Elmer Smith | Malice in Blunderland

Posted: June 22, 2007

AFTER A SERIES of assaults on teachers, including one who suffered a broken neck, you'd think the school district would finally put its foot down.

They put it down all right - right on the back of Thomas Bowers.

Bowers is about to be fired for an incident last September where he fended off an attack by an 11th grader who also had attacked him in an incident last June at John Bartram High School.

The 11th-grader, emboldened by the fact that he got away with the two attacks on Bowers, joined two other students who assaulted another teacher in a classroom at Bartram on Oct. 20.

The student finally was transferred to a twilight school where, according to school district records, he threatened a school police officer on Jan. 24. He has not returned to school since.

"We list him as a non-attender," a school district spokesman told me yesterday. "He will turn 17 in August and he doesn't have to come back."

Thomas Bowers can't come back.

The teen serial assault artist managed to evade any serious punishment, but Bowers was fired after slowly twisting in the wind for an entire school year.

Bartram Principal Connie McAlister had him removed after the September incident. She called for Bowers' dismissal, citing the report of a school disciplinarian who was called to break up the scuffle.

According to that report, disciplinarian Damond Warren "observed Mr. Bowers holding [student] up against a locker with one arm on the student's neck and the other hand hitting the student."

You've got to wonder about that. The student, who reportedly is six feet tall, towers over Bowers, who stands 5'3". His history suggests something other than the docile response Warren witnessed. And Warren arrived too late to see how the scuffle started.

But there also was a report from another teacher, Michelle Faison, who says she saw the student attack Bowers without provocation.

"The student started to swing at Mr. Bowers," Faison wrote. "Then the teacher grabbed the student and pushed him against the locker . . .

"Then Mr. Bowers proceeded to swing back."

Southwest Regional Superintendent Harry Gaffney sorted out the reports. He also considered an incident 10 years ago when Bowers faced dismissal after an altercation with a student at a disciplinary school.

An arbiter ruled that he had acted in self defense in 1997. Bowers was reinstated. But Gaffney cited that incident in his recommendation that the School Reform Commission should fire Bowers this time.

"They kept me sitting in the regional office for the whole school year," Bowers said.

"I experienced a lot of anxiety and anger just not knowing from day-to-day what was going to happen. I should have been in a classroom teaching."

Ted Kirsch, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, was incredulous.

"This is absurd," Kirsch said. "We've got a teacher shortage and this teacher is left sitting for a year and gets paid to do nothing. It's ridiculous.

"This is a miscarriage of justice. The district has a zero-tolerance policy for violence against school personel yet this student is a repeat offender and the teacher gets fired. . . .

"We will defend this teacher vigorously."

Bowers was gratified to hear that. But he is still pondering whether he also should get a lawyer. His options, a school district spokeman told me, are to go to arbitration or seek a hearing before the SRC.

She said he can ask for a hearing at a regularly scheduled SRC meeting where he can also ask to have his witnesses presented in a public meeting.

"Either way, it could drag on for months," warned District spokesman Felecia Ward.

"I'm burned out, I don't know what I'll do," Bowers said "I'm starting to look for jobs.

"I hate to lose my pension and all the years I put in. I hate to give up on teaching.

"I don't want to go out like this."

Not when the district averages 800-900 assaults on teachers in an average year. Not in a district where a student can get away with a series of attacks on teachers and escape unscathed.

Nobody should have to go out like that. *

Send e-mail to smithel@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go.philly.com/smith

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