Washington — Normally we think of the public schools as a source of the nation's future political and intellectual leaders. It is time to take another look and be sufficiently disturbed to do something about it before it is too late. Our public schools are becoming an ominous training ground of future criminal leaders.
Violence and vandalism are rampant -- and growing.
Here is Washington the school year had hardly begun before one student was seriously injured by gunshot and another was killed.
The purpose of this column is to cite enough of the statistics to prove the gravity of the problem, to try to focus on the principal causes, and to tap the insights of informed authorities on where we can begin to shield pupils and teachers alike from what is numbing the learning experience.
Willard McGuire, president of the National Education Association, told me that his surveys show that year at least 111,000 teachers -- one out of every 20 -- were physically assaulted, and that there is no present sign that such assaults are decreasing.
Neither pupil nor teacher is safe in the classroom today.
The National Institute of Education reports that 5,200 junior and senior high school teachers are physically attacked every month and 6,600 are robbed by force. Almost 282,000 junior and senior high school students are assaulted and 112,000 robbed at school every month.
In a recent period of six years, the Los Angeles public schools confess that "they have begun to resemble a combat zone where there were more than 5,000 reported assaults, 839 cases of arson, 12,242 thefts and 6,245 acts of vadalism. Two teacher were raped in their classrooms, a janitor was killed in a, robbery attempt, and two elementary-school students were assaulted in a restroom by a 13 -year-old classmate."
A congressional inquiry found that "violence and vandalism in the nation's schools amount to more than a half-billion dollars, 100 murders, 12,000 armed robberies, over 200,000 assaults on teachers and students."
Under these conditions public school education is being steadily undermined. Survey now show that the typical inner-city teacher spends 25 to 50 percent of his or her time in pupil control. Says Mr. McGuire of the NEA: "If teachers are to teach and students are to learn, they must be free from fear."
Fear is pervasive in the public schools today.
There is a tendency to run away from the problem rather than to confront it seriously and honestly. It is easy to say that violence in the schools simply reflects the violence in society and to conclude that nothing can be done.
Polls of thousands of teachers make it clear that on the basis of their experience there is a conspiracy of silence on the part of school principals, administrators, school boards and, in many cases, parents themselves. Teacher often find themselves helpless to enlist the active help of their superiors and are told, "Don't stir things up." Principals do not want to risk their school getting a bad reputation by doing anything decisive and thus calling attention to the mounting incidents of violence. Many, if not most, school boards are equally "prudent" or self-serving. They would rather not get "public- spirited citizens" on their backs for "impairing the good name of the community" by dealing vigorously with campus violence and vandalism in its midst.
Would there not be merit if the teacher unions used their tremendous influence to negotiate contracts which require the teachers to report every violent act by students to the principal and require the principal to submit a written statement to his superior as to what he did about it? That would mean less cover-up.
For their part the teachers would like to be given more authority to suspend unruly students from class; they urge broader provisions for both suspension and expulsion, more work-study opportunities, and special schools for problem students.
More of the most qualified teachers are leaving their profession yearly because violence in the schools is being treated with indifference at the highest levels. It will continue that way as long as the magnitude of the problem is being purposefully kept out of sight.