'I want to look into his eyes'

Recovering Phila. teacher unsure how he'll react at sentencing of his attacker.

Posted: April 01, 2007

Germantown High School teacher Frank Burd doesn't know what James Footman looks like, but he anxiously awaits the chance to lay eyes on the young attacker who broke his neck.

That will come on Tuesday when Burd attends the sentencing for 15-year-old Footman, who pleaded guilty in the Feb. 23 school assault that broke five bones in Burd's neck and injured his brain.

The attack sparked outrage, prompted teachers to tell about their assaults, and triggered changes in the district's handling of dangerous students.

"I want to see him," Burd, 60, said Friday evening, sitting on a couch in his brother's home, where he has been recuperating since being released from MossRehab in Elkins Park a week ago.

"I want to see what a person looks like who would do this to me. I want him to see me, too. I want him to see my eyes. I want to look into his eyes. I don't know what I'll see, if I'll see anything."

Burd said he is allowed to address the Philadelphia Family Court judge before sentencing, and he will. He has thought about what he'll say "a million times and not at all."

"I just know what I'm going to say is going to come to me just by being there," Burd said, periodically adjusting the brace that extends down his chest and keeps his head and neck stable.

He doesn't want to be the one who decides or speculates on a just sentence for Footman and Donte Boykin, 17, the other student charged in the attack, whose case is scheduled to go to trial on Thursday.

Boykin tripped or pushed Burd in the hallway after the teacher had taken away his iPod during class, prosecutors said.

Burd fell toward Footman, a ninth grader, who took the opportunity to punch the teacher several times, causing him to fall and strike his head against a locker, prosecutors said. Footman, who was cutting classes at the time, didn't know Burd or Boykin. It wasn't the first time he had hit a teacher, however. Footman had been dismissed from Roosevelt Middle School after assaulting a teacher and was on the verge of being expelled from Germantown. He had been absent 45 days and suspended 11 times, and was getting D's and F's in his courses this year, prosecutors said.

Now, Burd said, he wants the judge to make sure his attackers don't "do this more often to other people and that others see there are consequences."

"As a teacher, I'm a very forgiving person, but sometimes if you forgive someone too many times, they feel they have license to do what they want," he said.

For the veteran math teacher, who has spent 24 years in the classroom, the painful consequences of being attacked linger.

"For how long am I going to have these scars?" he asked, pointing to the two brown spots on his forehead where a "halo" device was screwed to his skull to stabilize his neck and head.

"How long is my hip going to hurt?" he asked, recalling how doctors had to take some of the bone from there to repair his neck.

"When will my digestive system return?" he asked, explaining that his throat is still swollen and he finds it hard to swallow.

"When will I stop having nightmares? When will I stop worrying about things from behind me because I was pushed by him from the back?"

He doesn't remember the attack. He does remember this: Boykin, a teen who had given him "small problems" in the past, came in late and wandered to a seat in the back of the room. The teen was playing his iPod so loud that it was disrupting other students. He asked Boykin to stop. Some classmates repeated the request, and Boykin ignored it and put the player on the desk in front of him. Burd took it and walked away.

Another student said: "Don't worry, Donte. He'll give it to you at the end of the period."

That's when Burd's memory goes blank, even when the assistant district attorney shows him a video of him being shoved and a photo of him lying on the ground.

Burd, who is on workers' compensation, spent 11 days at Albert Einstein Medical Center and 17 days at MossRehab in the aftermath of the attack. During that time, he received hundreds of letters and cards. He had visits from other teachers who had been assaulted. Many of his students who were heartsick over the incident visited him, too.

Philadelphia Pastor J. Dykeman Brown, who was a student in one of Burd's classes at Germantown High in 1973-74, wrote: "No one deserves such a crime but especially someone like you who has dedicated his life to educating the youth of today."

Wrote one current student: "I am also filled with anger, frustration, and resentment for the person who did this to you, who did not even know you and I can not help but think if he did he would not have done it."

Penned another: "I hope you get better and come back because if you don't, then you let the kids that did this to you win."

Burd said he becomes stressed when he thinks of the future. He's not sure he'll ever return to the classroom and his life at Germantown, where he directed school plays, took yearbook photos, and taught digital photography. He has no plans to sue the district.

He still spends much of his time in physical, occupational, recreational and speech therapies. He needs help with simple things like washing his hair, and he can't drive. Using puzzles and board games, he's working at restoring his concentration skills. His memory skills largely have come back; at first, he would forget his thoughts in midsentence.

After he heals physically - he is expected to make a full recovery - he plans to seek counseling.

"I haven't even begun that process yet," he said.

He paged through two photo albums of his medical stay: A photo of him embracing a young male student who had wrapped his shirt around him and cradled his head as he was on the ground bleeding. His youngest child, Noah, 16, an honor student at Cheltenham High School, who played guitar by his bedside. A fellow teacher who brought her family to visit. Medical staff. Photos of him combing his hair for the first time, undergoing tests, getting the "halo" device off.

A photography fanatic before the incident, he wanted the photos, he said, because they're part of his history and a way of saying "this was me and it's OK that I went through this."

Burd, who has a bachelor's degree and three master's degrees, began his teaching career at Roosevelt, then a junior high, in 1968. After a break, he moved to Germantown High in 1973, then on to the smaller Parkway High School in 1976 where he worked until 1987. Then he took a 13-year break from education to run his own postcard business full-time.

Besides Noah, he has three other sons - one in college, one about to start law school, and one who is a doctor. He has two grandchildren.

Burd is glad that the school district is taking steps to improve discipline and reduce violence - some additional measures in partnership with the state Department of Education were announced on Friday - but he has some tips to offer.

For one, there should be a smaller set of important rules that are strictly enforced.

He said schools must be smaller - not large warehouses where students can easily get lost and find trouble. Class sizes must drop, too, he said. Thirty-three students in a class, the district cap for upper grades, are too many.

And disruptive students, he said, must be moved to disciplinary schools in an effective and timely way. Teachers must be encouraged to report incidents even if doing so categorizes the school as dangerous.

Wearing jeans, a button-down shirt, and loafers, Burd went for a stroll with a reporter in Elkins Park on Friday afternoon.

"It feels so good to be out," he said, toting his camera under a rich blue sky.

A stranger carrying bags stopped him on the sidewalk with a look of recognition and asked: "Are you Mr. Burd?"

He said yes.

"Oh, Mr. Burd, I'm so sorry," said the woman, Mary Long, a parent of grown children and resident of Elkins Park who had seen Burd on television.

Burd looked her in the eyes, chatted with her, and hugged her.

It's more than he expects to hear from James Footman.


 

For other articles on violence against teachers, go to


Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Martha Woodall contributed to this article.

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