Baltimore school principals and staff have been threatened with guns, punched in the face, pulled to the ground, kicked and stalked. Some have landed in the hospital. Others have installed cameras and more locks at home.

They aren’t afraid of their students. It’s the parents they worry about.

“I have never experienced so many adults that are willing to engage in their child’s conflict,” said Craig Rivers, the principal of Frederick Douglass High School in West Baltimore and a longtime city school administrator. “I have never seen it this bad.”

Administrators say they are seeing record numbers of parents show up at schools’ front doors irate and ready to retaliate because they have heard their child has gotten into a fight with another student, been threatened or in some way disrespected. They come willing to fight a student or a staff member on behalf of their child.

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The union representing city school administrators surveyed its 550 members this fall, and the results showed overwhelming concern from the 30% who responded about threats and attacks of city school administrators.

More than three-quarters of respondents had seen an increase in disruptive behavior by parents or relatives on their campus. And 64% said there had been violent incidents involving parents on their campus this school year. Seventy-three percent said parents threaten or attempt to attack staff at their school.

More than half of administrators said the bad behavior on the part of parents had made them consider leaving their jobs.

Renaissance Academy principal Tammatha Woodhouse has an ongoing internal debate about whether to retire or stay at her school working at a job she loves. She has soldiered on, even after a father of one of her students stalked her. He showed up at school every day for a week before the pandemic, wanting to get in, calling police on her. Because of a divorce, Woodhouse couldn’t legally talk to the father about his daughter, but he persisted anyway. Finally, one day as she was leaving in the dark with other staff and two students at the West Baltimore high school, he pulled up in a car with a gun.

One of the students standing at Woodhouse’s side shouted at the gunman, “Go ahead, shoot us!” Woodhouse said. Then everyone ran back into the school building. The school police officer climbed to the second floor to retrieve his gun from a locked box because officers aren’t allowed to carry guns in schools. The father was eventually arrested and the principal took several weeks off to make sure she was safe. She installed two different types of security cameras at her house. Then came the pandemic, but on one of the first days of in-person school, the father returned to again stand outside the school.

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The student finally came to the principal and asked to be transferred to another high school because she didn’t want the principal to have to endure her father’s frightening behavior.

Principals and administrators said the vast majority of parents are supportive and work collaboratively with the school, but a small and growing percentage are ready to act aggressively.

Schools, like churches, used to be sacred places where a certain decorum was expected, Woodhouse said. But since many conservative media outlets have begun portraying schools as the enemy, educators have had to prove to them that they can be trusted, she said.

Jacque Hayden, who oversees about 10 city secondary schools, said it’s also become difficult for administrators to determine when a parent might suddenly become difficult to handle.

Woodhouse recalled a parent who came to the school recently with a pleasant attitude, “and then within seconds, she began to curse and just scream. We got her out of the building. She snuck back in the building,” Woodhouse said. She made her way back to the office on the fourth floor and the staff kept her from getting into the principal’s office.

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“That’s what is so dangerous,” Hayden said. Sometimes a parent will come to school with their child for a routine matter and attack a student. So it is difficult for staff to know how to prepare.

Schools have moved disciplinary meetings, or conferences between parents, students and administrators, to the system’s North Avenue headquarters, where they can be in a more controlled environment with school police present in case there is a disruption by a parent.

“We just don’t know what will trigger them anymore. And it’s almost a flight or fight situation,” Woodhouse said. Administrators say the parents become agitated, scream and yell at them and threaten them.

In many cases, Woodhouse said, it is hard for teachers and staff to deal with a student whose parent has misbehaved because they fear that if they hold a student accountable their mother or father could come to school the next day to attack them.

We had a grandmother who brought three carloads of people from the neighborhood and she was walking around ready to fight children.

Karl Perry, former principal of Edmondson-Westside High School

In one case last October, parents brought their 15-year-old to Carver Vocational-Technical High School before school to assault another student, according to police. The parents took part in the assault and their son pistol-whipped the victim. The 15-year-old then exchanged words with another teenager and they shot at each other in front of the school. Police have filed charges against the student and his parents.

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“As a parent, it is mind-blowing to read the allegations in this indictment where a child’s guardians facilitate in settling a schoolyard dispute with violence,” State’s Attorney Ivan J. Bates said in a statement when the charges were filed.

Karl Perry, president of the Public School Administrators & Supervisors Association of Baltimore City, said he witnessed many instances of parents causing problems at school when he was principal of Edmondson-Westside High School in West Baltimore, across the street from Edmondson Village shopping center. Perry retired as principal last June.

“I can’t blame it on younger parents,” Perry said. “We had a grandmother who brought three carloads of people from the neighborhood and she was walking around ready to fight children. We got them off the campus and they had a fight across the street at the Village.”

While teachers are struggling with similar hostility and threats from parents, the principals said they try to protect the school staff by being the first line of defense.

Legislation is needed, Perry believes, to raise criminal penalties against those who threaten or assault school administrators.

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