Student aggression in the classroom happens all too often despite a teacher’s warnings about a violent student. Later when a student attacks a teacher, the teacher is often blamed for the incident.
The following is about a teacher who suffered severe injury from one such violent student assault.
Early Concerns with a Violent Student
Kim Burns-Fisher was an English professor at the college level before she started teaching middle school English in 2005. She loved teaching college but wanted a more regular schedule when she got married and started raising two stepsons and a daughter of her own. Like most teachers, her career became a major part of her identity, and despite the financial struggles and stress, she loved her job.
In 2018, Burns-Fisher taught 8th grade English in an inclusion class, meaning one-third of the students had Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and she co-taught with a special education teacher. That year she had a student in her class who had known behavioral issues that she had taught the year before. She was given no information about his history, but due to his behavior in her class the previous year, she expressed safety concerns for herself and other students given his uncontrollable fits of rage.
He had 14 prior violent incidents that included head-butting a teacher in the back resulting in the teacher going to the hospital; assaulting a teacher and a teacher’s assistant during class; kicking, biting, slapping, and pulling a teacher’s hair, and attempting to stab her with a pencil; grabbing an administrator’s necktie and pulling him around by it and punching him in the eye; choking a fellow student by grabbing a hoodie, and biting a second student who tried to help, and stabbing another teacher in the arm with a pencil.
The student’s IEP diagnosed him with autism. His mother reported that he would get confused, think he was in a horror movie, and become unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Burns-Fisher feels this was an accurate assessment of his mental state and a clear indication that he did not belong in a mainstream school setting.
Student Attacks Teacher
During class one day in December 2017, Burns-Fisher asked the student to return something he had taken from another student. He responded by hitting her on her back so hard that she began urinating blood. The school’s on-site medical facility immediately sent her to the ER where she stayed until the bleeding subsided. He bruised her kidneys enough to produce blood in her urine, and for that, he was suspended for three days. Despite this, he returned to her classroom the day his suspension was over.
Burns-Fisher asked the administration at least 8 times to remove him from her class because she felt he was a direct threat to her and the safety of other students, and that he was not benefitting from the instruction he was receiving. The principal stated that he did “not belong with those ‘other’ kids,” that his mom wanted him in regular education classes, and that the school had to abide by the mother’s wishes, despite the teacher’s worries about his violent tendencies.
Despite her fears regarding this student, Burns-Fisher had a good relationship with the student overall.
Events Leading Up to the Assault
On the day that the student violently attacked her, her co-teacher was not in the classroom. Burns-Fisher contacted the front office to let them know there was no sub for the co-teacher and they acknowledged that one would not be provided. Burns-Fisher has no special education or behavior management training but she taught class by herself, as she had no choice.
Later as the class played a vocabulary review game, the student became mad that she ended the game when he wanted to continue playing. He responded by calling her “a moron.” She calmly said that calling her a moron was not appropriate and asked for his behavior log so she could write a note for his parent to sign. He gave it to her and they moved on.
Violent Student Attack
The student seemed excited about his team winning the game, and Burns-Fisher had no idea at the time that he was agitated or she would have made sure that he remained in sight (she was told never to have him behind her or out of sight).
Suddenly, he launched his backpack over his head and directly at the side of her face. She immediately grabbed for her walkie-talkie to call for help. He grabbed the walkie-talkie out of her hand and shoved her multiple times until she fell over a chair and hit her head on a table. The blow to her head caused her to pass out. The student then kicked her repeatedly while she was passed out on the floor. She had multiple bruises on her left side, and her wrist bent backward causing her watch to cut her hand.
When she gained consciousness, the principal was crouched down next to her and the first thing that came from the principal’s mouth was, “What did you do to provoke him?” The confused teacher started crying and said “I don’t know” numerous times. As she tried to sit up, she heard the student calling out in excitement, asking if he had killed her. No one called 911. They sent her to the nurse, gave her water, and said she looked fine.
Student Assault Causes Brain Damage
After the violent assault, Burns-Fisher felt very sleepy, and later that night she had trouble talking. A hematoma also formed on her hip. She woke up the next day with welts and scabs all over her face, chin, and shoulder. Despite this, she went to school that day.
