When Things Turn Ugly

Threats in the Student-Teacher Relationship

By Donn K. Harris

Teachers have more control over their relations with students than they might realize.

I remember the first time I saw Javier. He had eyes that pierced right through you. Angry eyes, but sad, plaintive eyes too, eyes that asked you for something. He had been thrown out of class for using profanity. He arrived in my office quietly, almost deferentially, and handed me the teacher’s referral without saying anything.

“Student refuses to work,” the referral read. “Attends irregularly, disrupts class, is on track for failure. Today shouted a profanity as I wrote on the board.”

“What happened, Javier?” I asked. “The teacher called me an idiot,” he told me.

His eyes told me that he didn’t think I would believe him. I did believe him, but that wasn’t enough.

“Do they have a right to say that?” he asked.

I was unable to answer him.

• • •

Our high school was audited recently by the California Safe Schools Assessment Team. The state had just recently hired consultants to track data relating to criminal activity in the schools, and the auditors were interested in our reporting procedures and record-keeping systems. As the Dean of Students, I am responsible for student discipline and campus safety. Our office handles everything from runaway students to missing computer chips.

Near the end of the session the lead auditor asked us if we had any questions or comments. I responded, “You know, I’m surprised you don’t have a category that tracks threats against school personnel. We file police reports on those, and I thought you’d be interested in that.”

“Oh, we are,” the auditor assured me. “It’s just that we’d be swamped with reports. We’d have to triple our staff.”

The audit took place on a day that found an intriguing drama being played out at our school. A teacher had filed a report through me alleging that a week earlier, a student named Javier had “said something to the effect that he was going to get me.” The teacher was filing this report because the student did not appear “contrite.”

We had met twice about Javier’s disruptive behavior in the hallway outside the teacher’s classroom, and the teacher was dissatisfied with the student’s attitude. At one point the teacher had said to me, in the presence of other adults, “I want to get this kid.” I had invited the police officer assigned to our school to the second meeting, and the teacher brought in the site union representative.

In a strange twist, during the meeting the police officer felt that it was necessary to admonish the teacher for leveling a hard, confrontational stare toward the student, in the presence of the student’s mother. It also came out that the teacher had said to the student and a group of his friends, “You’ve got friends, but I’ve got friends too.”

The parent spoke only Spanish, and when this was translated to her, she looked at me beseechingly. What was I going to do about this? Would I allow her son to be railroaded into a possible expulsion? The translator and the police officer looked toward me as well: it was my call.

“I am suspending the student for two days for the disruptive activity in the hallway,” I stated in Spanish and English. “I have no documentation of a direct threat against anyone, and I’m recommending that no police report be filed at this time.”

The meeting broke up and the student left to collect his work for the two days he would be at home. The teacher wanted 24 hours to think over whether he wanted to file a formal police report.


The next morning, in my box, was a referral form filled out by the teacher. It gave a date and time from the previous week, and stated that Javier had “said something to the effect that he was going to get me.” I called the police officer back, filed a report, and took the matter to the assistant principal.

“I can’t in good faith sit before a disciplinary committee with these charges,” I told him. I explained that the report of the alleged threat had come to me after the matter had appeared to be closed. Furthermore, there had been a week’s interval between the alleged incident and the documentation, and the teacher had clearly demonstrated hostile and confrontational behavior toward the student. If I were to sit before a disciplinary committee and these issues were raised by the student’s family, I could not adequately answer them.

The assistant principal called the teacher in, and the union representative joined us. They wanted action. They wanted the student removed from school. They presented the student’s recent history: weapons possession (at another school), incarceration, truancy, academic failure. The teacher’s threatening comments and challenging stares, and the lengthy delay in filing charges, were explained as “errors in judgment.”

