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Beat Down

Cleveland teachers swap stories of school violence.



Marion-Sterling school, a two-story brick structure on East 30th near Carnegie, sits among a jumbled mass of housing projects. Rusted fences surround its parking lot like a moat. Inside, the floors are concrete, the halls cluttered with dusty boxes of textbooks and poster board.

It's amid this mess that Daniel Lewis teaches. He's a small man, 5 foot 6 and 155 pounds, not much bigger than a large fifth-grader. A former technician in the Navy, he brought to his teaching career an exacting wardrobe: pressed slacks, neatly tucked-in dress shirt, and a taut knot to keep his tie in place through the day. Beneath his sleeve, there's a Pegasus tattoo on his bicep, the physical evidence of his time on the USS Kitty Hawk carrier.

Lewis is 49. A seventh- and eighth-grade language-arts and science teacher, he possesses a soft spot for Irish limericks and Alice in Wonderland. He's been happily leading his students down the rabbit hole for 11 years now.

He's good at what he does.

He used to be better.

On a fall day in 2005, Lewis was lingering in the hallway during his prep period when he heard the sound of crashing chairs, accompanied by a chorus of screams and shouts echoing into the hall. He rushed to the commotion and found a classroom in chaos. Two eighth-graders, at least six feet each, with the builds of budding linebackers, were entangled. They were flailing fists at each other's heads. Both had their shirts off.

Two fellow teachers — women even smaller than Lewis — rushed to pry them apart. Lewis was close behind. There would be no security guards to follow. There weren't any assigned to the school back then.

Lewis wedged his way between the boys. He ordered one into the hall. Grudgingly, the boy obeyed. But as he stepped out of the room, the trash-talking started again.

Lewis shut the room's French doors, hoping to form a barrier between the two. But the doors had large glass half-moon windows. And the boy in the hall was kicking wildly at the glass. With one thunderous blast, his foot went through the window. His toe and shards of glass flew directly into Lewis' groin.

Lewis felt the air exit his stomach, but he held the door tightly. The school's principal and several more teachers arrived and wrestled the boy to the ground, pinning him on his stomach until police came to haul him away.

Battered but somehow uncut, Lewis rested briefly in the office before returning to his class to finish the day.

As he drove home that afternoon, motoring down 90 in his Ford sedan, pulling from cigarette after cigarette, he replayed the fight in his head. It wasn't the flailing arms and shattering glass that stood out to Lewis. It was his tie. The student hadn't grabbed it that morning. But Lewis imagined the leverage a kid could gain by yanking it in a fight. He decided from then on that an open collar would have to do. "I have about a hundred ties just sitting in my closet at home," he says three years later. "I hope that someday I'll feel comfortable enough to wear one again."

Cleveland Municipal School District has reported 212 threats to and assaults on teachers so far this year — a number, says union chief Joanne DeMarco, that's actually down from last year. But it's the severity of the beatings, not the rate, that's thrown violence toward teachers into the news. It even led one Plain Dealer columnist to advocate the return of corporal punishment.

Somehow, parents seem to play minor roles in the storyline.

When Lewis started in 1997, he says, his remedy for misbehavior was simple: a single call to the parent. The student always returned the next day acting angelic. Now, Lewis says, he makes more calls and sees fewer results. Rather than embarrassed, parents are often defensive. The problem isn't them or their child; it's those woeful Cleveland schools and their teachers. Sometimes they cite a syndrome for their child's behavior. Sometimes they don't pick up the phone at all.

And sometimes, as Sheryl Hall learned last year, the parents want to fight too.

Hall is a preschool special-ed teacher at H. Barbara Booker School, a K-8 school near West 67th and Lorain. From the outside, it looks abandoned. Heavy metal doors stay locked from the inside at all times. Sun-stained curtains block views into the school. To get inside, parents push a nickel-size black buzzer near the entrance and wait.

Like Lewis, Hall is small — 5 foot 1 at most. Moving around campus on the tips of her toes, greeting every student who passes, she has the sprightly bounce of a rookie teacher. Her hair is brown and frizzy, and pulled into a ponytail. But gray roots expose her veteran status.

Every morning, Hall drives to school in her red convertible Volkswagen Cabrio — 45 miles from her place in Stow. She makes her way to the school's small cafeteria, which doubles as a gym and an auditorium — the "gymno-café-torium," as the teachers call it. It's crammed with tables and milk crates, portable basketball hoops and volleyball nets.

It was during breakfast last January, Hall says, when she stepped between a girl and boy in the midst of what seemed like a standard-issue grade-school spat: One girl, a first-grader, had tried to swipe the breakfast of her even smaller cousin, a tiny kindergarten boy. As the kids scuffled, Hall moved quickly between them, sentencing them to time-outs on either side of the cafeteria. The event slipped from Hall's memory soon after. That afternoon, she watched the two cousins walk home from school — together.

