Work shouldn’t hurt

Oregon members begin delicate task of bringing school violence into the open

By Jason Cox

NOBODY EVER WANTED to talk about it. Years went by, and we would hear special education paraprofessionals confide in low tones how they were getting hit, kicked, spat upon, scratched and screamed at by their students.

By their own students. Then they would fall silent, and no amount of coaxing could entice anyone to say more about it. They love their kids and don’t want to “get them in trouble.” In some cases, they’ve told their stories to a supervisor and not been heard.

Then, last year, paraprofessionals in Oregon started coming forward, and the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) started telling their stories through a blog site and a three-part series in the OSEA Journal.

Here are a few highlights:

A student wearing heavy boots kicked Beth (not her real name), a veteran special ed assistant, in the head. Her concussion left her with a stutter and post-traumatic stress.

Despite another student’s individual education plan (IEP) that said no one was to come within four feet of him, special ed assistant Christopher (again, not his name) was knowingly ordered to sit next to this student, who gouged the para’s eyes, dislodging his surgically implanted lens. Eventually, the lens had to be removed, leaving him visually impaired.

Many paras like Monica McCanna have been punched and kicked by students who outweigh them by 100 pounds or more.

“I love my job, and I love this kid,” says McCanna. But the job wipes her out for anything else “because I have to be so hypervigilant.”

Beth says she was well trained in how to de-escalate potentially violent situations. That’s not the main problem. The main problems are understaffing, uneven medication of students and little or no support from the district.

When Christopher, now reassigned, reported continuing violence to the district’s special ed coordinator, he was told that violence comes with the job.
This is wrong. On so many levels.

Wrong for the paraprofessionals, of course. But also wrong for other students, who tell paras they fear for their own safety.

Finally, it is wrong for administrators to stand by and do nothing. They need to quit blaming paras and back them up. One accused a para of intentionally provoking students so they would be sent home. Others accuse paras of being insubordinate—threatening discipline or termination—for being asked for reassignment. Still other administrators let parents point fingers at staff. Why on earth would a para want to “set off” a student?

When protective equipment is promised, it needs to be delivered. “Nothing got ordered for any of our people last year,” says paraprofessional Kathy Forbes, who worked in a room where a student tried to strangle a teacher.

Schools need to include classified employees in IEP meetings. Paraprofessionals know their students better than anyone—sometimes even better than parents.

Administrators need to provide useful and consistent training. Such training is more common today than it was years ago, but it’s spotty and can’t cover everything.

When school employees are hurt, school administrators need to help. Not roll their eyes when paras ask for a sick day to recover from bruises and sprains. Not give paras the runaround on workers’ compensation—Beth’s district evaded providing answers for months on her workers’ comp claim. Only after OSEA hired a lawyer was the claim approved.

So how can we change this?

OSEA members have taken a giant first step by speaking out. Now, together, we have to expand and systematize this process by pushing to enact laws and regulations as well as contract language and enforcement mechanisms.

Federal and state laws require employers to keep workplaces safe. The problem is that elementary and secondary schools are designated as “safe workplaces” and partially exempt under federal law. That’s because the “safe” designation came before schools were required to accept nearly all students—even those with a history of violence—and during a bygone era with more staff, like counselors.

That’s why no federal agency knows the extent of the violence. That’s why in Oregon, school districts don’t have to report most injuries inflicted on staff.
And that’s why we, through our union, must be our own best advocates.

* * *

Forbes says members often don’t want to fill out an injury report. They say it’s not a big deal, they don’t want to be a burden, or they weren’t hurt that badly. But there will never be enough staffing or support if there’s no record of injuries. Principals say: “If we don’t know something is wrong, how can we fix it?”

So let’s start reporting. Let’s get this stuff on the record.

Not that it will change things right away.

In Oregon’s Redmond School District, employees told OSHA they were harmed routinely. The school district discouraged them from reporting; it didn’t want bad publicity. But a subsequent OSHA investigation found incident reports stuffed into desk drawers or filed away and not dealt with.

Eventually, the truth comes out.

Our members are coming forward. Last December, OSEA activists got the ear of their governor. They told  Gov. Kate Brown about how a few students hit, bite and kick other students and educators, and about the union’s Work Shouldn’t Hurt campaign.

What’s next? The governor is assembling a task force. The union is preparing a statewide survey and convening a summit. With the data they gather, our members in Oregon, together with their coalition, will help craft state legislation on workplace safety.

And lastly, they want the attention of OSHA, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and they plan to get it by collecting stories
around the nation. That’s where you come in. Contact the AFT with your story using the email address in the box at right.

This article was adapted from a three-part series Jason Cox, a communications specialist for OSEA, wrote for the OSEA Journal. AFT editor Annette Licitra contributed to the story.

PSRP Reporter, Spring 2016 Download PDF (859.01 KB)
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When work does hurt: PSRPs speak out

A LOT OF ATTENTION is paid to bullying at school, but most of that attention is on student-on-student bullying. Not a lot of attention is paid to the harm inflicted on staff, which ranges from verbal abuse to outright violence.

In a discussion last fall among AFT PSRP leaders, about half raised their hands when asked if they had personally been threatened physically or experienced violence on the job at school or college.

Special ed paraprofessionals, support staff who run in-school suspension classrooms, campus security employees and school transportation workers are particularly at risk—as are noontime monitors who discipline students and break up fights. One PSRP leader from Florida, whose main job is handling workers’ compensation claims, said that every week in her district, school bus drivers and monitors are beaten up.

In fact, the three fields at highest risk of workplace violence nationwide are healthcare, law enforcement and education, notes Amy Bahruth, an assistant director with the AFT department of health, safety and well-being. “That would probably surprise a lot of people,” she said, “that we rank right up there with law enforcement.” It tells you something, she added, when 30,000 educators and support staff took the time last year to fill out a 70-question AFT survey on the quality of work life and work-related stress.

A leader from New Mexico said a new problem she’s seeing for staff is their doctors’ diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder—but PTSD is not accepted as a condition for workers’ compensation. “This is a prevalent problem,” she said.

“Violence is violence,” no matter where it comes from, said a PSRP leader from Colorado. “We need to stand up and speak out.”

Tell us your story

CHANGE WILL COME only if lawmakers and the public clearly understand what is happening in our classrooms. Your story is vital to ending the climate of violence and fear.

Email to share your own experiences with Annette Licitra, a member of the AFT PSRP communications staff.