Are Washington teachers safe? Investigation reveals problem of violence against teachers

KIRO 7 is uncovering a problem in the teaching industry. We teamed up with our Cox Media Group (CMG) sister stations across the country for a combined investigation that exposes shocking cases of violence against teachers.

In one local case - a student violently attacked a Renton middle school teacher last year, sending her to the hospital.

At the time of the attack on March 30, 2023, the teen was 12 years old. She was charged with second-degree assault and sentenced to 15 to 36 weeks in detention. The defendant has since been recently released from custody.

Now, Stephanie Hartung, who teaches at Dimmitt Middle School in Renton, is concerned enough to not want to show her face on camera.

But she does want to speak out about what happened because she is worried there aren’t enough systems in place to prevent another attack like what happened to her.

“I felt like this kind of thing doesn’t happen at my school. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to me. But it did. And it’s changed my entire life,” Hartung said. “We deserve to know what is happening now to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

KIRO 7 and Cox Media Group news stations surveyed more than 8,000 teachers across the country on this topic: violence against teachers.

More than 1,150 teachers in Washington State responded. It is important to note that teachers who have had a violent experience may have been more likely to fill out the survey, but the results show how deep the problem goes.

67% of surveyed Washington teachers said violence against them has caused them to consider leaving the profession (compared to 63% nationally).

A vast majority of responding teachers – 79% – said they’d been subjected to physical violence by a student at least once (compared to 71% nationally).

The attack against Hartung sent her to the hospital – and also left her questioning her future as a teacher.

“After it happened, I didn’t return to school the rest of the school year. And thinking about, you know, what is my future in a school? Can I go back to teaching?” Hartung said. She said ultimately, her love for her school, her students, and the job brought her back. “I didn’t want her to take that from me,” Hartung said.


Hartung says one of her concerns is that the systems in place failed to prevent the attack.

The day of the attack, Hartung said all she knew was a student with past difficulties was joining her class.

“I pride myself on making connections with students who struggle,” Hartung said. It was the student’s first day in the classroom.

Hartung’s lesson that day was about financial planning and expenses.

“They’re (the students) are saying they need a cell phone, they need food, they need a house. And this student, she starts shouting out answers like, ‘I need to die. I need all the guns and knives,’” Hartung said.

She says she contacted the office, and a support employee took the 12-year-old student out of the classroom and spoke with her.

But when the kid returned, things escalated.

“She picked up a chair like she was going to throw it, at this other student, and she -- just the look in her eyes was just almost like she wasn’t even there. She was just seeing red,” Hartung said, her voice catching.

Hartung says she managed to open the classroom door to try to encourage the student to go to the hallway.

“That’s when she came at me. And after that, I don’t remember the attack,” she said. Surveillance video captured the attack. You see the student repeatedly punching Hartung, grabbing her by the hair, and dragging her to the ground.

At one point, another student intervened, but the attacking student managed to stomp Hartung in the head.

“I had a concussion. I ended up with a gash on my head that was glued shut. I had a black eye, a lot of bruising,” Hartung said.

And a year later, she is still dealing with PTSD.

“It changed my life,” Hartung said. “Things like, you know, loud noises in the hallway or seeing kids argue… it’s something that I think about every day when I walk into school and walk past the hallway where it happened. It’s something that impacts when I’m playing with my kids and they throw a ball at me that I’m not expecting,” she said.


Hartung is far from alone. In our Cox Media Group collaboration, KIRO 7 and sister stations asked teachers across the country about their experiences with student violence.

As we detailed – the results are stark. 8,296 teachers weighed in – including 1,155 in Washington State.

70% of surveyed Washington teachers reported they feel afraid to go to school at least sometimes (compared to 60% nationally).

The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction – or OSPI -- oversees public education.

Leaders say they are hearing concerns from teachers.

“People are feeling really frustrated,” said Briana Kelly, who works in Restorative Practices & Student Discipline at OSPI.

Kelly says one area they are working on is bringing training and more resources to schools.

“We create plans to support so that if we see a student doing that and we know we need support, we’ve got someone in the office we can call. We’ve got a team member, our counselor, our psychologist, our social worker who can come tag team and support us in those moments because it’s not a one-person job,” Kelly said.

But OSPI acknowledged their efforts have not reached all districts.

“We are hearing it’s really evident when they’re not in place,” Kelly said.


One theme KIRO 7 found in the survey results – many teachers feel the discipline system in Washington State is not working. Dozens of teachers filled out an optional comment box to share their sentiments.

“Our school does not have an effective discipline policy,” said a Seattle Public Schools teacher.

