Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Faced with violent children, Harrisburg teachers say mental health services are lacking.

Elementary school teacher Samara Young addresses members of the school board at their November meeting on Monday.

Teachers from the Harrisburg School District tonight renewed their call for increased mental health services in elementary schools, citing a series of violent student outbursts that they say create a toxic learning environment.

More than 50 members of the Harrisburg Education Association appeared before the school board to support colleagues coping with violent and disruptive students. Teachers spoke about being hit, kicked, slapped and scratched by children, often as they tried to protect other students in their classes.

HEA president Jody Barksdale said that the problem of violent students is most prevalent in elementary schools, and she believes that normal teaching training does not prepare teachers for the mental health needs of their students.

“This is serious behavior and we’re not trained in how to deal with it,” Barksdale said. “The tools we have now are not enough.”

Echoing remarks made by other teachers, Barksdale said that children use violence as a way to cope with trauma.

“This isn’t kids wanting to fight, it’s a cry for help,” Barksdale said.

Johanna Brown, a first-grade teacher at Downey Elementary School, described a student who fears male teachers and will fly into a violent rage at a slight provocation. Brown said she’s been hit and kicked by the student and lifted her pant leg to show board members a large bruise she received last Friday.

“This student needs mental health assistance and counseling I cannot give her,” Brown said. “Other students see her rage every day.”

The district currently contracts with Pressley Ridge, a mental health services provider, to offer counseling in schools. Pressley Ridge also maintains one full-time clinic in Camp Curtin Elementary School. But Barksdale said that firm is overloaded with cases and added that some teachers do not even know the process for referring children for services.

Some teachers were hesitant to assign blame for the problem of violent students, but others called out school district administrators and principals for not taking teacher complaints seriously. In her remarks to the board, Barksdale said that nothing had been done since she furnished more than 100 letters from concerned teachers a year ago.

Barksdale also said that teachers who struggle with violent students have been criticized by principals in front of colleagues and students. This practice emboldens children to disrespect their teachers in classrooms, Barksdale said.

Barksdale also said that teachers have not received sufficient communication from administrators and board members, a claim corroborated by HEA executive member Michelle Rolko. Rolko said that HEA has received 21 grievances in the first three months of the school year, compared to 13 in all of the 2016-17 year. Each grievance represents an allegation of contractual violation by the district.

“We’ve had very little communication, and what we have had does not work,” Rolko said.

She added that some of the grievances came from teachers who claim they were belittled or publically criticized by administrators.

Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney issued a statement at the end of the meeting, in which she assured teachers that they had the support of the district administration. In remarks after the meeting, she rejected Barksdale’s claim about Pressley Ridge and said that teachers are well informed of the process for referring students for counseling.

Rolko said that 45 teachers had resigned from the school district since the beginning of the year. District spokesperson Kirsten Keys claimed the true number of resignations was lower, but could not offer a firm figure.

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