Syracuse teaching assistant Mark Warner has broken up fights, restrained students from attacking staff and prevented kids from harming themselves. It’s work that’s taken a toll on his body. His tally of student-related injuries includes concussions, a fractured nose and surgeries on his shoulder, elbow and wrist.
That’s why Gov. Kathy Hochul’s recent expansion of the Workplace Violence Prevention Act to include schools means so much. The Syracuse Teachers Association member knows the protection is needed. “It’s about accountability and understanding of what teaching assistants and School-Related Professionals do every day,” said Warner explaining that forcing districts to step up and take responsibility for staff safety is vital.
The approval also underscores the power of the union for newer members. “It shows that yes we’re having problems, but the union is doing something about it.”
Warner has been on the front lines of NYSUT’s decade-long fight to include schools in the state’s WVPA from the start. The 2006 law requires that public employers develop and implement programs to identify and prevent workplace violence, but originally exempted K-12 public schools. Hochul signed legislation in early September to change that.
For activists like Karen Arthmann, a youth assistant and licensed security guard, and Rush Henrietta Employees Association member, it’s a thrilling, long-awaited moment. “Any legislation that protects workers, especially workers in education is welcome,” said Arthmann, an SRP At-Large NYSUT Board member who’s been involved in the statewide union’s effort to include schools in the legislation since 2019. “No one should be excluded from legislation that helps them stay safe on the job.”
Under the WVPA, schools with at least 20 full time permanent employees will now be required to evaluate violence risks against employees, identify causes and develop written programs to minimize threats. Schools will also need to provide accountability, record keeping, employee involvement and review and ensure that staff training is relevant and up-to-date for de-escalation and trauma-informed responses. “It means the world to me that my in-service union siblings will have some protection and respect for the difficult work they do,” said RC 10 retiree Sandi Carner-Shafran who has been at the forefront of NYSUT efforts to get the legislation approved.
“I’ve had many incidences,” she said noting that one attack left her with bruises that “looked like a bear attacked me.” Another time she was hit in the face and had her glasses knocked off as a student bolted from the room.
“I had to press charges at the request of administrators to help the student get the services they needed,” said Carner-Shafran. “That’s one of the benefits of this legislation — it will ensure that students who need more than we can provide can get the additional care they need.”
Rochester Association of Paraprofessionals member Angie Rivera, an SRP At-Large NYSUT Board member, hopes the legislation will boost staff morale and encourage more people to enter the education field. “Prevention is the aim, people need to be able to come to work and feel safe,” said Rivera noting that since other jobs have this protection, educators deserve it too. “We need to have safety in our classrooms because if people don’t feel safe, they will leave.”
“This is a great way to start the school year,” said Kim McEvoy, an SRP At-Large NYSUT Board member, who was gratified lawmakers recognized the importance of including school district employees within the legislation and that the years of union advocacy paid off. In May McEvoy, treasurer for the Rondout Valley Federation of Teachers & School Related Personnel, traveled to Albany to advocate for the bill’s passage.
“Although we [Rondout] don’t have the problems with violence that I see in other districts, we still care as unionists and we stand together in solidarity,” she said. “When legislation moves forward like this it makes you realize that everything you’ve worked for means something. NYSUT is always at the forefront, and I couldn’t be prouder to be a member of this union.”