Six days after she was sucker punched and beaten in her own Baltimore classroom, high school art teacher Jolita Berry still finds it almost impossible to watch the MySpace video of the attack. And she can’t make herself go back to work.
“I am petrified to go back to that particular building,” Berry told TODAY’s Matt Lauer on Thursday in New York. “I miss the good students that I have. I love them dearly, but I can’t do it.”
The attack happened last Friday morning in Berry’s classroom in Reginald F. Lewis High School in Baltimore. One of the girls in the class approached the 30-year-old teacher and got nose-to-nose with her and threatened her.
“I told her, ‘You’re in my personal space, back up. If you hit me, I will defend myself,’ ” Berry said. “Before I knew it, she hit me in the face.”
Berry characterized the girl as one who is easily influenced by peer pressure. “If they’re doing something crazy, she wants to go along,” Berry said, adding that other students in the class urged the girl to attack her.
The video, recorded on a cell phone by another student, picks up with Berry on the floor trying to defend herself while the girl straddles her, throwing punches at Berry’s head. The teacher said some of the other students cheered on the attacker.
The video shows students standing around the attack, watching and making no move to intervene.
One student did call for help. After the attack, Berry said the school principal, Jean Ragin, suggested that she provoked the attack.
“On one hand, she told me she is sorry this happened to me,” Berry said in a taped report filed by NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. “She told me telling the student that I would defend myself was a ‘trigger word.’ ”
“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it,” she told Lauer. “It doesn’t make sense. She said I should have gone for an administrator quickly.” But, she added, with the girl in her face, it wasn’t possible to say, “Hold on, I’m going to get an administrator. It happened so fast.”
The Baltimore Sun newspaper has reported that the student has since been suspended. But Berry said that nothing was done to the girl immediately after the attack.
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“A lot of times when this happens, you see the student the next day. I hear that she was back on Monday, but I haven’t been back. I don’t know,” Berry told Lauer. “The thing that gets me, is that after the attack, they sent me to the clinic and on my way out of the door she was right there in the doorway. I should not have had to see her.”
Lewis High was put on probation by Maryland school authorities last year for the high number of violent incidents reported there. Marietta English, the president of the Baltimore teachers’ union, said that the school has taken to not reporting incidents and not disciplining students for fear of being labeled “persistently dangerous,” a designation that would allow students to choose to go to other schools in the city.
The school is one of several schools created in 2002 when the city broke up Northern High School, a large institution beset by violence and problems. W.E.B. DuBois High School, which was created at the same time as Lewis High, is already labeled persistently dangerous.
“They know that there are no consequences for their behavior, so they are pretty much running the school,” English told NBC News.
Berry agreed with English. “There are no consequences,” she said. “The students do whatever they want because they know nothing’s going to happen to them.”
The teacher said she initially kept silent about the attack, but when the video went up on MySpace, a friend saw it and told her she had to make the public aware of the situation in the school.
“Even though this is hard and I have to keep reliving it, I want to make a change,” she said. “I want to make it safe for teachers. The students who come to learn shouldn’t be made to suffer.”
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