At the top of a piece of notebook paper, scrawled in a child's handwriting, were three terrifying words.
"Kill ms. turner"
The three words might have been child’s play to the irreverent fifth-grader who wrote the note, then showed it to his classmates.
But to his teacher Susan Turner, now Susan Barnes, the threat was a tipping point.
So in January, when Barnes got the job offer she'd been awaiting for months, she quit her job, abruptly ending her more than 12-year career as an S.C. school teacher. She's now part of the growing ranks of teachers fleeing the state's classrooms.
Student discipline is one of many reasons why teachers say they are leaving the profession, according to a survey of nearly 200 S.C. teachers conducted by the S.C. Department of Education and more than three dozen teachers interviewed by The State newspaper.
Their exodus is setting the stage for a critical shortage in the teacher supply in years to come. One in 10 of the state's teachers walked away from their jobs and S.C. classrooms altogether last year, raising questions as to what's driving them away and how to get them to stay.
For Barnes, problem students unchecked by administrators, a lack of support from her bosses and few opportunities for professional growth spun her into a constant state of anxiety and depression, she said.
On her morning drive to work, she cried, feeling beaten down before dawn. At school, she cringed over grading policies that, she said, held good students accountable but went easy on low performers.
Today, Barnes works at a nonprofit where she's interacts with adults "in a positive way" and doesn't "yell and fuss all day long. I get to be me."
She also exacts a harsh critique on her former profession: The worst day in her new job is better than the best day she had teaching, she says.
In her daily planner, she still keeps a prescription of Xanax a doctor prescribed when she sought help as a teacher.
“I never filled that prescription, and I see it every day to remind me, that's what I walked away from," she said.
'We are allowing ... disrespect'
Teachers generally say they don't fault students for misbehaving — that's what some students do. But school administrators who undermine their authority and set lenient discipline policies create learning environments where misbehaving students get away with too much, they say.
"All it takes is one defiant kid who gets his way, day after day, to destroy a classroom," Barnes said.
Barnes said the fifth-grader who wrote that he wanted to kill her faced no real consequences — it was close to the end of the year, and she thinks he was sent home with excused absences, not officially suspended from school.
The incident reflected a pattern she had witnessed during her 12 years teaching in three counties' schools, first in Darlington, then in Florence and lastly in Richland.
“These kids do not get punished. They have cellphones. They have internet. They have laptops that the school lets them take home and the parents don't monitor them or can't," she said. “Until the government can find a way to put responsibility back on the parents, our education system will remain broken.”
Richland 1 spokesperson Karen York declined to comment on Barnes' claims, but said when a student exhibits challenging behavior, the district first follows "progressive" discipline procedures outlined in the student code of conduct before using other interventions or consequences.
Similar discipline concerns were shared by a panel of S.C. teachers, who spoke to state lawmakers in September about the challenges that are driving teachers away from the profession.
“Imagine seeing a 200-pound student chase down one of your teachers and punch her in the face and break her glasses and continue to punch her,” said Vanessa Torres, a Spanish teacher in the Lexington-Richland 5 school district to lawmakers.
Torres relayed other horror stories: A student throwing a chair at a teacher and another pouring a chocolate milkshake over a teacher’s belongings.
“Why is the devaluation of teachers happening? It’s because we are allowing this kind of disrespect. Would you want to become a teacher if you saw that, if you saw your teacher treated that way?” she asked.
Yet, while teachers struggle to maintain control in their classrooms, lawmakers and education officials are arguing whether discipline policies are too strict, too targeted at minority students and feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.
The debate flared up most recently after a school-resource officer forcibly removed a Spring Valley High School student from her chair after she refused to get off her cellphone.
Suspensions and expulsions are not evenly meted out to S.C. students of color, raising questions about whether those policies are contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline for African-Americans who make up less than a third of South Carolina's population but make up nearly two-thirds of its prison population.
Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, The State newspaper found in 2016 after analyzing public-school district discipline records.
State education officials and some school districts have promoted alternative methods of discipline that teach positive behavior and discourage suspension and expulsion. Those disciplinary approaches, critics say, remove students from school, intended to be a safe, positive learning environment.
"If you suspend a kid, he’s not learning," said Thomas Saxon, who retired in 2014 from overseeing discipline at the Technology Center in Orangeburg Consolidated School District 5. "You can suspend him and he can come back to school to do the same thing. Then what are we going to do?"
Schools are 'a giant babysitting service'
Too many parents are not actively involved in their children's education, which can lead to classroom disruptions, said Lisa Rose, who taught two years in S.C. schools, including last school year in a tough Pee Dee high school.
Only about six or seven parents of her 60-70 students each semester would show up to parent teacher conferences, and the ones who did had kids who were doing great in class, she said.
The other students lose out and discipline problems take over, she said.
“School has become a giant babysitting service," she said.
Reed Patterson, who retired in 2013 as a Lexington High School science teacher with nearly a quarter century of classroom experience, said he had similar experiences with some parents.
"'You need to teach harder. You are not teaching properly,' " Patterson recalled parents telling him when their students did not perform well.
"I say, 'This is my classroom.' They never come, but they want to criticize," he said.
State lawmakers and education leaders often lament a lack of parent involvement in their children's education, saying schools and teachers must do what they can for children while they are in their classrooms.
And no legislative proposals attempt to tackle the problem, except for a bullying bill that would require bullies and their parents to attend counseling sessions or face suspension. That bill has gone nowhere.
“It's hard to legislate good parenting," said S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, a Saluda Republican.
While parents are very busy, they also need to demand more from their children and take time to find out how things are going at school.
“We cannot do this by ourselves. We've thought for the last 20 years or so, it's the teacher's fault. It's not the teacher's fault. It's all our fault. We've all got to take responsibility to make sure every student gets the opportunity they deserve," she said.
Threats in the classroom
The State reviewed hundreds of police reports filed by school resource officers, working in Richland County high schools in Richland 1, Richland 2 and Lexington-Richland 5. (The Lexington County Sheriff's Office provided statistics on the types of incidents happening in the county's high schools. But the agency said it would cost around $1,500 to provide the incident reports the paper requested).
In less than a two-year period, teachers in these schools reported physical threats, assaults, theft and vandalism to their personal property. According to the reports:
- Earlier this year, a student at Dreher High School in Columbia made a gesture with his hand as though he was holding a gun and pointing it toward other students. When told by the teacher to stop, the student turned and pointed his fingers toward her "with a crazy look."
- In October 2016, a teacher at Richland Northeast High School, near Arcadia Lakes, said she was alarmed by a student, who asked to do homework after school in her class. According to the teacher, he began invading her personal space, asking, “When are you going home?” and “complaining of an issue near his pelvic area concerning an erection.”
- In February of last year, a teacher at Dutch Fork High School in Irmo said a student plugged a phone into an outlet that had been reserved for a classroom guest. The teacher took the phone and tried to lock it in her closet with the intention of giving it back after class. But the student came from behind and wrapped her arm around the teacher's neck and took the phone back.
- Last November, a Richland Northeast High teacher’s credit card number was stolen and used to make about $30 in purchases on Amazon for a gold necklace, gold watch and gold teeth. When the student's father confronted his son about packages arriving at the home, the student said he went into an unlocked classroom and searched a teacher’s desk looking for food. He found the credit card and wrote the numbers down.