Silicon Valley special educators file safety complaint
The union representing about 700 special education workers at Santa Clara County schools has filed a lawsuit accusing the county’s education office of refusing to implement safety measures or address understaffing that has made workers increasingly vulnerable to attack from the students they serve.
In a November 7 complaint filed with the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, SEIU Local 521 wrote that injuries sustained by special education workers included “broken bones,” “traumatic brain injury” and “deep bites with pieces of skin missing”. The complaint cites injuries at more than 40 school sites in the county.
Sarah Gianocaro, union chapter president, emphasized that special education workers do not blame their students and that the county is responsible for not maintaining safe work environments.
“We recognize that our students aren’t intentionally trying to hurt us…but most of the time it’s their last level of communication with us if something isn’t working for them,” she told San Jose Spotlight.
The workers represented by the union are non-teachers, also known as paraeducators, employed by the county office of education to work with students with moderate to severe disabilities in county districts. They work in the classroom, help with schoolwork and meet basic needs like helping students eat or go to the bathroom.
The union wrote in its complaint that although it worked with county education officials on safety measures to keep special education workers safe, the county education office “n ‘did not seriously implement these policies, fund them or make them a priority’. He’s asking federal authorities to launch an investigation into workplace violence that could result in citations or fines against the district.
“We don’t feel safe in the classroom,” para-educator Jenny Butterfield told San Jose Spotlight. “We have the impression that management is not doing anything, they are not listening to us. We feel undervalued and fundamentally unknown.
Bureau of Education spokeswoman Kelly Wylie declined to comment on the complaint, citing ongoing labor negotiations with SEIU Local 521.
The complaint filed last week was the first salvo in the union’s efforts to improve the safety of its members. At 3:30 p.m. today, workers will stage a protest outside Hester Elementary School, 1460 The Alameda in San Jose.
Santa Clara County is one of several very expensive counties in the Bay Area difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers while being confronted with a shortage of substitute teachers available and support staff, in a context of increasing student behavior problems. The same issues affect special education workers who endured layoffs during the pandemic when classes were held remotely.
In its complaint, the union alleges that Santa Clara County special education students “are being denied comprehensive Individual Education Plan services” and that “class sizes relative to (the) number of students with special needs is greater than security permits”.
The union argues that students with known violent histories are placed in classrooms with other special education students, some of whom may be medically fragile, due to a staffing shortage. This results in a lack of oversight as special education workers move between multiple classrooms on the same site or are sent offsite to work with students they don’t know.
Understaffing means special education veterans are burnt out, Butterfield said. She worries about who will support her students when she has to stay home because her children are sick and there is no substitute para-educator available.
Butterfield, who has worked as a para-educator for the county since 2010, believes that physical assaults by students are underreported because many of her colleagues view them as part of the job.
“It’s not like I have the luxury of being six feet from my students,” Butterfield told San Jose Spotlight. “I probably get kicked and bitten every day.”
Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.