The growing incidence of harm — biting, hitting and punching — against teachers and School-Related Professionals is generating a pressing need to improve health and safety in schools. One step forward, educators and their union say, would be to include schools in the Workplace Violence Prevention Act.
Students throwing furniture, hitting educators, exposing themselves, destroying property, kicking in walls and throwing rocks through windows are some of the alarming incidents reported by NYSUT members to the union's Health and Safety Task Force. In one case, a student jumped off an 8-10 foot balcony into the crowd below. Other educators reported incidents of students attacking each other and sexually intimidating staff.
"Clearly, violence in the school setting is escalating. Expanded legislation is needed to protect the school community from violent behaviors that inhibit the educational process," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president who oversees health and safety. "The Workplace Violence Prevention Act would assist schools in identifying and mitigating potential safety problems for staff and students alike."
Recognizing the critical need to protect both students and educators, NYSUT continues to press state lawmakers to amend the 2006 Workplace Violence Prevention Act to include schools. The law, which mandates union involvement, requires public employers — except schools — to complete a risk assessment to evaluate workplace violence and develop and implement programs to prevent and minimize it.
School populations are becoming more inclusive. While many students with emotional or behavioral problems can thrive in new settings — feeling accepted and learning more as they are taught new materials — schools need the resources to help students with more serious mental and behavioral issues.
Persistent budget cuts have forced districts to reduce staff in critical areas, meaning fewer professionals are available to assist students who suffer mental and physical disabilities and may be prone to violence.
"We have more trouble with children physically harming staff," said Sandra Carner-Shafran, Saratoga BOCES teaching assistant and NYSUT Board member. She said she has been hit and shoved, and is routinely confronted by stark profanity.
"Handicapping conditions should not make school less safe. The state needs to invest in appropriate professional development to help us work with the students," Carner-Shafran said.
Therapeutic Crisis Intervention training is provided to staff twice a year at the BOCES where she works, but Carner-Shafran said the physical techniques are difficult to apply when working with students who are physically larger than staff.
"If a child punches someone in a grocery store, there'd be consequences in the real world," said Carner-Shafran.
Currently, processing a disciplinary problem in a school can take a long time, and troubled students often need help more quickly to address their behavior, which is sometimes complicated by mental health issues.
Under state education law, schools are required to complete Violent and Disruptive Incident Reporting (VADIR) forms when such incidents take place. Some schools may underreport incidents because they don't want to be labeled a dangerous school.
The Workplace Violence Prevention Act "is about an employer having to determine why violence is happening and then implementing ways to protect employees," said Wendy Hord, NYSUT health and safety specialist. She regularly fields complaints from members and NYSUT staff about violence against members.
"We're not promoting giving students harsh, punitive measures," said Hord. "But it's a disservice to have them coming out of school thinking it is OK to engage in these behaviors."
"We want our students to be able to come out and handle the stresses of the world," Carner-Shafran said.
Support and knowledge for educators is of the utmost importance, said Gwen Potter, co-president of the Wellsville Educators Association and a special education teacher in Alleghany County.
"I'm definitely concerned about violence in the workplace," Potter said.
Those concerns also weigh heavy in NYSUT's opposition to the governor's proposal that would allow districts, BOCES and approved special education providers the ability to petition the State Education Department for flexibility in complying with certain special education requirements.
"It would allow the erosion of needed protections for our most vulnerable students," Donahue said. "A waiver to current statutory and regulatory special education mandates could erode the quality of education for these students and diminish the protection these necessary mandates provide."
Many healthy and creative outlets for special education students have been blocked due to budget cuts.
At the Saratoga BOCES, for example, a craft room staffed by teaching assistants has been locked all winter because of lost positions.
This is the same room where, just two years ago, students with special needs learned to weave plastic grocery bags into colorful purses and place mats. Their recycling efforts were portrayed in a video they made for the first-ever Robert F. Kennedy Speak Truth to Power contest honoring human rights defenders; the students won first prize.
WHO'S PROTECTED, WHO'S NOT
In 2006, New York state enacted the Workplace Violence Prevention Act that requires public employers to develop and implement programs to prevent and minimize workplace violence and to help ensure the safety of public employees.
Public employers include:
- State agencies
- Fire departments
- Political subdivisions of the state
- Public authorities
- School Safety Agents of the NYPD
- Public benefit corporations and any other governmental agency
Excluded employers include:
- Public school districts
- New York City public schools
- County Vocational Education and Extension boards
Tell lawmakers they need to amend the act to include public school employers. Visit NYSUT's Member Action Center at mac.nysut.org to become an e-activist.
TELL US MORE!
NYSUT's Program Services department continues to collect stories from educators who have been injured on the job by students. To report an incident, email firstname.lastname@example.org.