Last year, work-related injuries and illnesses went down in the private sector but increased 40.9 percent for employees in elementary and secondary schools.
For many, that statistic might seem shocking, but it is a dismal reality that School-Related Professionals (SRPs) know only too well. These frontline staffers — who comprise more than 30 different titles in today’s public schools — face all manner of workplace dangers, including violence and trauma.
NYSUT SRPs brought their issues and their stories to lawmakers, and they urged them to support pending legislation to improve the health and safety of students and staff alike.
“SRPs are being confronted by so many different demands, and it’s important to make sure our voices are heard,” said Kim McEvoy, an SRP At-Large Director on the NYSUT Board and member of the Rondout Valley Federation of Teachers and School Related Professionals.
Workplace violence is on the rise in schools and SRPs are directly impacted by this trend. Every day, SRPs break up fights between students, de-escalate conflicts, and run interference for students who might be considered a danger to themselves or others. Cindy Goodsell, of the Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Employees Association, said that just this week at the school where she works, a 12-year-old began throwing desks and chairs and kicked out a window when he was asked to quiet down. Following the incident, the student was parked in her office to wait for a parent. “I didn’t know what to do. I’m just sitting there, trapped behind my desk,” said Goodsell. “We need more training on how to handle these situations.”
Districts also need protocols for how to reintegrate students following violent incidents, said Violetta De Rosa of the Albany Public School United Employees. “At Albany High School, we have students that have violent outbursts, and they may or may not get suspended but there is no real re-entry plan for when they come back,” said De Rosa. “Meanwhile, our students are suffering because they’re witnesses to that violence and that trauma impacts learning.”
To address workplace violence, SRPs urged legislators to pass a bill to include public schools as public employers in a 2006 labor law, which would require employers to develop and implement workplace violence prevention programs. “School districts are not included under the workplace violence law and that really needs to change,” said McEvoy. If amended, this legislation would force districts to assess and mitigate safety risks for their employees.
SRPs also asked for support for a bill that would require a school bus attendant or monitor on all K–6 school buses transporting students. Having a second staff member on the bus allows for the bus driver to focus on safe driving and the security of students getting off the bus.
As a seasoned transportation department head at Brushton-Moira Central School District and president of the Brushton-Moira Support Staff Association, Cheryl Rockhill can tell you investing in bus monitors is worth every penny.
“Drivers are hauling around the most precious cargo in the world, our children,” said Rockhill. “Buses are bright yellow and covered with lights, but you still have people who pass them, and meanwhile there’s kids on the bus causing a ruckus. It’s the driver who has to decide whether he’s going to look in the rearview mirror and figure out what is going on or pay attention to the road outside.”
“How can a bus driver who’s supposed to be paying attention to the road handle all that?” agreed Margaret Dalton-Diakite, a UFT Paraprofessional and reading coach at C.S. 154 in Manhattan. “It’s unfair to the students, and it’s a safety issue.”
SRPs also advocated for unbiased hearing officers, which would allow for impartial arbitration; and that HVAC systems be assessed and repaired by licensed technicians.