French teachers walk out over violence

PARIS, France — French teachers are protesting, but not for the usual reasons: They say violent attacks have become all too commonplace in schools, an unintended result of budget cutbacks.

A string of incidents since the beginning of the year have turned some schools into venues for settling instead of earning scores. In January, an 18-year-old student named Hakim died after being stabbed by a fellow student at a suburban high school over an exchange of words between the alleged attacker and the victim’s sister.

In another incident, hooded attackers entered a school’s gymnasium and sprayed students with teargas before chasing and slashing their target. One of last week’s victims was an assistant principal attacked as he tried to stop two individuals from forcibly accessing his school in the tough Seine-Saint-Denis suburb on the northeastern outskirts of Paris, Le Parisien newspaper reported. Another incident left a teacher hospitalized with bruises after a 16-year-old student facing a seven-day suspension arrived at a southeastern suburban school with a curtain rod and a pair of scissors and pummeled him, according to reports.

Teachers say they are ill-equipped to confront the banal violence that has gradually seeped into their classrooms and that there are too few security guards patrolling school corridors. Proposals to add metal detectors, video cameras and reinforced doorways will not address the roots of the problem, they say.

To aggravate matters, the government plans to eliminate in the coming academic year up to 16,000 jobs from schools already straining under personnel shortages. In response, thousands of teachers again put down their lesson plans on March 23, picked up their placards and joined the mass of civil servants throughout the country protesting governmental reforms.

“We’re eliminating a lot of jobs and not replacing those of the teachers who retire,” said David, a 34-year-old physical education teacher from the northern city of Lille, who requested his last name not be used so he could speak more candidly. “Conditions in the classrooms are deteriorating and teachers have had enough.”

As a result of the attack on the principal last week, the school was shuttered the next day. After the gym stabbing, teachers stayed away from their classes for more than two weeks while they negotiated solutions with education authorities. Parents too have had their say. They threatened to seek redress in court over the “fundamental right to lessons” if the government did not find a solution to address teacher absences, whether due to strikes or to teachers not being replaced when they fall ill, go on maternity leave or take vacation.

Part of the frustration for teachers caught in this vicious circle with students at the center is the “crippling” feeling they have no recourse against unruly and disrespectful pupils and that the students know this, said David, who is verbally assaulted on a daily basis by his charges, who range in age from 12 to 16, and of course cannot respond in kind. “We don’t have the means to react.”

Although there are some small variations, students are generally disciplined through a series of warnings and suspensions, followed by expulsion. Until age 16, other schools are obliged to take on the expelled students. In Hakim's murder, the alleged attacker had just been transferred from another school. 

Expelling a disruptive student from one school and placing him in another is not an adequate solution, according to teachers. “It’s a game of musical chairs,” David said. “We pass them from one person to another.”

On average about 10 serious violent incidents occur for every 1,000 students, with almost 39 percent of those involving physical violence, according to information provided by the education ministry. An international colloquium on school violence and security is planned for April 7 and 8 at the Sorbonne and will bring together experts from disciplines like sociology, criminology and child psychology to discuss the causes and propose solutions, announced Luc Chatel, the education minister and government spokesman.

School violence is not a new phenomenon but the occurrences in quick succession that have attracted both the public’s and the government’s attention is what struck Benoit Larousse, who teaches in a southeastern suburb just outside of Paris. What happened at the other schools easily could happen at his school, he said.

Larousse, 38, hasn’t participated in any of the numerous teacher strikes over the last month, since he is “not necessarily convinced of their utility,” but he said the powers that be should explore alternatives that go beyond simply fortifying schools and transferring violent students.

“Some students are too aggressive,” Larousse said. They need specialized centers with counselors who can deal with their issues and help “put them on the right track.”

Larousse, who teaches physical education, said he has seen “the habit of solving their problems with violence” on display too much and often the reaction is out of proportion with the offense. He said he was embarrassed by the “hyper-aggression” of students who recently came close to physically attacking a referee over a volleyball tournament he had organized.

His idea of specialized schools may not be too far off the mark. Following a trip to Quebec, a school administrator in a southern suburb of Paris has started exploring the possibility of implementing a program next year that would devote extra resources to students with disciplinary problems, which includes counseling in addition to regular academic work. It is unclear who would pay for such a program when jobs are being slashed to save money.

Teachers are already taking on too much of the burden that should also fall on parents, said David, but in many cases, such as those of his students, many of whom come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds and neighborhoods, parents are involved very little, if at all.

“Schools have to manage all of society’s problems,” David said. “At some point, we have to get tougher.”