PATERSON — Teachers at John F. Kennedy High School say that they have been punched, pushed and threatened by their students and have filed a complaint with the state, saying the school district has failed to provide them with a safe working environment.
The schools superintendent said his administration takes the complaints seriously and will work with the union to resolve any problems.
"We began to try to put together a plan to respond," Schools Superintendent Michael Glascoe said Tuesday, noting that the plan was completed Tuesday morning.
Representatives of the Paterson Education Association, the local teachers union, filed the complaint Thursday with the New Jersey Department of Labor and Work Force Development, Office of Public Employee Safety.
The voluminous complaint includes school district incident reports and police reports listing a number of student incidents at the Preakness Avenue school, including urinating on the auditorium floor, swearing at teachers and physically assaulting staff. The complaint asks the state to investigate.
"The staff feel terrorized by the ongoing violence and the district's failure to keep order," the complaint reads.
Glascoe said he only found out about the complaint Tuesday but that information about the union's concerns at the school was relayed to him last week. He would not provide specifics about steps the district would take to end the problems at Kennedy because he first wanted to work with the union, Glascoe said.
"I know people are very anxious about this, as they should be," Glascoe said. "(I'm) always anxious about health and safety, whether it's at Kennedy or School 1."
Kevin Smith, spokesman for the Department of Labor, said he couldn't discuss anything that is under investigation.
Sasha Wolf, one of two union field representatives who filed the complaint on behalf of approximately 300 to 400 school staff members, said union officials had already met with district administrators about safety and security at Kennedy in October and November.
"We feel that the conditions have gotten so bad that the association needs to do something beyond just talking to the district," Wolf said.
In one incident last month, a female teacher was thrown against the wall by a male student. She hit her forehead, fell to the floor and the student kicked her on the right hip, according to the incident report signed by the teacher. As a result she was left with a broken tooth. The student was suspended for 10 days and the teacher has yet to return to the school, said James Joyner, first vice president of the teacher’s union.
The state Education Department keeps an annual record of violence, vandalism, weapons and substance abuse incidents for all New Jersey schools. Most victims were not teachers.
In the 2006-2007 school year, the state recorded five incidents against Kennedy high school personnel, up one from the previous year and down from 16 in 2003-2004. The union complaint alleges about 20 incidents of violence against teachers since the school year began in September.
Several teachers said there is a serious lack of discipline in the school, especially in the hallways. Students wander the halls during instructional time, teachers said, and when they are told to go to class, often respond with profanity and run off.
"I've been here nine years and I'm an alumni, and I've never seen it this bad," said Vanessa McClure, an English teacher at the school. "No one is laying down the law."
Another teacher, whose incident report is included in the union complaint and didn't want to be named, said he was pushed by a female student who had entered and disrupted his class while he was teaching. The episode surprised him, he said, describing himself as a big guy who has taught at the school for more than 20 years. It was the first such experience he's had.
Now he keeps a close eye on what's happening around him. "You're on alert," he said, "up periscope."
Students interviewed Tuesday largely agreed with their teachers that there is not enough discipline in the school and that the punishment doled out for bad behavior — such as suspensions — is not effective. Juan Javier, 15, a sophomore, and several of his friends agreed that students think they run the school. "They think they can do anything," Juan said. "Cursing at teachers, cops."
Glascoe said he would not respond to allegations of insufficient discipline. He did not deny the charges in the union complaint. "Who am I to deny it?" he said. "I'm trying to come to some common ground to make things better."
Students attribute much of their frustration to a new schedule that includes 80-minute teaching blocks, a 20-minute lunch and a 20-minute study hall. Students said many of their peers cut the study session and roam the school instead. In the fall, students protested the schedule by pulling fire alarms and walking out of the school on several occasions.
Kenny Rochelin, 18, a senior, said that during his freshman year the school was a lot calmer. But "this year is terrible."
Noreen Sweeney, a social studies teacher who has been at the school for seven years, said she doesn't feel safe. But she also said the majority of the school's students want to learn and that it's a smaller group of repeat offenders causing most of the trouble. In class, she's OK. But in the hallway teachers have to be on their guard. "Pay attention," she said.
***PHOTO - Michael Karas / Herald News - John F. Kennedy High School students Kenny Rochelin, 18, left, and Shaniqua Wilder, 17, talk about violence inside their Paterson school after classes let out on Tuesday. Rochelin said the school was much calmer when he was a freshman. "This year is terrible," he says.