To this day — nearly a year after the incident — Beth can’t describe what happened to her without crying.
The veteran special education (SPED) assistant was working with a student who was becoming increasingly agitated, when the teen erupted, kicking her in the head with heavy boots.
“It changed my life,” Beth said, as she described through tears the incident that left her with a severe concussion.
For months afterward, Beth could not speak without a stutter and struggled with psychological symptoms her doctor compared to post-traumatic stress disorder. It took nearly six months before she was finally able to return to her western Oregon school district on a part-time basis.
Beth is one of the many educational employees across Oregon — in particular, but not exclusively, SPED assistants — to report being injured by the students they serve. Yet a great many more do not, as classified employees say they are discouraged — implicitly and explicitly — from filing incident reports documenting physical or verbal attacks. The problem of underreporting is only made worse when employees fail to document their injuries out of fear of possible consequences for the student.
But without consistent reporting, policymakers do not have a clear picture of what’s happening in Oregon classrooms. Those SPED assistants willing to talk with OSEA describe a classroom environment of fear and potential violence.
‘Not paid … to get beat up’
Monica McCanna, a SPED assistant with the Harney County School District and a member of OSEA’s Board of Directors, has been tasked with the safety of a male student with disabilities. He is much larger than her, standing several inches taller and outweighing her by well over 100 pounds.
“He has spit on me; he has kicked me; he has hit me,” said McCanna, who described an incident in which the student cornered her and began pinching her arms, leaving numerous bruises.
Kathy Forbes, another member of OSEA’s Board of Directors and a SPED assistant with the Tillamook School District, worked in a classroom where a student put his hands around a teacher’s throat and tried to strangle her. Forbes, herself, has gone home numerous times with heavy bruising from being repeatedly hit and kicked.
“We don’t get paid enough to get beat up at work,” said Forbes, whose work-related injuries led her to seek treatment from physical therapists, chiropractors and acupuncturists.
Work shouldn’t hurt, but it does for classified employees throughout the state who report getting hit, kicked, spit upon, having their hair pulled and being verbally abused. Some have even been urinated on or had feces thrown at them.
Environment Takes It's Toll
The aftereffects of these incidents follow these employees home. Two SPED assistants who spoke with OSEA said they often don’t even tell their family why they come home bruised and battered so as not to upset them.
“I love my job, and I love this kid, (but) there (are) days when we don’t want to come to work, quite honestly,” McCanna said. “I go home, and I’m washed out because I have to be so hypervigilant.”
William, an educational assistant on the Oregon coast, has similar feelings about the threat of violence at work.
“It makes it tough to get up and go to work sometimes,” he said. “That’s tough because I’ve always loved working with kids.”
Keeping school staff safe while providing a quality learning environment for Oregon students with profound intellectual and developmental disabilities is an ongoing challenge. Unfortunately, many school districts seem either unwilling or unable to adequately staff special education classrooms.
Beth was well-trained in how to de-escalate potentially violent situations; however, she said there were several factors that put her in an unfair situation: For example, the student did well when on medication but did not receive it on weekends. This, along with not enough staff support, meant Beth was essentially on her own with a student who may have gone several days without doctor-prescribed medication.
“I feel like we have really good training, but there comes a point … where (the level of staffing) puts everyone around that student in danger,” Beth said.
Beth is not the only one to cite inadequate staff support. A teacher in the same district was told at the start of the year she would have four educational assistants (EAs) to help with seven students in a life skills classroom. But, in fact, the teacher told OSEA she was assigned 18 students with only five EAs.
And short staffing isn’t just a problem in Beth’s district. From her vantage point as a member of OSEA’s Board of Directors, McCanna sees a disturbing trend statewide.
“We have more high-needs students with behavioral problems, and we’re not getting any more funding,” McCanna said.
Endangering Staff & Students
Inadequate staffing can also potentially affect the safety of other students. One SPED assistant, for example, described a situation where a boy walked into a girls’ locker room, resulting in that student requiring monitoring whenever he leaves the classroom. This, of course, requires more attention from a staff already stretched thin.
And when a student goes into a meltdown, employees told OSEA, it can create a cascading effect in the classroom.
“That triggers other students,” William said. “When it’s one (SPED assistant) and three students who are at a five (on the escalation scale), your safety is in jeopardy, and the students’ safety is in jeopardy.”
Jennifer, another EA for a western Oregon district, said other students are aware of the potential for violence.
“A student said the other day, ‘I know I can’t take that chair because I know he’ll explode,’” Jennifer said. “(The students) have to take it, too.”
Little to No District Support
To be sure, SPED staff members love the students they serve and know the child’s disabilities are the root cause of the issues they face. For example, McCanna fought hard to join a team of professionals that consults and works with children with traumatic injuries and their families. But staff members get disheartened when they don’t see a good-faith effort by districts to help them assist some of Oregon’s most vulnerable students.
Some educational employees say the threat to their safety is not taken seriously. Forbes said, in her district, SPED assistants working with volatile students have been left alone with walkie-talkies as their only backup and promised protective equipment has been slow in coming.
“Nothing got ordered for any of our people last year,” Forbes said. “They said, ‘Oh yeah, we can do that,’ but then nothing happened.”
Other employees say they are unfairly second-guessed.
“We’re trying to de-escalate and improve the situation,” said Alexis, who works in western Oregon and was accused by an administrator of intentionally provoking students so they would be sent home. “To not be backed up by the administration is worse than getting hit by a student.”
And when an injury occurs, some districts are less than helpful. For months, Beth’s district evaded providing answers on her worker’s compensation payments. Only after OSEA engaged an attorney was the claim approved.
School boards and superintendents are required to provide a safe and healthy workplace: It’s the law. One way OSEA is holding districts accountable for their employees’ safety is by successfully lobbying for a law requiring districts to establish reporting requirements for injuries suffered on the job. Passed in 2013, the law aims to ensure districts have information available to make changes or improvements to keep staff members safe.