“The State continues to make it harder to suspend or even remove disruptive/aggressive students from our classes,” said a teacher in the Puyallup school district.

“The system is set up to protect the offender not the other students in class,” said a teacher with Yelm Community Schools.

“The legislature continues to implement policies that make school safety more difficult,” a Tacoma teacher said.

“The state has tied districts hands in this matter,” said a teacher with the Kent school district.

They are, at least in part, referring to a Washington State law that took effect in 2019. It says, “school districts may not adopt any zero-tolerance approaches … that require a mandatory suspension or expulsion in response to any behavioral violation other than firearms violations…”

“When we look at students’ rights, they have a right to be in school,” Kelly said.

One reason for the change is that studies have found that suspensions or punishments that remove students from the classroom do not help improve student behavior.

And OSPI points out – districts can still suspend students in unsafe situations.

“It’s just we need to ensure that we are attempting other forms of discipline first,” Kelly said. "

“Do districts still feel like they have enough tools in their toolbox to handle student behavior?” KIRO 7′s Deedee Sun asked.

“We’ve got some tools that we can keep offering. We can remind them how many things and supports we have available,” Kelly said. Kelly mentioned OSPI’s nine regional educational district services that work to bring support – like behavioral health experts – to local districts.

“It’s really evident when they’re not in place. People are feeling really frustrated,” Kelly said.

And Washington teachers made their frustrations clear from the survey results.

When asked, “Are students held accountable? 69% (or 797) of surveyed Washington teachers said “No”. (That’s compared to 58% nationwide.)

OSPI says they are always working on improvements – and working with lawmakers to figure out what’s best for students *and* teachers.

“I think it’s our instinct to want to jump in and fix a problem, a problem, a problem - and it’s pulling back and saying, what’s the systemic response?” said Dixie Grunenfelder, Executive Director of OSPI Student Engagement & Support.

“Are there things that need to shift?” Kelly said. “We are dedicated to listening to that and to being responsive to that,” Kelly said.

Looking at OSPI student discipline data for the category “Violence with Major Injury,” incidents have been increasing steadily since 2020 (not counting the 2021 pandemic year) – even adjusted for student population. 2018 tops the past decade with 1103 incidents, compared to 1057 incidents in 2023 (even though student population dropped by 3 percent in 2023 compared to 2018.)


As for what happened outside Stephanie Hartung’s classroom – KIRO 7 dug into the history of the student behind the attack.

KIRO 7′s Deedee Sun found out from prosecutors that her “social history reveals a profound degree of trauma.”

But the student was also accused of significant crimes before transferring to Dimmitt Middle School.

In the month before the hallway attack, Tukwila police arrested the student multiple times, for assaulting and robbing elderly victims.

The police chief even shared a warning to the community. Tukwila police confirmed that the student in question is the same girl behind all of these incidents detailed in this KIRO 7 article.

But prosecutors say, the suspect was not yet 12 years old and couldn’t be legally prosecuted. That is because Washington state law says kids “under twelve years of age are presumed to be incapable of committing crime.”

When she entered Stephanie Hartung’s classroom on March 30, Hartung says all she knew is the student had a safety plan – where she couldn’t be in the hallway by herself – and required an escort from class to class.

But she said, clearly, the student needed more support.

“Beyond what I could give to her,” Hartung said.

Now – the young teen is out of juvenile detention, but Hartung worries she never got the help she needs.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s, it’s not, you know, putting her in detention and then letting her go on her way. She needs more than that,” Hartung said.

Still, she says she loves the job – and hopes people recognize what it takes to be a teacher.

“Teachers are doing the best that they can in a really hard environment,” Hartung said. “Though this really awful thing happened to me, I really cannot imagine teaching at a better school with a better team,” she said.


CMG spoke with leading researcher Dr. Susan McMahon, about the challenging landscape of violence against teachers. She led the task force from the American Psychological Association that studied the topic.

She and her team published a study on the topic during the pandemic.

“I think it’s certainly a crisis in our country. Because of the extent to which, and the amount in the number of teachers who are experiencing these kinds of issues. It’s pretty prevalent,” McMahon said.

She also noted the CMG survey results.

“I haven’t seen investigative reporters take on an issue like this,” McMahon said. “I was impressed. I thought it was really good. I think often, there’s just been not very many efforts like that. Especially with the (data) size that you have,” McMahon said.


KIRO 7 asked the Washington Education Association (WEA) to enter a partnership and help send out the online survey on violence against teachers to Washington State educators. The WEA declined to participate, saying in part that the language and tone of the survey did not align with its efforts on shaping the language used to address student behavior.