The assistant principal advised me to write up the disciplinary report, but I insisted that the teacher go before the committee to back up his charges. This was agreed upon, but of course the situation continued to escalate once the union was involved. Around the school, the issue took on the somewhat warped proportions of a deep and angry division between two camps: those who wanted the teacher protected and the student removed, and those who felt that the teacher had behaved unprofessionally and had victimized the student. The entire discipline policy of the school became a point of contention. Arguments ensued, teachers argued with teachers, rumors flew wildly about, and the student’s family hired a lawyer. The administrative machinery has pushed on, and we are currently awaiting the outcome of the district’s disciplinary hearing.

In a similar incident, just before the controversy over Javier and his teacher, a different teacher had asked me to suspend a student for using profanity against her. During our conversation she said to me, “If he were on the street, he’d be dead meat.”

Should I have interpreted that as a threat and filed a police report? Was the teacher merely being metaphorical, dramatic, creatively expressive, therapeutically angry? Or was I wrong to try to explain her behavior away, ignoring a genuine threat to the student’s safety? Would the district hold her responsible in a disciplinary hearing?

I did not act on the teacher’s comment. My job is a series of judgment calls from 6 a.m. through 5 p.m., and I didn’t feel the student was in danger. But I also felt that Javier posed no threat to the first teacher. He was, however, perceived as dangerous by a large number of adults in the building, and he had the kind of history that gave their demands for removal some teeth. No school administration wants to be seen as weak in this area; the issue is continually in the public eye, and the call is always for stern disciplinary measures.

Yet what was the actual difference between the incident with Javier and the second teacher’s comment? If anything, the statement that the profane student would be “dead meat” was a stronger threat than Javier’s “something to the effect …”

This is not the way the world works, though, and we all know that. It is acceptable for teachers to use certain linguistic dramatics; when students use them, we file police reports. Incidents like these are played out daily in schools throughout the country, and teachers’ unions flex their muscles and demand consequences and protection, and stands such as mine are wholly unpopular.

I could name a dozen incidents in the past school year alone in which students were suspended and in some cases transferred for actions that were perceived as potentially violent, but which clearly could have been avoided by better judgment on the part of the adult involved.

I have been Dean of Students for two years. Before that, I had worked in our city’s juvenile hall as a teacher, spent a year managing a 50-student dropout prevention program, and taught students with severe emotional disturbances. Over the years, I have been verbally threatened perhaps a dozen times, but have never filed a police report. We have counseling for angry students and a very effective Peer Resource Center where students, trained as peer counselors, advise troubled students on matters like these. Some would call this a lenient approach, and wonder about “appropriate consequences” (a phrase I hear often). But, despite public perception to the contrary, I do not know of a single teacher who has been directly assaulted by a student, and I discuss discipline and violence daily with teachers.

Yet the number of threats is, apparently, off the chart. Could it be that the threats are not connected to acts of violence, but are merely poorly chosen expressions of anger? Wouldn’t the two teachers in question — the one with “friends” and the other who told me the student “would be dead meat” — ask to be forgiven for their unfortunate choice of words? And if we forgave them, would we be too lenient?

It could be said that the statement, “You’re going to amount to nothing,” is a threat, particularly when it is made by someone with the power to help that come true, such as a teacher who hands out grades and makes recommendations to counselors and administrators. I hear variations of that kind of comment daily. On a regular basis I hear kids called “jerks,” “idiots,” “orphans,” “psychopaths,” or told to “wear diapers” and “buy a broom” (since custodial work is their only future). I have seen a teacher of students with emotional disturbances throw a boy’s notebook to the floor because “the dummy has to learn you don’t place a notebook on the teacher’s desk.”

Our state education code gives a vague nod to professional behavior by teachers, and uses catch words like dignity and respect to guide educators in their behavior toward students. But the kids have no real recourse when teachers behave otherwise. When the students put these teacher behaviors into writing, I’ve been accused of soliciting negative information about teachers.

Interestingly, this same education code gives me great latitude in dealing with threats against staff. I can do anything from “counsel” the student to put him or her up for expulsion. I can leave the police out of it or request that the student be cited, even booked and held. I can send the student back to class or place him or her on indefinite suspension. In most cases I ask the teacher how he or she feels. Do they feel endangered? Would they like to file a police report?

