CHICAGO — Six years ago, Norma Brown, a Chicago Public Schools teacher of more than 30 years, took a stand against a fourth-grader who refused to remove his baseball hat in the school’s lunchroom.
A fight ensued. A group of 11- and 12-year-olds surrounded Brown, yelling and cursing. One cocked his fist and punched her squarely in the left eye. Brown stumbled for the door and two girls, a sixth-grader and an eighth-grader, began punching and kicking her. She fought to remain standing.
“I knew that if I fell to the ground they would stomp on me,” she said recently. “When you fall, you’re dead meat.”
What happened to Brown may be extreme, but police records show reports of violent attacks against teachers and school staff have risen sharply in Illinois over the past decade. As doctors and psychologists work to return them to the classrooms, there is growing acceptance that these assault victims may suffer more than physical injuries.
In the difficult months following her attack, Brown was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, an affliction more commonly associated with emergency responders and soldiers returning from battle. Similar diagnoses have been made in Chicago and around the country for teachers who have been assaulted by students, or even those who’ve simply witnessed violent outbursts at school.
Like all victims of trauma, teachers can experience symptoms of PTSD in different ways. Some have nightmares that can linger for years. Some rely on medication to get through their day. Others suffer from such severe anxiety that they cannot step foot back inside the school where they were attacked. A few abandon teaching altogether.
Brown has never been able to return to the West Side elementary school where the attack took place and even today won’t drive in the neighborhood. She said she relies on anxiety medication to keep her calm and meets regularly with a Dr. Holly Houston, a PTSD specialist at the Anxiety & Stress Center in Homewood and Orland Park.
“Of the teachers that I have counseled over the years who have been assaulted, 100 percent of them have satisfied diagnostic criteria for PTSD,” said Dr. Houston, who has worked with about a half dozen Chicago public school teachers overcome symptoms of PTSD.
Brown said the diagnosis of PTSD was not easy to accept at first.
“Is this why I have these nightmares and can’t sleep? Is this why I was having to take sleeping pills?” she recalled thinking. “I was over-eating. Having all kinds of bad thoughts. Wanting to hurt people. I’m not a pill taker. I hate taking drugs. But I’m on medication right now for anxiety. If I don’t take it, it’s on.”
Doctors who’ve studied PTSD in military veterans say new research has helped broaden the understanding of the psychological effects of trauma. This has led some to conclude that PTSD is far more common than previously imagined, affecting nearly anyone who has survived a life-threatening event, said Dr. Gerald Juhnke, a noted PTSD expert and professor in the Department of Counseling at The University of Texas at San Antonio.
“In the beginning we pretty much looked at shell-shocked and PTSD diagnosis being military related or police officers or emergency responders,” Juhnke said. “We now know that PTSD can relate to any issue where two things take place: serious risk of harm to oneself or loved ones.”
In fact, teachers may be more susceptible than most, Juhnke said, particularly those in tough, urban schools where violence is commonplace.
“Teachers don’t carry guns or badges; they’re not going into the profession ever believing they’re going to be injured or attacked by students,” Juhnke said. “Teachers are very vulnerable. Their personality is such that they don’t forget easily.
“They’re often very invested in children and when something goes wrong they often internalize that they’ve done something wrong.”
Like Brown, many teachers who suffer from PTSD see their careers significantly altered.
“They have anxiety about going back to the classroom,” Houston said. “They often dream about the assault. They sometimes have fear about being around children of a certain type or size.”
Houston called this “a great source of internal conflict” for teachers who believe they play an important role in the lives of their students.
“I was born to be a teacher, and it killed me not be in the classroom,” Brown said. “That’s all I ever wanted to do.”
Violent crimes are a daily occurrence in many troubled Chicago Public Schools. Police log dozens of calls a week from CPS schools, investigating complaints of battery, drug use, armed robberies, sexual assault, bomb threats and arson.
In this environment, experts say, it is possible that even teachers who have never been attacked can suffer symptoms of PTSD. They may feel anxious or on edge.
For teachers who have physical confrontations with students, the trauma can be more severe. Dr. Harry Croft, an author and PTSD expert in San Antonio, said sufferers have feelings of helplessness that can be triggered by every day sights or smells. Houston said she has seen teachers haunted by “intrusive thoughts” that make it difficult to put the attack behind them.
“It’s your mind trying to grasp or accommodate or process what has happened,” Houston said. “Some of it comes in dreams. It is normal to feel depressed or angry.”
Teachers who’ve been assaulted by students are often reluctant to talk about it. Some have legal cases pending against their districts, while others said they simply want to put the incident behind them.
One former CPS teacher, who spoke to the Chicago Tribune on the condition that her name not be disclosed, described a horrific attack at a West Side elementary school in 2004. She was seated at her desk when a student, apparently upset by a poor grade, surprised her with a punch to the face. The student proceeded to smash her head numerous times into the chalkboard before help arrived.
“There was no reason for it, the student just went nuts,” said the woman, whose speech is still slurred by the facial fractures she sustained in the attack. “He was disturbed.”
The woman, who said she has not been diagnosed with PTSD, still “dreams of teaching.” But she has yet to return to the classroom.
Brown, a South Side native, said she had asked to return to school within months after the attack but was held out by doctors who said needed further psychological counseling and rehabilitation. CPS officials placed Brown on “assault leave,” a little-used option in the teachers contract that allows teachers who’ve been attacked by students or co-workers to continue to receive full pay and benefits while they recover.
When Brown finally did return to teaching, three years after the attack, she eased back in slowly, Houston said. She was limited to teaching as a substitute in the lowest grade levels and only in neighborhoods where she felt comfortable. But CPS could not accommodate those requests for long and soon began assigning her to teach in more challenging classrooms in tougher neighborhoods.
“She was having to go where she needed to go and there were a couple of times where she got to school and walked out, saying ‘I can’t do this,’ ” Houston said.
Her substitute teaching hours dwindled over the last school year. Brown became increasingly frustrated and recently decided to retire. Her memories of the 2006 assault remain as fresh as the day they occurred, Brown worries she may never fully put it behind her.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not reminded about what happened, and all that came after,” Brown said.