But the next morning, as Hall prepared for another day of breakfast duty, loud pounds suddenly banged against the solid, windowless metal door that led to the outside. They were too hard to be from a hungry student. Hall pushed open the door. She was greeted by a large, obviously angry woman.

"She asked me if I was Mrs. Hall," recalls the teacher. "I said yes. And then I felt my head hit the back of the door."

The woman, a giant compared to Hall, grabbed the tiny, 56-year-old teacher in her hands, Hall says. She slammed her repeatedly against the door, hollering the whole time: "You're the no-good mother-fucking bitch who threw my child against the ceiling!"

Students pleaded with the woman to let their teacher go, but she didn't relent. Hall managed to duck under the woman's arm, and sprinted toward another exit. As help came — security guards, the school's principal, and two police officers restrained the woman — Hall retreated to a fellow teacher's room. She'd escaped with no major injuries, she recalls, but was trembling and weeping.

Later that night, Hall would ask the school custodian to escort her to her car. But first, she says, she finished the day. She recalls trying to explain to her students that sometimes, adults fight. But they knew all about that. She asked them what they did when that happened at home. They crawl under the bed, they said. "But eventually, once the fear goes away, you come out, right?" she asked. They nodded. "Well, Mrs. Hall came back out from under her bed. You're safe. Things are okay."

Hall later learned that the woman who came looking for her that day was the mother and caretaker of the two kids she'd separated the day before. She filled out a report describing the incident, she says. To her knowledge, nothing happened to the mother. But at the principal's request, she says, the children were transferred to a new school.

While Hall fears what might happen at that new school — after all, they took the mother with them — she's happy to have a principal who supported her. In the bureaucratic black hole of large public school districts, an administrator who gets something done — who acts — is a somewhat rare and exotic creature.

Jillian Ahrens can attest to that. On a muggy fall day last September, Ahrens, a kindergarten teacher at an East Side K-8 school, was getting ready to escort her students back from PE class. The air inside the school was thick that day, she remembers. To combat the heat, she wore a lightweight top and sandals that exposed her toes.

As her students flooded out of the gym, she reminded them to form their lines. As usual, one little boy, who happened to be quick to anger, ignored her instructions.

A kindergartner disinterested in order was no surprise to Ahrens. But what happened next was: To prove his dismay, she says, the boy marched up to Ahrens and stomped on her foot, throwing his weight — not a lot, but enough — onto her big toe. It was a direct hit.

Ahrens let out a quick, high-pitched scream. Her toe throbbed. Blood rushed to it in steady pumps. Once she regained herself, she escorted the little boy, along with her class, to the office. Every step sent a sharp pang up her leg as if a glass shard were pressed into her toenail.

Like Lewis and Hall, Ahrens was back in the classroom before long, finishing out the day. After school, with her toe swelling like a popped tendon, she filled out the necessary forms. That the boy was just a kindergartner didn't matter to Ahrens — not by then. In nine years at the school, she says, it was the fifth time a student had attacked her.

The little boy was suspended. But within two days, her principal decided not to rule it an assault, which kept the student from being transferred. Ahrens appealed, sending photos of her toe and a doctor's statement to the district office. But the superintendent sided with the principal, she says.

Along with the incidents reported each year, teachers like Ahrens believe many more go unreported — by teachers who don't want the trouble or administrators who play the incidents down. Mostly, they say, teachers have grown accustomed to the steady wave of abuse. Plus, reporting the incidents is tedious and takes away from what they're really trying to do: teach.

Still, Ahrens believes that schools — lower schools, at least — are safe. It's a fraction of students that create the havoc, and most of the violence toward teachers occurs when they break apart fights — an act built into any teacher's DNA, but which their union is now trying to discourage.

Breaking up a fight is what sent South High's James Cappetto to the hospital. When two students began whaling on each other in January, he tried to stop them. He soon felt the weight of fists beating his head — possibly with brass knuckles. He left school with a fractured skull and three broken vertebrae. Now he sits at home in a neck brace, popping painkillers to make it through the day.

When an account of Cappetto's beating appeared in The Plain Dealer, his injuries made Marylou Prescott shudder. A veteran English teacher at Lincoln-West High School, Prescott recalls facing a dilemma much like Cappetto's.

As she prepared for class one day, shouts roared from outside her door. A pack of students was swarming around two boys. She raced across her classroom and into the hall. But several students blocked her way to keep her from intervening. They also ignored her pleas to get security. Prescott says one student turned to her and said: "No. You go back into the room." The group wanted the fight to go on. They wanted to see it through until the end.

As Prescott recalls that day, she shakes her head and looks toward nowhere, staring hard at the memory. "For some reason," she says, "these students view life as having no purpose. They don't see what a better life education will bring to them. And as a result, their actions are scaring teachers.

"And that," she says, "prevents teachers from providing any education at all."

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