Teachers don't like to talk about being harassed by their students. But the stories come out, if you ask enough: Students warning they'll burn down teachers' homes. A student threatening to injure a pregnant teacher. A student stabbing a steak and putting it on a teacher's desk.
Starting in September, such students will be subject to a new state law, one that requires students who harass teachers to be referred to disciplinary alternative education programs — outside of their regular classrooms.
The law narrowly passed the Republican-dominated state Legislature in May after a lobbying group for Texas teachers argued it was key to ensuring educators are safe and protected in their classrooms.
But the change is a controversial one, which has re-upped a perennial debate over how to help teachers manage aggressive or violent student behavior without increasing the chances that the state's most disadvantaged kids will be disciplined and then drop out.
And it has raised questions about how educators define harassment in a system where student discipline is already highly subjective. Democratic lawmakers — along with advocates for kids with disabilities and students of color — say the definition of harassment in state law is so vague that it will lead to classroom removals of students who curse at their teachers or merely annoy them.
It's unclear exactly how prevalent student harassment of educators is today in regular Texas classrooms. In a national survey from 2011-12, 10% of Texas teachers reported having been threatened with injury by students at their schools.
Managing student behavior is one of the most challenging tasks for many teachers, and it is as much a part of their jobs as teaching the curriculum. Some teachers who feel endangered by students say their principals don't always take their concerns seriously, said Holly Eaton, director of advocacy for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, the lobbying group that pushed for the law.
In their codes of conduct, school districts already prohibit students from harassing other students. But the new law adds a penalty when certain types of harassment are aimed at a school employee. Such harassment also now triggers a conference about that student's behavior among parents, teachers and administrators — which Eaton says forces administrators to take it more seriously.
"We kept having these members call us and say there were kids who were threatening them ... 'You better watch out, your family better be careful this weekend,'" she said. Teachers would send those students to the principal's office, and the students would be sent back to the classroom immediately.
The new law would apply to several offenses that fall under the definition of harassment in the state's penal code, including threatening to inflict physical harm; lying about another person dying or being seriously injured; making repeated phone calls in a way that's likely to annoy, alarm, abuse or embarrass another person; and making an "obscene" comment. As with most student discipline issues, school administrators and teachers get leeway to determine exactly what student behavior qualifies.
"With this very loose and broad language ... teachers will have broad latitude to arbitrarily apply the definition of harassment and say that routine behavior or a standing exchange between a student and teacher constitutes harassment," said Andrew Hairston, director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project at the advocacy group Texas Appleseed.
Instead of widening the disciplinary net, school districts should provide more mental health services for students who act out, Hairston said, and the state should fund more programs that give teachers the resources to appropriately manage aggressive behavior.
Eaton, with the classroom teachers group, said the new law does not preclude offering that support.
When administrators have questions about whether they can expel or otherwise discipline a student, they often ask the lawyers at the Texas Association of School Boards. Sarah Orman, one of those lawyers, said she's already expecting to get questions about how to interpret the word "obscene." Under the state's penal code, an "obscene" comment contains an offensive description or solicitation of a sex act, or a description of an excretory function. But Orman thinks school administrators might not apply that definition consistently — or even know to look for it.
"If a student says 'F you' to a teacher, do we really think they intended to solicit to commit a sex act?" she asked. "Or were they just using that phrase in the more common, colloquial way to mean, 'I don't really respect you in this moment'?"
Under the new law, students who are identified as harassers will be moved to disciplinary alternative education programs, known as DAEPs, which educate students who commit specific disciplinary or criminal offenses separately from their peers. Most DAEPs are highly structured, have metal detectors, require students to wear uniforms and rely on escorts to accompany students as they walk around campus. While the overall number of students in DAEPs has decreased, statewide data shows that in every grade, white students are underrepresented in the programs, while black students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disabilities are overrepresented.
Students generally end up taking classes and learning behavior management skills in DAEPs for an average of 30 days, according to state data. Students transferred to DAEPs are more than three times more likely to drop out of school than their peers in regular classrooms.
Opponents of the new law argue those disparities will get more stark if schools have more leeway to discipline students. "The problem associated with passing a bill that is open to that kind of interpretation is that it ends up being disproportionately applied to students of color and to students with disabilities," said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed. "That's where we've seen the biggest abuses when it comes to the overuse of exclusionary discipline."
State law already requires school officials to follow a protocol before moving a student from a regular classroom to a DAEP. Within three days of the incident, they must talk with the student and teacher involved, as well as the student's parent, giving a reason for the removal and an opportunity to respond. School administrators must consider whether a student acted in self-defense or has been in trouble before, and the intent of his or her action. If the student involved has a disability that likely caused or contributed to the behavior, school officials cannot discipline him or her.
But in practice, those steps aren't followed consistently.
Caleb, a Houston-area middle school student in Clear Creek ISD, spent the night in a juvenile detention center and was removed to a DAEP for 30 days last year after he created an anonymous Instagram account with posts that a few parents interpreted as threatening. Caleb and his mother argued that Caleb, an honor roll student, had never been in trouble before and had not intended to physically harm anyone. His parents had recently divorced, and he'd been seeing a counselor to talk through his feelings. The counselor assessed him and found he posed a very low risk of threatening or harming anyone, according to documents his mother, Liana Cannon, shared with The Texas Tribune.
Liana Cannon appealed the school's decision with the help of a lawyer, but the process took so long that Caleb was out of the DAEP by the time she had the opportunity to meet with school officials.
"I'm not saying he didn't do anything wrong, but not to the level at which he was disciplined," she said. "He was a child calling out for help, not threatening anybody."
The process had serious ramifications for Caleb, who felt bullied by administrators. "I feel like I won't really be able to have a lot of trust in people in general anymore," he said. "It was just unreasonably hostile from the moment they took me out of the classroom."
While the Cannons argue their school was too quick to remove Caleb, some teachers believe their administrators don't move quickly enough.
One middle school teacher at a small Houston-area charter school — who declined to use his name for fear of retribution from his employer — recalled a student who came in late "making a huge scene," refused to do classwork and refused to leave the classroom when told she would receive in-school suspension. When the teacher tried to close the door, he said, the student "got in my face" and said she would fight him.
The teacher said the student had gotten into trouble for bullying other kids, and he "knew she was physically capable of being aggressive." He reported the incident to school administrators but said ultimately they did nothing.
Teachers also can find it hard to speak publicly about these incidents, fearing that reporting them makes them look powerless or ineffective. "In a way, we have some kind of authority over our classrooms, but to admit that you lost that structure or seem like you're seeking out help, it's alienating," said Jacquetta Thayes, a U.S. history teacher at Glenn High School in Leander ISD, outside of Austin. "I feel like there's some kind of shame."
Administrators aren't immune from that shame, either.
"There are a lot of principals who say, 'There will be no DAEP placements at my campus. My campus won't be viewed as a place where we can't control them,'" said Gayle Sampley, a retired Houston-area teacher who spent years as a teacher in Humble ISD's DAEP.
Sampley agrees teachers need more protection, but she's not sure this law is the way to do it. "Kids are threatening teachers," she said, "but teachers aren't always being the most patient, either."