While at school, she had trouble thinking and remembering things, and two days later she started losing her vision and ability to speak, so she finally sought medical care. Doctors diagnosed Burns-Fisher with moderate traumatic brain injury (TBI) with swelling to the brain and loss of consciousness.
Surprisingly, the brain injury caused a tumor to grow as well. Because the hit to the back of the head was so traumatic, the body continued to send cells to that area to “repair” what was damaged, which caused a tumor to form. This tumor continues to grow, and when it reaches a certain size, doctors will need to surgically remove it. Her body, however, will continue to send cells to repair that area for the rest of her life and her brain will need constant monitoring.
Burns-Fisher also has a permanently damaged eye nerve from a kick she received to the side of her head, and she had to have surgery to keep her eye from drooping too severely.
Mother’s Response to the Attack
The student’s mother showed no concern for Burns-Fisher’s injuries and stated that her son “was in a fight to the end, whether she knew it or not,” and that the teacher “should have de-escalated him by following his Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP),” which the teacher attempted to do by calling for help on the walkie talkie.
The mother directed the school not to punish her son, since it was the teacher’s fault that she was unable to deescalate him. She also asked what the school intended to do about the fact that the teacher had failed to follow his BIP. The school gave the student no consequences for his actions.
The school administration discouraged Burns-Fisher from filing criminal charges against the student. The principal responded by saying, “That would be like sending Forrest Gump to jail.”
Ongoing Trauma from Student Attack
This assault traumatized many of the students in the class who witnessed the attack. Many required outside counseling to process what they saw during the onslaught. Their parents reached out to the teacher to express concern and well-wishes as Burns-Fisher had no choice but to go on disability leave.
Burns-Fisher’s disability pay barely covers health insurance and living costs for her and her daughter. She lost her driver’s license due to constant seizures and can no longer multitask. She becomes dizzy when doing any physical activity, including walking, and she has to wear prism glasses to keep the things around her in focus.
Due to the TBI, Burns-Fisher suffers from terrible headaches and has lost the ability to understand numbers and basic math. She has to have regular speech, cognitive, and vision therapy and has lost all peripheral vision. She must use audio to text programs for anything involving phones or computers, and she has no short-term memory. It is difficult for her to keep a conversation going, and almost impossible when there is rapid-fire conversation.
Loss of Quality of Life
Burns-Fisher feels the attack and subsequent injuries have ruined her life. Her marriage ended due to the stress of the experience and the severe depression she experienced as a result of the student attack. She went from being an independent, working mother to a person who can barely handle daily hygiene routines. Workers’ Compensation almost covers her mortgage and the additional $680 a month she has to pay for health insurance. The additional cost of food and utilities have put her in substantial debt, and her injuries make it impossible for her to work.
After the attack, her daughter had to continue to go to school with the student who caused her mother these injuries. When Burns-Fisher went to pick up her daughter from school a few months after the attack, the student stuck his head into her car and asked if she remembered him, repeating the question over and over to her.
Burns-Fisher’s daughter graduates from high school this year, and Burns-Fisher has no way to support her. Right now, they live day by day, minute by minute. They have missed open houses for colleges because they are unable to afford the gas or the hotel stay. Despite her daughter working extremely hard to get into a good college, Burns-Fisher can’t afford to pay for her tuition.
Teacher Files Lawsuit Following Student Attack
Burns-Fisher is suing the school board, claiming they ignored warning signs and failed to act prior to the student assaulting her in the classroom in 2018.
The county responded to Burns-Fisher by stating, “By accepting a job with the district, staff members assume risks associated with working in a school.”
They argue the teacher was “contributorily negligent by way of her own actions and inactions,” and could have avoided the injuries she sustained. The county also claims that she “assisted in deciding to place the student in her class.” The truth is that she asked for him to be removed multiple times prior to the incident. They have also “denied that the student had any known history of aggression,” despite the multiple reports detailed above.
Burns-Fisher’s case is ongoing, despite Pender County’s attempts to have it dismissed.
Violence in the Classroom
Unfortunately, many teachers in America have similar stories like this one of student aggression. They often express concern over a student who has been violent on numerous occasions with little response. Admin needs to provide teachers with help in the classroom before problems escalate. No teacher should be forced to resign or go on disability when they sustain a serious injury from a student.
If you would like to donate to help her pay her attorney’s fees and help send her daughter to college, you can donate to her GoFundMe page or her Venmo page here.
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