By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Winetta Belt-Vargas never saw it coming. She was walking with a special education student to teach him about the community at large, and the student turned around and smacked her in the face.
“It’s unacceptable,” says Belt-Vargas, a special education teacher at Rosemead High School in the Los Angeles area. “The student was mentally ill and intellectually disabled. I choose to work with these kids and love my job, but it does get dangerous at times.”
After the attack, the student was sent home, only to return a day later. There was nowhere else for the student to go, and the student had “rights” to be in her classroom, says Belt-Vargas, an El Monte Union Educators Association member who serves on CTA’s Special Education Committee (SEC) at State Council.
CTA members say what happened to her is a common occurrence, even though the general public isn’t aware of it. In special education, they call it “the dirty little secret.” The secret is that teachers and paraeducators are assaulted by students. Attacks can happen out of the blue — or there may be plenty of warning signs. Assaults can cause debilitating physical injuries, end careers and cause psychological problems that make educators fearful of returning to the classroom.
The risks involved
“The Dirty Little Secret,” a report by Fresno Teachers Association member Linda Nimer, states that working with a special-needs population carries a higher risk of physical attack, and that special education students usually go unpunished for their actions. While students who assault teachers in general education classes are removed from their school, students in special education classes are seldom removed at all, notes Nimer, past president of CARS+, the Organization for Special Educators.
According to Nimer’s report, educators who have been injured may be victimized verbally by insensitive administrators with comments such as: “It’s part of the job. You were trained to deal with this. There is nothing that can be done. You get paid for working with these kids.” After a violent incident, administrators frequently warn teachers and paras that they have to be “careful” about what kinds of complaints are lodged and how far they “push” the issue, because they fear parents may sue over their child being denied the right to learn in the least restrictive environment.
Lack of consequences
But teachers and education support professionals (ESP) also have rights. Schools are workplaces regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Under that legislation, says Nimer, school board members, administrators and others must take every reasonable precaution to protect all workers, including teachers and ESP, in a school setting.
But educators say that isn’t happening.
“I am kicked, hit, pinched and spit on,” says Faith Brandstetter, a special education teacher and member of the Los Angeles County Education Association. “I have had my nose broken three times, torn my rotator cuff in both shoulders, injured my back, shoulder and elbow, and had a ligament torn in my thumb. Now I have a piece of bone floating around in my hand. I have also had my ankle reconstructed.”
Most of her students have behavioral issues, says Brandstetter, vice-chair of the SEC. Some strike out intentionally when they are angry; some may not be aware they are inflicting pain.
“Our administrators listen, but not much has been done,” she says. “We write behavior plans that are supposed to be reviewed on a regular basis. In our office these plans used to be written by the psychologists, but are now written by the teacher.”
A different standard
Even when school employees fill out paperwork after an attack, administration moves slowly, says Roberto Michel, an education support professional at Paul Revere Elementary School in San Francisco and a member of the SEC. It sometimes takes more than a year before a school in his district takes action, which is usually transferring the violent student to another school, says Michel, a member of United Educators of San Francisco. Even with paperwork documenting violent incidents, students usually just receive “time-outs” and short suspensions.
When students are transferred, their new teachers and aides are often not informed about a student’s violent past, adds Michel. He learned the hard way that one student had a propensity for violence when the student stabbed Michel in the face with a pencil, barely missing his eye.
Michel believes that it is wrong to hold special education students to a different standard of behavior than general education students if they are able to understand right from wrong.
“I don’t think we are dealing with this in the right way,” he says. “Special education becomes an excuse not to behave. If you do something wrong in the outside world, nobody cares who you are. In the street, the police won’t say, ‘You were in special ed, so we won’t lock you up.’”
Not enough information
Special education teachers are supposed to receive information about a student’s violent past, but most educators say that they are not given this information when a new student is transferred into their classroom. Barbara Schulman, a special education teacher and chair of the SEC, says that teachers frequently get students who are expelled from other schools and aren’t told why.
This also affects general education teachers who have special education students in their classes or deal with them in other capacities. Since they not considered the “teacher of record,” confidentiality may be used to keep them from being informed that a student has an IEP (Individualized Education Program) or a history of acting out.
That lack of information led to severe injuries for Julie Davis, a general education teacher and member of the Vacaville Teachers Association (VTA), who was supervising an in-school suspension program at Vaca Peña Middle School. When she politely asked a student to move his chair, he refused, threatening to punch her. A phone call to the principal’s office went to voice mail. She looked outside for a staff member and saw no one. As she walked back to her desk, the student stuck out his foot and intentionally tripped her. Davis says it was no accident; she felt his leg across her shins. She was taken to the hospital, and surgery was required to fix her arm.
Davis now works at the school as a part-time tutor and plans to retire early. “I’m not the same,” she says. “I’ve had some memory loss, and my balance is very poor. I used to be strong and assertive as a teacher. But now I can’t go back to the classroom. I’m not strong enough physically, emotionally or psychologically. I’m in constant pain, and I don’t have full use of my left arm.”
