Teacher safety: It's deja vu

Posted: March 13, 2007

SAMSON L. Freedman had no warning before a .45-caliber bullet pierced his brain, fired from a handgun held by one of his pupils. Ambushed from behind while leaving his job as an art teacher at Leeds Junior High in Mount Airy on the afternoon of Feb. 1, 1971, his death was instantaneous, ignominious and bloody.

His executioner was a 14-year- old who had taken the gun from his father's bureau and was "trying to scare" a teacher whose report about cursing had resulted in the boy's suspension.

In that moment of impulsive insanity, Samson Freedman became the only teacher in Philadelphia history to be slain by one of his own pupils. (Charged as an adult, the teen ended up with a plea bargain and served only nine years of a 20-year sentence.)

Mr. Freedman was 56, a 25- year veteran of the school district. He was a gentle, unassuming man who used to write comments in pencil on the bottoms of the ceramic sculptures that his students made. He was a strong, respected voice in the community, a beloved teacher and a fine artist.

His cold-blooded murder sent shock waves across the city and nation. It was decades before Columbine - a time when schools were considered safe havens from the gritty outside world. For the first time, urban public schools were perceived as dangerous, frightening places.

Everything and nothing has changed.

Since then, the school district has employed a continuous progression of methods to increase security: locked doors, police, metal detectors and a code of discipline, zero tolerance and alternative schools - all the while being very conscientious about due-process. But things are getting worse instead of better.

Now, 36 years and another cold February later, another response by a student to ordinary classroom discipline became an almost fatal assault on another teacher. Germantown High math teacher Frank Burd could have died from the broken neck he suffered. And, like Freedman, he would have died just for doing his job. It was preventable. The student who attacked Mr. Burd had been expelled once but was allowed back, a glaring mistake that is impossible for the classroom teacher to overcome.

In the current crisis, there is an obvious breakdown in the district's disciplinary system. Even with additional schools for miscreants, there are too many violent youngsters terrorizing classrooms with no fear of serious consequences. At Germantown High, for example, penny-pinching has caused the dismissal of teaching support staff that is so critical to maintaining control.

The teacher, often alone and unprotected, is responsible for stopping fights or confronting misbehavior. Discipline is applied haphazardly, limited by rules originally meant to protect the rights of children, especially those with disabilities.

Budget cuts and inconsistency, along with time-consuming due-process rules, is putting a new generation of teachers at risk. *

Gloria C. Endres is an adjunct assistant professor at the College of Education at Temple. E-mail gendres@temple.edu.

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