When pupils attack

Jeff Kuhner

Apparently, it's the teacher's fault when students assault them in the classroom--that's how it is, at least, at Reginald F. Lewis High School in Baltimore. Last week, The Baltimore Sun reported that Jolita Berry, after asking a girl in her art class to sit down, was confronted by the student, who threatened to beat her up.

According to Berry, she warned the student: "Back up, you're in my space. If you hit me, I'm gonna defend myself."

But she didn't protect herself. Instead, egged on by classmates, the student viciously pummeled Berry, who lay on the ground defenseless as someone videotaped the ghastly attack on his or her cell phone. The incident was later posted on MySpace.

What's scandalous is not just that a teacher was beaten to a pulp, or that most students in the classroom can be seen reveling in this act of barbarism, but that Berry--not the assailant--was blamed by the principal, Jean Ragin, for having "triggered" the incident by saying she would defend herself. The assault--and the principal's irresponsible and cowardly response--has rightly outraged concerned parents, including Baltimore's mayor, Sheila Dixon.

"That principal might need to be disciplined because no teacher should be disrespected in the classroom," Dixon said at a morning news conference last week.

Dixon added that Ragin's response was "unfair to that teacher." That's putting it mildly.

Adding insult to injury, Berry says that the principal refused to remove the student from school grounds after the assault. Hence, when Berry was being taken out of the school to get medical treatment she had to face the student in the hallway, snickering and bragging to friends.

No teacher should have to endure this kind of humiliation. When a violent culture takes root in a school, it spreads like a cancer. This is why decisive action needs to be taken immediately: The student should be expelled, Ragin should be replaced, and a new principal should be brought in to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on school violence. The message needs to be loud and clear: Assaulting teachers is unacceptable under any circumstances. This time, Ms. Berry walked away with a sore shoulder and a broken blood vessel in her eye. Next time she, or some other teacher at Reginald Lewis High, may not be so fortunate.