A group of future teachers donned protective pads and practiced escaping headlocks and full Nelsons. They learned where pressure can cause pain, and how to take down someone with a kick to the knees.
In light of recent acts of school violence, some educators believe learning how to use force should be part of every teacher’s undergraduate curriculum, alongside early childhood development classes and the classroom internship.
“The young people we’re sending out as beginning teachers need to learn something about the law, about how to protect themselves and how to protect the students under their supervision,” said Emma Rembert, chairwoman of the education department at Bethune-Cookman College.
The Daytona Beach, Fla., school held the self-defense seminar for its education students in April, coincidentally just two days after two students in Colorado terrorized their school with bombs and guns, killing 12 classmates, a teacher, and then themselves.
“They’re not going out there expecting danger, but they should be prepared,” Rembert said. “I believe that anybody going to be a teacher needs to understand reasonable force.”
In a recent Associated Press survey of nearly half the school districts in Florida, none required teachers to be trained in self-defense. “I pray that won’t be necessary,” said Albert Bashaw, director of student services and discipline for Pasco County.
Nearly all the districts surveyed, however, said special education instructors were trained in crisis prevention, which includes the proper means of restraint.
To fill the gap in teachers’ education, Sheila Bolin and Richard Flesch have been offering self-defense seminars for teachers at education conferences nationwide and in small groups at the Kissimmee, Fla., resort where Bolin works as a tennis pro.
Along with Florida State education professor Fanchon Funk and attorney William Osborne, Bolin and Flesch also authored a book for educators, “Use of Force” (Reasonable and Deadly).
Most teachers don’t realize that Florida law lets teachers use force if necessary, said Bolin, who led the Bethune-Cookman seminar with Flesch. In 1996, the state gave educators the right to use “reasonable” force to stop students from hurting themselves or endangering others.
“The teachers have been misled to believe that they legally can’t touch or can’t defend themselves,” she said. “That’s not true.”
Many school safety experts believe self-defense lessons should be required for every teacher across the country.
“You hope you never ever have to put your hands on a child, but when a child acts out and they become so aggressive, you need to know how to restrain a child professionally,” said Wolfgang Halbig, former director of safety and security at Seminole County schools. He is now a private safety consultant.
Schools can be held liable if their staff isn’t trained properly to intervene in a dangerous situation.
“There’s a legal obligation for them to protect the children that are put in their care,” said Flesch, watch commander at the Osceola County Jail. “You can stay and watch a child get beat to death while the school resource officer, maybe, is across campus. By the time he gets there, the damage is done.”
There were an estimated 13,500 violent acts committed in Florida schools during the 1998-1999 school year, according to the Florida Department of Education. There were an estimated 3,670 incidents involving weapons in schools during the same school year.
Teachers who take the seminar are taught about warning signs of violent behavior: abnormal stuttering, rapid speech, clenched fists, redness in the face, and targeted glancing.
They are taught to approach a potentially violent student using a calm, reassuring voice, making sure the student’s hands are always in view, and not to get closer than within six feet of an agitated student.
They are taught about points of nerves on the body that can cause immediate pain with pressure and where to strike on the neck to stun someone. Teachers learn how to escape chokeholds, headlocks, and how to take someone down with a kick to the leg.
They also learn how to identify gang clothes and gang hand signals.
Perhaps most importantly, teachers are taught to document every confrontation in case the incident leads to litigation.
“You should be able to cover yourself and answer everything that’s going to come up if there’s a possibility of a … trial,” Bolin said.
Not everyone feels that learning self-defense is necessary. In most situations, students end up breaking up fights among their peers even before teachers or deputies arrive at the scene, said Stacy Shankman, assistant principal of Pine Ridge High School in Volusia County.
“It’s great that teachers are learning (self-defense), but I can’t think of a situation that I know of where it has been needed,” Shankman said.
But at Bethune-Cookman, student evaluations of the seminar were so positive that Embert said she intends to invite Bolin and Flesch back for next year’s class of graduating teachers.
Bolin, Flesch, Funk, and Osborne. Use of Force (Reasonable and Deadly). Gould Publications, 1999, ISBN 6-87526-533-7. 1333 North U.S. Highway 17-92, Longwood, FL 32750, (800) 717-7917, firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.gouldlaw.com.
Bethune-Cookman College, Division of Education, 640 Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Blvd., Daytona Beach, FL 32114, (904) 255-1401, x218, http://www.bethune.cookman.edu/.