken homes and have behavior problems or struggle to grasp the subject matter.
“A lot of new teachers don't have management skills or discipline skills,” said a district staffer close to the situation who requested anonymity. “They don't know classroom management.”
According to Kennedy, all new teachers receive new teacher orientation that includes classroom management. The district also offers additional classroom management and professional development for teachers with less than five years of experience, she said.
“You have to find a good fit for the school sometimes,” Kennedy said. “When we find those good people we need to equip them with some additional classroom management skills. That way they are set up for success.”
Overcrowding at Jackson
District officials this week acknowledged problems with overcrowding at Jackson Middle School and said they are working to fix the problem by hiring additional staff and bringing in a teacher from another middle school to pick up the slack.
The overcrowding, Kennedy said, is occurring in science and elective classes and not in classrooms where reading, writing and arithmetic are taught.
The district, she added, needs to hire people who are familiar with the challenges that come with teaching in an urban setting.
“We have high poverty in Oklahoma City so our kids come to school and a lot of them are on the free and reduced lunch program,” Kennedy said. “Some of them may have a huge host of problems at home. It's hard for kids to depart some of those problems when they come to school.”
At least two teachers contacted for this story said district schools suffer from poor leadership. Administrators, they said, don't support their teachers and are slow to act on referrals from teachers, particularly when it comes to disruptive or poor-performing students.
Kennedy acknowledged there is room for improvement.
“Our teachers deserve for us to be able to support them as much as we support our students,” she said. “I think they are being supported, but I think there is an opportunity for us to listen to their concerns.”