Training useful, but often spotty

Training plays a critical role in the success and safety of SPED assistants and the students they strive to educate.

The state lays out specific programs districts may use to train staff on recognizing student behavior patterns, de-escalation techniques and — when necessary — how to temporarily restrain a student when there is an imminent threat of harm to themselves or others.

If restraint is used, districts are required to detail the incident in writing. If untrained personnel were involved, the district must explain when and why those workers were restraining a student.

Many of the classified school employees we spoke with say the training is useful, albeit imperfect.

Training is almost certainly more common now than it was when Kathy Forbes, who is also a member of OSEA’s Board of Directors, first entered a Tillamook School District life skills classroom as a SPED assistant in the fall of 1997. She had not been trained at all on how to defend herself or other students if violence erupted.

“I remember very vividly a student about my height and every now and then in the hall she’d hit me hard in the chest,” Forbes said. “I remember thinking if I couldn’t get training by December, I would resign.”

Training is more common now, but it’s up to districts to administer programs frequently enough that all staff who should be trained receive it.

“I don’t see consistency with it at all,” OSEA Education and Training Specialist Connie DeYoe said. “As people ebb and flow with different assignments, they may not always be trained because the district may not offer the training every month.”

Reports from OSEA members around the state confirm DeYoe’s observation.  In particular, refresher trainings and opportunities to practice techniques often fall through the gaps.

Christopher, a SPED assistant in eastern Oregon, had yearly refresher trainings on restraint and de-escalation until a new SPED director arrived. The follow-up trainings then stopped, a decision Christopher believes was financially motivated.

He also added that, over the years, the quality of his refresher trainings dwindled. What once were live demonstrations became simply watching videos.

“Unfortunately, the district did not provide training to compensate for those things in which the (earlier) training lacked,” Christopher said.

Terri, a SPED assistant in the Portland area, went four years without any training on de-escalation or restraint after she started her job. The attendees only practiced the maneuvers for a few minutes before demonstrating them to the instructor.

“There were far too many maneuvers to learn in such a short time,” Terri said. “If I were actually in a situation where I had to use one, I would have forgotten it.”

Trainings that call for several people to restrain a student are useless without the staffing levels necessary to carry them out.

“You have to have a team,” McCanna said. “There’s two people that restrain the child in a safe manner, and then there’s a third person who is a mediator that talks to them and makes sure they’re safe.”

Size can play a role when a student is much larger than the staff member assigned to keep them safe. Christopher’s training was geared toward younger students, but that didn’t help him when he was attacked by a 300-pound student.

If a student’s disability makes them easily susceptible to injury, staffers are also reluctant to perform any kind of restraint — even if there is a safety threat to themselves or others.

“If you have an 18- to 21-year-old man in a one-on-one situation with a smaller statured person, there’s always going to be issues from a physical point of view,” DeYoe said. “That’s when learning de-escalation and progressive steps toward anger can help. But students don’t always follow the same progression.”

McCanna, recalling when a student abruptly stabbed her with a pencil, said there’s no foolproof way to know what a student will do next.

“All I could do was get away,” she said. “You’d get a behavior and know what to look for, then the student would switch on you.”

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