Christopher was placed in an impossible situation.
The individualized education program (IEP) for the student Christopher was assigned — a wheelchair-bound teenager who outweighed Christopher by more than 100 pounds — said no one should be within 48 inches of the teen. Despite this, the special education (SPED) assistant from eastern Oregon was ordered to sit next to the student while the class watched a movie.
Christopher was told to prevent the teen from grabbing and harming other students. When he asked the teacher if he should be injured instead, the answer was yes.
During the movie, the teen lashed out and gouged Christopher’s eyes with his fingernails. The incident dislodged his surgically implanted lens, and two months later he could still see the serial number on the lens.
Eventually the lens was surgically removed and Christopher returned to work with severely limited visibility in one eye. He was reassigned to the same student, who would regularly bite and hit him. When Christopher brought the ongoing violence to the attention of the district’s SPED coordinator, he was told: “It goes with the job.”
School boards and superintendents are required to provide a safe and healthy workplace: It’s the law. But a variety of pressures — including limited funding and what many SPED assistants believe is a tendency by administrators and parents to minimize their pain and anguish — contribute to an unsafe environment for classified employees working with developmentally disabled or emotionally disturbed children.
“I have been hit, kicked, pinched, scratched, stabbed with pencils and screamed at,” said Eleanor, a SPED assistant in southern Oregon, who went on to describe one specific incident. “The principal saw me get kicked, so she called the child’s mom, (who) came and hugged her child, told me not to take it personally, and that was it.”
Tonya, a SPED assistant in eastern Oregon, was injured by a student and cannot lift her arm over her head without pain. Yet, after her injury, she was told she “wasn’t hurt that bad.” Tonya added that, instead of compassion, injured employees face scrutiny after such incidents.
“Parents are always blaming and pointing fingers at the staff: ‘What did you do to set him off?’ ‘What did you say to him?’” Tonya said.
Terri, a SPED assistant in the Portland area, suffered a hand sprain when a student threw her hand into a wall — the last in a series of incidents that included biting, kicking and head-butting. When she took a sick day to recover, she was “met with eye rolls” when inquiring about pay for that day.
“As far as the biting, scratching, etc. that was occurring on a daily basis … it was considered just ‘part of the job,’” she said.
“We need to get past (that) mentality,” said Monica McCanna, a SPED assistant with the Harney County School District and a member of the OSEA Board of Directors.
One way to do so is to consistently document injuries in order to expose the true extent of the problem. In this installment of Work Shouldn’t Hurt, OSEA looks at the importance — and limitations — of such reporting. In additional sidebars, we also outline how inadequate staffing and training contribute to the current state of special education.
Employers not required to report all injuries
Federal and state laws require employers to maintain safe workplaces for their employees. At some worksites — construction is an example — employers must routinely document all injuries and work-related illnesses under Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.
Elementary and secondary schools, however, are designated as “safe workplaces” and are partially exempt from this requirement. In a school environment, employers are only required to report fatalities, amputations, inpatient hospitalizations and loss of an eye to OSHA.
OSEA Government Relations Specialist Tricia Smith said this “safe” designation by OSHA came during an era when schools were not required to accept all students and also had more support staff, such as additional counselors.
“That’s why school employers are not required to report workplace injuries the same way they would if they were a manufacturer,” Smith said. “No federal agency ever gets enough reports to know if there is a problem.”
In Oregon, school districts are not required to report to the state most injuries inflicted upon staff. OSEA lobbied for such a reporting provision in 2011 as part of a bill severely curtailing the use of restraint and seclusion. This provision, however, failed to be part of the passed legislation.
Nevertheless, a 2013 law supported by OSEA does require districts to develop injury reporting procedures for employees — an important step toward documenting how often and badly school employees are hurt on the job. But in most cases not involving hospitalization or death, districts are under no obligation to pass those reports along to state or federal agencies, making comprehensive information scant.
