New Tennessee law requires one-year suspension for students who assault teachers at school

When former Maplewood High School teacher Mark Hayes walked into work one December morning in 2021, the last thing the 24-year Metro Nashville Public Schools veteran expected was to be assaulted by one of his students.

But that’s what happened in the hallway after class when an 18-year-old student shoved him hard, knocking him down onto the concrete floor.

“I didn’t see it coming, so I didn’t even brace for it or anything. It knocked me off my feet on my back on the floor in the hallway on the concrete,” Hayes told The Tennessean in an interview. "In 24 years I never had an incident close to resembling this."

Mark Hayes poses for a portrait at Moss-Wright Park in Goodlettsville, Tenn., Thursday, June 13, 2024. Hayes was assaulted by a student in December 2021, which abruptly ended his career at Maplewood High School, after the school required him to go back and teach the student who assaulted him while assault charges were pending.
Mark Hayes poses for a portrait at Moss-Wright Park in Goodlettsville, Tenn., Thursday, June 13, 2024. Hayes was assaulted by a student in December 2021, which abruptly ended his career at Maplewood High School, after the school required him to go back and teach the student who assaulted him while assault charges were pending.

Hayes notified school administrators, and filed assault charges against the student with the school’s SRO the day of the incident. The student was later found guilty in court.

But at the time, after a three-day suspension – which involved only one missed day from his classroom due to class scheduling – school administrators expected Hayes to return to the same classroom and continue teaching the student who assaulted him – while his criminal charges remained pending until the following June.

Hayes said the lack of consequences for the student, and lack of support from school and district leadership eventually drove him to resign.

"I just cleaned out my desk, my filing cabinet, my room, packed it up, and left. That was my last day at school — 24 years in the same building," Hayes said. "It was either do what I did and walk away or continue to teach a person that assaulted me and be face-to-face with them when there was pending legal action."

"If the same thing happened to me not in a school, but out in public, ... the judge would have some form of a restraining order against that person, at least until it was adjudicated," he said. "In my situation, I felt like why should that be any different because you're inside a school building?"

A growing problem

Hayes is not the only teacher in Middle Tennessee that has faced violence from students in the workplace. Last year, Antioch High School teacher Caleb Bates was pepper sprayed by a student after asking the student to put away their phone, WSMV first reported. Bates now teaches in a different Tennessee county. Former Wilson County teacher Lauren Gray resigned last year during a school board meeting, citing unruly student behavior – and lack of support from administrators.

“We’ve had students cause thousands of dollars in damage, steal and damage teachers' property, sexually harass teachers, threaten teachers and their fellow students in the form of a hit list,” Gray said last June.

Multiple teachers reached by The Tennessean declined to discuss their experiences with student assaults on the record out of fear of retaliation from MNPS leadership.

MNPS' disciplinary policy requires an up to five-day suspension for middle and high school students for offenses like assault, fighting, and racial, religious and sexual harassment, with expulsion as a measure of last resort. In parallel with state law, the district's zero-tolerance policy only requires a one-year suspension for aggravated assault ― when a student uses a deadly weapon.

"There was no accountability in the school system whatever," Hayes said. "My career was turned upside down because of the way this happened."

MNPS spokesperson Sean Braisted told The Tennessean in an email that the district has invested in social-emotional learning supports "to help students experiencing emotional dysregulation," and has added "restorative practices assistants" at the middle and high school level.

"Each situation involving a disciplinary referral must be reviewed and investigated by school administrators to determine the appropriate course of action as outlined in the disciplinary policies of the district, with due process being applied to disciplinary investigations and consequences," Braisted told The Tennessean. "We encourage any staff member who feels a situation was not addressed appropriately within the code of conduct guidelines by school administrators to reach out to their school’s Executive Director (Principal supervisor) for further review."

According to data from the Tennessee Department of Education, there were 1,918 assaults of teachers and staff reported by schools across Tennessee during the 2022-23 school year ― the highest number in the last five years and up nearly 700 from the 2021-22 school year.

At MNPS, there were 325 incidents of assault on a teacher or staff member across the district during the 2023-24 school year, according to Braisted, including 11 incidents at Hillsboro High School and 15 at Antioch High School. The majority of the incidents occurred in elementary schools.

There were fewer than 10 incidents of aggravated assault of a teacher, school staff, or SRO at MNPS schools during the 2023-24 school year, according to Braisted, including incidents at Cane Ridge High School, East Nashville High School and Glencliff High School.

MNPS declined to release incident reports documenting assaults on teachers requested by The Tennessean in a public records request, citing federal student privacy laws.

While recent conversations about school safety has largely focused on external threats, violence against teachers from within school buildings has become a nationwide trend.

A recent survey by the American Psychological Association found that about 56% of teacher respondents had experienced some form of physical violence from a student, like being bitten, scratched, or hit, or having an object like a pencil or scissors used as a weapon toward them at work. The study found increased instances of physical violence by students against teachers since the end of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

“We're in an occupation where every day is different," Hayes said. "When things happen, you have to be supported. That is, that is the number one deal. There has to be support.”

New state law requires 1-year suspension

This year, Gov. Bill Lee signed a new law requiring a one-year suspension for students who assault teachers at school. Students can still take classes online or in an alternative learning environment, but they will not be allowed to return to school property for classes, extracurricular activities, sports events, or graduation.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Kevin Raper, R-Cleveland, and Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, who are both former teachers.

“I have heard stories for many, many years about employees of school systems being assaulted, especially teachers and administrators,” Raper told The Tennessean in an interview. “And because of that, they are not wanting to return to school. They're scared. They're intimidated. They fear for their life and their family's lives.”

Under the new law, which took effect last month, each school district and charter school is required to advise the employee of their rights as a result of the assault, and requires a one-year suspension for the student. Exceptions are included for special education students, and further exceptions to the suspension requirement may be made by the director of schools. Braisted said while the law allows superintendents to modify the expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis, there would not be a blanket policy to prevent a one-year suspension at MNPS.

“As a former teacher, I know the challenges our educators face and the increasing rate of classroom violence against teachers is very concerning," White told The Tennessean.

The new law follows a measure passed last year which requires school districts to pay teachers their full salary and benefits if they are absent from work due to a personal injury caused by an assault at work.

“We have a teacher shortage,” Raper said. “And we are losing a number of these teachers because they just said 'I'm not going back to this situation, and I'll go work somewhere else.'”

Vivian Jones covers state government and politics for The Tennessean. Reach her at vjones@tennessean.com, or on X at @Vivian_E_Jones.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Tennessee law: Measure requires year suspension for teacher assaults