The contract negotiation team of the Kern High School Teachers Association is bringing the issue of health and safety conditions back to the 2018-19 bargaining table amid a growing undercurrent of anger and frustration.
In support of that effort, the union emailed a survey to its members Tuesday morning that asks teachers whether they have been physically assaulted or intimidated by a student in the past two or three years and whether they believe fighting and defiance have increased.
Those I’ve talked to say things are indeed worse — much worse — and that last week’s massacre at a Florida high school, carried out by a 19-year-old former student, only intensifies their angst.
"This year it's — I don't want to say it's terrible — but there have been more incidents of students attacking teachers than we've seen in a long time, and we weren't sure why," said David Lollar, a Golden Valley High School teacher and teachers' union leader.
He suspects, as do school district officials, that the noticeable uptick is a consequence of the KHSD's settlement with 20 plaintiffs, led by the Dolores Huerta Foundation, of their claim that the district unfairly targeted minorities for suspension, expulsion or school transfer.
Under the terms of the settlement, reached in July 2017, several local civil rights groups are watching the district carefully for the next three years to ensure things change for the better.
Well, suspensions and expulsions are down but things haven't necessarily changed for the better.
District officials "noticed no one was being suspended, which was good," Lollar said, "but then they figured out why."
The problem, Lollar and others agreed — other educators I interviewed Tuesday asked that their names not be used — said the district inadvertently sent a message: Stop suspending kids.
"That's the message that filtered down to the school sites," Lollar said. "So now a student can tell a teacher the worst kinds of things you can say to a teacher and there's no ramifications. Those students shouldn't be on campus."
"These are kids that don't want to be here," one teacher told me. "I've had kids tell me, 'F--- you, I'm not doing that s---' and just walk away. That one was just last week."
The district is starting to reconsider some things.
Brenda Lewis, the district's assistant superintendent of instruction, and KHSD Superintendent Bryon Schaefer "have been doing a wonderful job," Lollar said. "Now it's basically, 'Forget the lawsuit. Discipline if you need to discipline, suspend if you need to suspend.' The school sites misinterpreted the message" from the lawsuit settlement.
Students are concerned about the increase in campus violence, too, but for very different reasons — reasons underscored by last week's massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
"There's a feeling among the students, a fear and helplessness," Lollar said.
Part of that fear, he said, is that the solution might be almost as dangerous as the problem: Some want to put guns in the hands of ordinary teachers. They'd be trained, yes, but some worry the mere presence of guns will create issues: the possibility of accident or theft, a false sense of security, or a siege mentality.
"People who aren't parents with students in school, who aren't associated with the schools, are talking to the school board and saying we need to make all these changes and arm our teachers. That knee-jerk reaction isn't helping us," Lollar said.
Lollar is teaching his students from George Orwell's dystopian classic, "1984," and that has led to discussions about the Florida shootings and possible responses to it.
"Every single student with the exception of three or four is saying 'We don't need guns on campus,'" Lollar said. "They're saying, 'How are we supposed to write a paper when we feel like we're in a prison? And what if a teacher loses his mind and he's got a gun?'"
The union's decision to poll teachers and counselors on health and safety conditions was made before the Florida massacre but the results may reflect that tragedy.
The confluence of events makes the need for sensible solutions all the more urgent.
"We have a number of programs on each school site already in place to take care of defiant students," Lollar said.
"Mental health programs, people who can work with them. We can put them in alternate schools; we have off campus (options); things that can help them graduate, so that in three to five years, when they wake up, at least they'll have their degree."
But guns in teachers' holsters? "The school district has done all it can already," Lollar said. "Now it should be up to the Legislature."
Robert Price's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.