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Schools to review fight policy

May 16, 2003|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

Washington County Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan pledged a review Thursday of how teachers and administrators handle in-school fights, a day after a South Hagerstown High School teacher was injured while trying to break up a fight.

Two ninth-grade boys each face a second-degree assault charge as a result of the Wednesday morning incident that sent Civil War history teacher John Michael Priest, 53, to the hospital for treatment of head and chest injuries, Hagerstown City Police said.

Reached at his home Wednesday, Priest said a doctor told him not to return to school until Monday.

Morgan said she did not know what disciplinary action might be taken against the two students, but said it is up to the prinicipal to make any recommendations. "Nothing has been recommended to my knowledge yet," she said.

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She said Boyd Michael III, executive director of secondary education, would decide whether to uphold any recommendation. Morgan would decide any disciplinary appeals.

The incident is the third incident involving students and teachers in Hagerstown high schools since February.

Morgan said she did not think the three incidents were evidence of a problem with the school system. She said she will address principals and possibly form a committee to discuss school violence.

"I think that this brings to mind that we have to again review our process for how we deal with student altercations ... and have the proper procedures to de-escalate" student fights, Morgan said.

"It is never appropriate to be physical with a student and it is never appropriate for a student to be physical with another student or a teacher," she said.

Morgan said violence in Washington County schools is relatively low compared with other systems across the state, but she said she agrees with the common belief that violence is increasing in schools.

"The culture of violence in our society has definitely increased," Morgan said, "All you have to do is look at the typical video game and know."

Hagerstown City Police Officer Steve Cromer said Thursday that legally defined "assaults" are commonplace between students, but they are not always violent assaults.

In the months since he has been stationed at South High as the resource officer, Cromer said he believed teachers generally show great restraint when it came to dealing with unruly students.

Cromer said he regularly sees "kids just outright cussing at each other and their teachers. It's amazing. ... This is stuff I see first-hand."

"It would be very difficult for me to put up with what these teachers put up with," Cromer said.

Not all teachers think kids are out of control, said North High math teacher Dave Warrenfeltz, who has been teaching at the school for 19 years.

"There's discipline problems. I think that's true in all schools," Warrenfeltz said, but said he believed they are isolated.

He said he hasn't heard other teachers saying they think the school has become unsafe, and "I wake up in the morning and I enjoy going to work. ... I think our school's a safe place."

In addition to the immediate steps to review procedures, Morgan said a committee she formed earlier this year has been looking at counseling and guidance issues, which in part involves argument intervention policies. That committee will make recommendations soon, she said.

The school system also will begin a new program stemming from the federal No Child Left Behind act to coach teachers on better ways to deal with students, Morgan said.

Morgan said that while none of the schools in the system were identified as "persistently dangerous" by federal standards, the Positive Behavior Interim Strategies program will begin next fall.

South High Principal Michael Shockey said Thursday that Wednesday's incident appeared to be "over a social issue that has spilled over from the community to here."

He said students and staff members he spoke with Thursday were concerned about Priest and expressed support for him.

"Kids are very upset that something would happen to Mr. Priest," Shockey said.

Shockey said there are no immediate plans to change procedures at the school, but "every teacher has a responsibility to maintain order ... (and) kids have to know here if they're in the middle of something they're not supposed to be doing, and a teacher asks them to stop, they have to stop."

South High wrestling coach Brian Jacob Brake, 37, was charged April 1 with second-degree assault in connection with allegations he pushed a student against a wall and held him there in February. He is no longer coaching but remains at the school as a math teacher.

North High Spanish teacher Dennis Garrett Laub, 51, was charged May 1 with two counts of second-degree assault after being accused of grabbing one student by the neck and tipping over a second student's desk while she was sitting in it. Laub was assigned to administrative duties off the school grounds.

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