Because she was not the “teacher of record,” Davis wasn’t told that the student had the potential for violence, says Sylvia Aquino, who represented Davis in court and is vice president of VTA. After the incident, the two learned that the student, who attended general education classes, had “special education issues,” but due to confidentiality laws, they were not given details. Davis says that if she had known the student could become violent, she would have acted differently and not walked near him.
Davis and Aquino then took action that made headline news. After the student was suspended for five days and then returned to school, they sought a restraining order against the student. A temporary restraining order was eventually granted after six courthouse visits by Davis, and shortly thereafter, the student’s parents voluntarily removed him from the school.
Danger on the bus
Students can also commit violent acts against school employees when they are not on school property, as Yvonne Phenicie can attest. While picking up a special education student in a van to bring him to school, she was attacked by the 8-year-old boy.
“He punched me and kicked me and bit me,” says Phenicie, a transportation assistant for the Colusa County Office of Education. “I had to pry his mouth off my arm. I had bruises and teeth marks. There was no broken skin because I was wearing a sweat shirt.”
Phenicie, a Colusa County ESP member, says the student knew right from wrong “without question,” and lashed out at her because he didn’t want to go to school. After the attack, she refused to drive him to school and left him with his mother. She completed her route and then returned to the district office to file an incident report. Eventually the student transferred out of the district.
She has also had a student act up while she was driving on the freeway. He threw shoes at her, unbuckled his seat belt and threatened to come out of his seat. It was terrifying to have a student become violent while driving in traffic, she says, since she was unable to pull over and protect herself.
Legislation about restraining students
While educators are demanding stronger safety precautions and procedures, legislators want to reduce protections already in place. Assembly Bill 519 by Assembly Member Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina) would restrict the ability of educators and school personnel to physically restrain violent, out-of-control students. Similar federal legislation that would prohibit school personnel from restraining students has been introduced by U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez).
Members of the Senate Education Committee in Sacramento asked Hernandez to make it a two-year bill to allow more time to work on a “scaled-back” version. Meanwhile, CTA has taken an “oppose” position and is lobbying against it.
Barbara Schulman had booked a flight to Sacramento recently to testify against the bill before it was delayed. The Saddleback Valley Education Association member finds the proposed bill disturbing.
“How can a legislator who has never been in a classroom tell us that we cannot restrain a student if they are going to do something to hurt themselves, teachers or others?” she asks. “We as educators must have all the tools available to us to help the students with severe behavior issues learn and succeed. We as educators must have the right to have monitored seclusion or restraint as long as all the legal issues of being trained and following the safety plan have been met.”
Joni Clark, a member of the Fremont Unified District Teachers Association and the current president of CARS+, says if a student is hitting, kicking or throwing chairs, restraining that student becomes necessary as a means of “de-escalation” and preventing serious injuries. Teachers, behavior specialists and aides who restrain students may put themselves at risk in the process, she says, but have been trained in how to do it properly when it is necessary for the common good.
CTA members believe it’s time to look for real solutions to deal with the problem of violence before a teacher or paraprofessional is killed in the classroom.
“I think we need to offer training in crisis prevention,” says Faith Brandstetter, whose district offers training from the Crisis Prevention Institute. “This teaches staff how to de-escalate a situation and when there is no other option use various holds. Also, we need to have stronger policy and legislation to protect our educators and give some teachers additional staff support when needed.”
Confidentiality laws need to re-examined, says Barbara Schulman, and teachers need to be informed if a student has violent tendencies so they can avoid triggers that set the student off. Julie Davis and Sylvia Aquino believe such information should be extended to staff members even if they aren’t “teachers of record,” and that it should be assumed that they can keep such information confidential because they are trusted employees. Withholding such information puts them at risk.
Teachers should have walkie-talkies that connect with security or administrators if they are in distress, says Linda Nimer. Furthermore, schools need to have more counselors, psychologists and behavior therapists available to help emotionally disturbed students. In Vacaville, says Aquino, budget cuts have turned most counselors into class schedulers, and most psychologists are reduced to administering tests and assessments instead of helping emotionally disturbed students. This trend is also happening throughout the state, according to many CTA members interviewed.
School districts, says Nimer, must follow the state Education Code and state and federal laws to keep staff safe. She would also like to see security cameras in classrooms with special education students where teachers feel threatened.
Safety issues can also be bargained. The Fairfield-Suisun Unified Teachers Association and the Natomas Teachers Association were able to bargain that all teachers must be notified if a student they come into contact with is considered violent.
“Bargaining the terms and conditions of employment, including the means and methods to guarantee that our members are able to do their job safely, is essential if school districts are to live up to the expectation that all students, including those with disabilities, receive a free and appropriate public education,” says Mike Egan, CTA assistant executive director.
Finally, educators need to stop tolerating the dirty little secret — and let administrators and the public know it is not acceptable.
“Every teacher has the right to work in a safe environment, free from physical assaults at the hands of students,” says Nimer. “It is not part of the job to tolerate behavior which threatens their safety and well-being.”