Student Fighting and Teacher Safety

How school districts set policies on teacher and staff intervention in student fights is best determined on district-by-district basis in cooperation with the district’s legal counsel. In general, setting policies on one extreme (requiring all staff to intervene physically in fights) or the other extreme (prohibiting all staff from intervening physically in fights) is generally problematic for a variety of reasons. While the decision to intervene physically in a student fight will be an individual one, every adult failing to act exposes students to safety risks and districts to likely liability claims.

All school staff should be able to assist in responding to school fights in one manner or another. For some, it may involve physical intervention. For others, it might be performing crowd control and dispersing bystanders. And yet others may assist by calling for help and taking note of student behaviors contributing to the incident for later reporting to administrators.

Administrative, teaching, and support staff members should be trained on verbal de-escalation and nonviolent crisis intervention techniques. It is not advisable to try to teach your staff a full form of martial arts in one 20-minute staff meeting. It is also unrealistic to attempt to instruct staff members on how to disarm students in such a short time, and it often creates a false sense of security.

But educators and support staff with verbal intervention skills can have a significant impact on de-escalating situations, preventing physical altercations and stopping conflicts that do occur. School officials who have good relationships with students often can also reduce the chance of their own victimization.

Intervening safely in fights and conflicts

School officials who do decide to physically intervene should remember some basic points:

  • Monitor for early warning signs of such conflicts as stare-downs, verbal exchanges, posturing, audience formation, and other clues that an altercation is about to ensue. Do not wait for the smoke, if you can put out the fire early on.
  • Remain calm and do not draw additional student attention to the incident.
  • Get assistance en route to the scene or as soon as possible.
  • Briefly assess the situation, including the participants, the audience, and your surroundings, before jumping into the middle of a crowd.
  • Watch hands as well as eyes. Remember that while someone may be looking in one direction, his or her hands could be going for a weapon.
  • Identify an escape route and do not be afraid to take it, if necessary. Heroes are for television, not school hallways. Let your common sense prevail in all situations.

Use of force by teachers and school support staff

School districts should establish policies and procedures regarding employee use of force against students. This issue also should be addressed in staff meetings and training programs. Some general suggestions include the following:

  • Use of force by staff should be reasonable, necessary, and timely in the eyes of a prudent person.
  • Use of force should escalate only in response to the level of resistance and without malice by the staff member using the force.
  • Use of force should cease once compliance is achieved.
  • Use of force by staff in any incident should be documented and witness statements should be obtained immediately following the incident.

The potential always exists for liability. This potential will increase if severe injury occurs to students, when a staff member acts in anger, or when an action is disproportionate to the need. These issues and others, of course, are situational. The listed suggestions and more important, advice from your district’s legal counsel on sound school policies, will help staff prepare to face such incidents.

Specific school policies and protocols must be developed at the school/district level through collaborative discussions, with guidance by legal counsel, and supported by meaningful training.