Employees must be their own best advocates
Without stricter reporting requirements in place for employers at the state and federal levels, the burden falls upon employees to make sure injuries are documented. But sometimes — whether it’s fear of discipline for a student or themselves, or simply not wanting to create a stir — employees minimize what is happening to them.
“I find that my members don’t want to fill (an injury report) out,” said Kathy Forbes, president of Tillamook Chapter 28 and a member of OSEA’s Board of Directors. “They’ll say, ‘I’m not hurt that bad; it wasn’t that big of an issue.’ There are some administrators who think we’re filling out too many (reports) and we shouldn’t be unless there’s broken skin or something really big.”
This lack of information hinders efforts to argue for additional staffing and funding to help students with severe needs.
“Some principals I’ve talked to say it’s all about data collection: ‘If we don’t know something’s wrong, how can we fix it?’” Forbes said.
Furthermore, the lack of data doesn’t just perpetuate the problem in a particular school or district. Smith said consistently reporting injuries statewide will help improve the circumstances of every school employee in Oregon.
“An employer doesn’t have to change anything if there’s no record that something is happening,” Smith said. “That report is the only record, the only evidence, the only proof we have that there is a problem that needs to be dealt with by government agencies.”
Administrators Aren’t Always Helping
Education administrators and school boards face a variety of pressures, including inadequate funding and vocal parents, on top of the everyday tasks of operating a school district. In this imperfect environment, the safety of school employees can become an afterthought and, as a result, employees sometimes meet resistance or indifference when trying to document what is happening to them.
OSEA Field Representative Debbie Erlenbusch has been handling a series of incidents in the Redmond School District. Employees alleged in an OSHA complaint they were harmed on a regular basis and told by the district they couldn’t file an incident report unless they sought medical attention and/or would miss work due to the injuries.
“They (felt) intimidated to not report things that are happening because the district doesn’t want that negativity — that spotlight on them,” Erlenbusch said.
The subsequent OSHA investigation found incident reports filed by employees stuffed into desk drawers or placed in a file and not handled.
Before suffering a life-changing concussion from a student, Beth — the veteran SPED assistant featured in the first installment of this series — tried to draw her administration’s attention to less serious injuries occurring in her classroom. But the lack of follow-up made reporting seem futile.
“For us it’s a normal thing, so what is a big deal anymore? I was filling them out multiple times a day,” Beth said.
This resistance to documentation isn’t limited to employee injuries. McCanna, until recently, had been implicitly and explicitly discouraged from accurately reporting student behavior.
“A specialist that the school hired said, ‘You need to be more positive,’” McCanna said. “So what did we do? We left things out. … Then parents (said), ‘We heard this happened.’ So we ended up with two pieces of paper: One that went in the student’s file that had the details and one that went to his parents that kind of glossed over the problem.”
Other classified employees told OSEA they have been threatened with discipline, or even termination, for telling administrators they will no longer work with a student who has injured them.
“I was told I could be considered as insubordinate for refusing to work with this student,” said Jessica, a SPED assistant in eastern Oregon.
Classified Employees Often not Included in IEP Discussions
When patterns of incidents involving students requiring a higher level of care do come to a head — and administrators, parents and specialists recognize a problem — SPED assistants are often disappointingly not part of the conversation.
McCanna told of an incident in which one of her coworkers asked a student using a computer to put on headphones. When he refused, the assistant turned off the machine.
“He attacked her and was twisting her arm,” McCanna said. “When she said, ‘Stop, you’re going to break my arm,’ he twisted harder.”
To McCanna’s frustration, a subsequent meeting to discuss the student’s behavior and education plan — one that included specialists, parents and an attorney representing the school district — did not include classified employees who often have the most frequent interactions with the student.
This failure to share information has been reported in other districts.
“If a child has an IEP, doesn’t it make sense for anyone who has to work with that child to know what’s in it?” asked Liz, a SPED assistant working in a district on the Oregon coast.