January 2017 Issue - Labor Issues
February 01, 2017

Violence prevention tools essential for school staff

Author: By Leslie Duncan Fottrell
Source: NYSUT United

NYSUT members who work in school settings have every right to be concerned about violence in the workplace. New data suggests teachers and School-Related Professionals are increasingly threatened — verbally and physically — on the job.

NYSUT Health and Safety Specialist Wendy Hord says her workshop on the impact of school and workplace violence on staff has been "my most requested workshop for a few years now." Local union leaders and NYSUT labor relations specialists often call her for help because members have been injured, Hord said.

"Our members care about students and are dedicated to helping them succeed," said Hord. "Unfortunately not all of their employers are offering the tools they need." The conversation needs to be about asking SRPs and teachers what training and tools they need to help all students be successful in school while keeping staff safe, she said.

The 2015 American Federation of Teachers' Quality of Worklife survey received more than 30,000 responses from teachers and SRPs nationwide, with 18 percent, or 5,400, saying they had been threatened. The number rose to 27 percent when looking at special education teachers separately.

Using the NYSUT call center, the Syracuse Teachers Association last year conducted a member survey on the impact of violence on staff. The results exceeded the AFT survey; 57 percent of Syracuse TA members reported being threatened and 36 percent said they had been physically assaulted. Most assaults took place in classrooms. One in five respondents said they experienced psychological trauma.

As a result of the survey, the Syracuse TA formed a task force to review the data and identify priorities to advocate for improved member safety.

The Syracuse survey data was supported during one of Hord's workplace violence workshops. "I've been bitten," a voice called out during a recent SRP conference. "Kicked," said another. "Theft of personal property," said another. "Hot beverages being thrown at you," said yet another.

Hord said members in her workshops cite an increase in the number of students with behavioral management issues coupled with a lack of training and support that SRPs need to do their jobs.

School staff must receive violence prevention training. However, the long list of required topics often receives only superficial coverage during the allocated training time. Some SRPs who might need to restrain students as an emergency intervention said they were frustrated by a lack of training on how to do so safely.

The first thing to do in a difficult situation, Hord advised her workshop attendees, is to "control your own behavior." Remaining calm may help de-escalate a situation.

"My strategy for handling challenging situations in school is to be quiet," said Lori Levine, a paraprofessional and member of the Half Hollow Hills Teachers Association. "Some students are 'talked at' a lot. Sometimes just letting them have time to process, to digest, to figure things out, gives them some control. I speak in a whisper voice. The student has to be quiet to hear what I am whispering."

She also said humor can be effective in diffusing some situations.

Tim Potvin is an elementary school safety officer and Monroe-Woodbury Employee Association member. His advice: "Stay level-headed. Try not to panic and notify administration and security as soon as possible." He also suggested having an open and continuing dialogue with administration about how to resolve the issues.

"Go to your union representative and ask for help," said Donna Summer, a teaching assistant and member of the Haldane Faculty Association. "The school district has a responsibility to keep staff safe."

Syracuse TA surveyed its members about workplace violence

  • 57% Threatened
  • 36% Physically Assaulted

Where to find help

"One's sense of security or safety is compromised when experiencing or even witnessing an assault. It can be a traumatic experience," said NYSUT Social Services Specialist Ani Shahinian.

The good news is people can often move on and cope. However, "If you are experiencing nightmares; feeling very anxious and/or depressed; having difficulty going out in public; or suffering from shame, guilt, anger or irritability over what happened, it's time to reach out for help."

NYSUT members can contact NYSUT Social Services at 800-342-9810, ext. 6206, to discuss what they are experiencing. The call is free and confidential; if needed, Social Services can give members a referral to a local mental health provider.

Where to find training

Register today for NYSUT Health & Safety Conference

Learn more about preventing workplace violence and managing student behaviors in pre-K –12 and higher education settings at the 2017 NYSUT Health and Safety Conference, March 3–4, at the Saratoga Hilton in Saratoga Springs. The conference also features workshops on getting to the root cause of health and safety problems, advocating for injured workers and wake-up sessions featuring yoga, Tai-Chi and meditation. Register here: www.nysut.org/healthandsafetyconference.