Educational professionals across Oregon are breaking the silence surrounding the abuse and injuries they receive from the special education (SPED) students they serve.
Beginning with the first installment in this series, OSEA members have been emboldened to speak out, and AFT-Oregon and the Oregon Education Association (OEA) have joined us in seeking solutions at the state and national levels to this growing crisis.
Implementing solutions will take time, but OSEA members need not wait to act at the local level. An example is found in the Gresham-Barlow School District, where the Gresham-Barlow Education Association (GBEA) began to demand a safe working environment for staff and a proper education for SPED students.
When Nancy, a Gresham-Barlow SPED assistant, learned GBEA was working to propose local solutions, she and fellow Gresham-Barlow Chapter 8 members joined the effort.
Many of the problems Gresham-Barlow employees face are consistent with what OSEA members from across the state have told us:
Members are working with students during all their work hours, leaving no time for prep or case management.
Many SPED assistants have seen their hours reduced below benefit levels, which leads to higher turnover and causes periodic staff shortages.
In turn, this creates larger class sizes that place medically fragile children in the same room with aggressive students, often without enough SPED assistants to ensure everyone’s safety.
According to Nancy, workload became an acute problem when the district started taking on duties previously performed by the Multnomah Education Service District — without additional equipment, curriculum or training.
Nancy added that staffing reductions and cuts to hours in recent years have also stretched the staff thin. She cited a school that, during the lunch period, assigns one assistant to monitor two students with a history of abruptly running toward an exit.
“If one runs one way, then she has to leave the other alone,” Nancy said. “It happens quite often.”
Nancy said she hopes her chapter’s partnership with GBEA will help bring about positive changes in her district.
In this installment of Work Shouldn’t Hurt, we will examine strategies SPED assistants can use — and have been using — to hold school districts accountable for ensuring a safe working environment for members and the students they serve.
Make Safety a Priority
Contract language can specifically require districts to take steps to protect school staff from physical harm and bullying, which covers both unintentional injuries stemming from a student’s disability as well as intentional attempts to harm a school employee.
As the last installment in this series explained, school districts may not be obligated to report all injuries to the Oregon Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), but they are legally required to provide a safe working environment, this is known as the employer’s general duty. To prove a district has violated the general duty principle, OSHA must find a hazard exists, the employer should have known about it and eliminating the hazard is necessary for the member’s safety or health.
Enshrining this language in the collective bargaining agreement helps OSEA members in at least two ways: First, it makes violations of the employer’s general duty subject to the grievance process, creating a quicker, less expensive avenue for OSEA members to pursue a resolution. Second, the process also creates documentation that can be useful in other circumstances, such as an OSHA investigation.
“It clarifies and defines safety in a specific way,” OSEA Executive Director Rick Shidaker said.
For example, Sweet Home Chapter 3’s contract features language specifically referring to Oregon’s OSHA regulations.
Lisa Gourley, a Sweet Home educational assistant and member of OSEA’s Board of Directors, said such language serves to emphasize the importance of safety and reinforces the district’s duty to provide a safe workplace.
“Effective contract language should address safe working conditions and is the first step to change,” Gourley said. “The language in Sweet Home’s contract does just that. Many of our members are in districts that can lead the way by developing language to make their schools safer.”
Language addressing specific hazards — such as requiring the district to provide safety equipment for workers facing possible physical injury resulting from their work assignment — can also protect members and clarify expectations.
OSEA members have to be willing to do their part and use protective equipment if the employer does step up and provide it, Shidaker added.
Understanding Student Needs
Contract language can also help classified employees better understand the students they work with.
SPED assistants often have the most contact with higher-need students yet frequently are not included in the individualized education program (IEP) team.
Even though teachers and administrators often provide instructions consistent with a student’s IEP, direct knowledge provides a deeper understanding and cuts down on miscommunication, said Debbie Erlenbusch, an OSEA field representative who worked as a SPED assistant in California for 21 years.
Current law does not require SPED assistants to be part of the team. They can be included, however, if a parent or administrator requests their involvement or if the collective bargaining agreement requires it.
“The advantage to contract language requiring (SPED assistants) to be a member of the IEP team is that it provides the employee the opportunity to give input; and, of course, they have firsthand knowledge of the plan,” said Susan Miller, OSEA’s director of field operations.
Focus on Training
Many of the OSEA members we spoke with cited a need for training before entering a special education classroom. There was no one-size-fits-all protocol: Some had training and received extensive refreshers, while others went years without any education at all on how to keep students and themselves safe.
Ensuring that job descriptions include requirements for training and placing education language in the contract can help tremendously. Shidaker said districts are also increasingly stepping up and providing more training.
But as many well-trained SPED assistants know, it’s nearly impossible to anticipate every situation an OSEA member may face.
“It is difficult to train for the unexpected,” Miller cautioned. “The volatility of some students makes it difficult to ensure an employee will never be injured.”
Restore Personnel, Cuts to Hours
Some OSEA members said successfully implementing what they have learned hinged on appropriate staffing levels. As documented in the November-December Journal, the full-time equivalent of SPED assistants fell dramatically during the Great Recession. Numbers recently made available show staffing levels are only now reaching 2006 levels, while the number of SPED students has risen each year, with no end in sight.
Despite increasing budgets, the number of SPED teachers continues to decline. The shortage of teachers and qualified staff is not just an Oregon problem. The National Coalition on Personnel Shortages in Special Education and Related Services cites poor working conditions — such as unmanageable caseloads and lack of support — among the contributing factors.
Creating Separate Classifications
Some chapters have successfully persuaded school districts to create separate job classifications — and higher salaries — for SPED assistants. Roseburg Chapter 21 was able to accomplish this, but only after chapter leaders placed an increased emphasis on reporting workplace injuries.
In a 4-month period, more than 70 injuries were reported from just one school — a rate of about one injury per day. The numbers were essential in making the case, said Tim Stoelb, president of OSEA and co-president of Roseburg Chapter 21.
“We took copies of those reports into bargaining,” Stoelb said.
Central Chapter 124 framed the issue by highlighting the increased skills needed to work in special education environments. Besides knowing how to protect students and themselves from injury, most SPED assistants were expected to be CPR-certified and trained in topics such as blood-borne pathogens.
“I think the way the district sees it, the (affected employees) are trained to perform other duties for more medically fragile students,” said Denise Chase, Central chapter president.
Safety Committees a Powerful Tool
An active and engaged safety committee can effectively address safety of students and staff as well as hazardous conditions in the workplace.
Public and private employers alike are required to have safety committees, and they often address building and maintenance issues that can affect the safety of students and staff in all areas, including special education.
Such a committee should consist of an equal number of employer and employee representatives, but — if all parties agree — employees can have a greater number. Labor representatives must be chosen by the union, not the employer. Committees can make recommendations but cannot make or enforce mandates.
Committee members must receive training and instruction on hazard identification as well as how to effectively investigate incidents. Minutes, reports, evaluations and recommendations from the committee must be available for inspection for at least three years. Oregon OSHA has the authority to cite employers who do not follow these guidelines.
“Safety committees are often overlooked, but they can be a powerful tool in our arsenal,” Miller said. “Members can and should use them to shine a light on the unsafe working conditions many SPED assistants face.”
Stoelb emphasized there is no “silver bullet” to this growing crisis. Instead, he noted that OSEA is tackling the problem on multiple fronts with a variety of tools and strategies.
“With this series, OSEA started a conversation on workplace safety,” Stoelb said. “OSEA is committed to finding and implementing the solutions to ensure work doesn’t hurt.”