BOCES union leaders voiced personal safety concerns and worries that students with special needs are not getting the services they are entitled to during a roundtable discussion at NYSUT's first BOCES Leadership Council meeting.
Those were just two of the key issues NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino promised she would bring to the State Education Department's attention.
Fortino listened carefully as BOCES representatives from around the state explained how their special education work environment has changed dramatically as more districts are sending more students with intensive needs.
"Our BOCES has simply not evolved with the changing population," said Lynne Hochmuth, president of Orleans Niagara BOCES TA. She vividly described how many BOCES are using variances to increase class sizes and save money.
"We have eight kids in a 6:1:1 setting; a 5-year-old with a 16-year-old in a 6:1:1," Hochmuth said. "With one program, we combined two 6:1:1s and put 14 kids in one room, possibly to save on rent. For a lot of kids, this is just too many in a room. They're supposed to be in a 6:1:1 for a reason."
Hochmuth asked why SED approves multiple variances for the same BOCES. "We had 13 variances approved in a week and a half. Why is that not a red flag?" Hochmuth asked. "There comes a point where after six variances for 6:1:1, you should be creating a new section."
Philip Rucci, executive vice president of Southern Westchester BOCES TA, nodded in agreement. "Our major concern is violence. Not student on student, it's student-to-staff violence." He said teachers have been seriously injured, including broken noses and eye orbits. "It's created very burnt-out staff," Rucci said. "The staff is afraid and there's a lack of backup supervision."
"We're operating a day treatment program without the necessary supports," said Sandie Carner-Shafran, a NYSUT Board member who is a teaching assistant at Saratoga-Adirondack BOCES. "It's pretty intimidating. The kids are not running away. They're coming at us. We need help to learn alternative ways to keep ourselves safe."
She also suggested a closer look at medication issues, such as possible negative drug interactions.
Others voiced concerns over large class sizes for music, art and gym that clearly exceed the levels stipulated in students' Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. BOCES administrators have told leaders the state says it's okay for those subject areas.
Jackie Paredes of NYSUT's Legislative Department said it's important for lawmakers to hear personal stories as the union continues to lobby for a workplace violence bill.
Other issues discussed included the state's problematic alternate assessment for students with severe disabilities; the need for a common calendar; and ways to encourage districts to send more students for Career and Technical Education study. The state's onerous tax cap on spending has discouraged many districts from taking advantage of BOCES CTE programs.
Leaders also suggested limits on maximum classroom temperature. "Some of our students cannot tolerate the heat," said Alan Rios of BOCES Educators of Eastern Suffolk. "The medication they are on affects this and their behavior."