I remember the first time I was asked that as a young teacher. A student said he was going to “kick my ass” because I threw him out of class, and the Dean had asked me about the police. I was shocked. I didn’t think such an incident was a legal problem — but many teachers do. Filing a police report gives a sense of control: something is being done to take the schools back from the psychopaths and the future custodians.

There are other troubling aspects to this debate as well. Earlier this year, the Union Building Committee asked me to attend a meeting and explain why I hadn’t suspended two kids for fighting. Was it because they were African-American and I had been instructed to keep our minority suspension numbers low?

“Philosophically,” I told the group, “I don’t believe in suspension.” This was to come back to haunt me later, when the incident between the teacher and Javier occurred. I would be criticized for “lax discipline.”


I know I will go out on a limb in saying this, but I honestly believe that 99% of the time, the kids’ threats don’t mean anything. As I said earlier, but it bears repeating: I do not know of a single teacher who has been directly assaulted by a student, and I am acquainted with many teachers whose careers span three decades.

When I am threatened, I say this to kids: “You don’t mean that. Hey, it’s me, you don’t want to hurt me.” And they’ll agree. They are angry — they are very angry — and sometimes are filled with a palpable rage. But they don’t want to hurt anyone.

Our student population is largely immigrant, and many come from countries recently at war. We have a sizable group who live in public housing, and some of our kids are homeless, or have been homeless. Group home counselors are in my office continually, checking on the students under their care, students who have been separated from their families for a variety of painful and torturous reasons. Many of these children have heard threats and unchecked expressions of anger their entire lives. We will not teach them differently by transferring them to another school. We will merely lose sight of them.

Who can forget the raging passions and tormented confusion of their teenage years, even under the best of conditions? Who is unable to predict outcomes when you put the social pressures of the 1990s — the joblessness, the poverty, the troubled streets — into the equation for today’s youth?

“I’ll get you,” was what the homeless kid said to the teacher who had called him an orphan. But all the kid really did was cry. I was in the hallway, standing with the student after the teacher had left. When the kid reached into his pocket, there was no weapon there, only a tissue. And a used one at that.

When I was in teacher training, a professor told our class something I never forgot. “You are going to be high school teachers,” he said, “and most of you love your subject matter and will try to pattern yourselves after your favorite college instructors. But you would do better to emulate your favorite elementary school teachers.” His point was, I believe, that we would be teaching children, no matter how large they might seem, and that the training of the elementary school teacher, with its emphasis on child development and careful nurturing of mind and spirit, was equally meaningful to us.

When I deal with threats and the sequence of events that precede them, I think of this. How easily we could have avoided the threats, in so many cases, if we had simply met the challenges of the day with an attitude of nurturing instead of punishment, of firm guidance instead of cutting castigation.

I am still groping for answers to these issues, and they are slow in coming. I know this, however: The answer does not lie in police reports, nor in some unfounded idea of “appropriate consequences.” Calling a kid a jerk won’t do anything except send the kid away, angry and hurt. Suspension only removes a student from your influence and guidance.

But I can begin to see the shape of the answers, and they have to do with respect and truth and the intangible dynamics of the relationship between adult and child. Some might call these intangibles love and understanding and compassion. I just might agree with them.

• • •

Just before the end of the school year, I took my graffiti clean-up crew out for burritos. Javier was among the group, his disciplinary hearing still pending. The mood was joyous and sad at once. It had been a long school year and the approaching summer filled us with varying degrees of excitement and apprehension.

This group of Latino students was not doing well academically. In the small restaurant, as we read the burrito menu on the wall, I noticed Javier pushing his friends aside. “Mr. Harris,” Javier said “you order first.”

“I’m hungry,” Otto complained. But Javier told him, “You gotta show respect. Ain’t that right, Mr. Harris?”

We didn’t get to see that side of Javier in school. The opportunity just wasn’t there in the world of hard desks and loud tardy bells.

“Yes it is, Javier,” I answered.  “I couldn’t agree with you more.”

Donn Harris is Dean of Students at an urban high school in Northern California.