Teacher injured too many times’ resigns
By Josh O’Gorman
STAFF WRITER | October 30,2013
From Columbine to Sandy Hook, ensuring the safety of children at school is an issue at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness.
The topic of teacher safety is also raised when there are high-profile incidents, such as the deaths of Nevada middle school math teacher Mike Landsberry and Massachusetts high school math teacher Colleen Ritzer, who were both killed last week, allegedly by students at their schools.
Less attention is given to the daily physical dangers faced by teachers and staff who work with students with profound emotional or behavioral issues. But, the issue was brought to the forefront during a protest at the Oct. 22 meeting of the Rutland City School Board.
About 20 people, holding signs reading “SAFETY FIRST,” attended the meeting, led by Ellen Green, president of the Rutland Education Association, who read a statement to the board and the public expressing concern for the safety of students and staff.
“Sadly, we stand here in support of an REA member who has been injured at work one too many times while faithfully serving her students and community,” Green said. “She has therefore resigned her position after more than a decade of service to the students and families of Rutland Public Schools. That person’s resignation will be acted upon in the closed session of tonight’s meeting.”
During the meeting, not in executive session but in open session, the board accepted the resignation of Stacey Ladabouche, a school counselor at Rutland Intermediate School. Her resignation, effective Friday, was the only one during that meeting.
Green declined to be interviewed for this story, and calls to Ladabouche, both at home and at school, were not returned.
Green’s statement does suggest that safety is a problem in the city’s schools.
“In accordance with Special Education law, every student is entitled to a ‘least restrictive environment’ — an environment in which all students, regardless of their abilities, can learn and staff can teach in the knowledge that safety is paramount,” Green wrote.
“When the level of violence is this high, we must ask ourselves if each student is placed where he or she has social, emotional and educational needs met,” she wrote.
How high is this level of violence?
In a statement, Mary Moran, superintendent of Rutland City Public Schools, replied to this question.
After asserting the district’s mission to respond to all students and staff in a positive manner, Moran wrote, “However, the characterization utilized by the Union that there is a ‘level of violence’ in our schools is misleading at best and, at worst, creates an unwarranted concern for our community, students, staff and schools.”
Rutland Intermediate School is home to what is known in special education terms as a “self-contained classroom,” where six staff members work one-on-one with six students who exhibit emotional and behavioral challenges.
There’s another self-contained classroom at Northeast Primary School with three staff members serving seven students in kindergarten through second grades from both Northeast and Northwest Schools.
According to Moran, the self-contained classrooms give these challenging students the academic and behavioral support they need while allowing them to participate in mainstream activities, such as going to the cafeteria to get lunch or to a school assembly.
The work conditions at Rutland Intermediate School led an employee to file a complaint with the Department of Labor. The employee claimed, “Paraeducators working with aggressive and volatile students are not being properly trained or monitored. Paraeducators have been injured. Walkie-talkies are used, but response to calls for help is not adequate. There are no written expectations for the students. There is no post-incidence debriefing.”
In an Oct. 3 letter to Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss, Don Whipple, manager of the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Department of Health, refers to OSHA logs at Rutland Intermediate School that document “numerous cases of employees being exposed to scratches, bites, contusions, concussions and other problems when dealing with aggressive patients at your facility.”
The complaint prompted an inspection of the school. According to Bliss, OSHA records show that during the 2012-13 school year, there were 13 injuries to staff: 10 were classroom related, two came from lifting, one from a fall and another classified as “office related.”
According to Moran, there have been six injures to staff members across the district since the start of school, with five of the six being classroom related. There have been no student injuries, Moran said.
Moran took issue with the complaints listed in the letter from the Department of Labor.
“We’d disagree with most of what they say here,” Moran said Tuesday of the complaint, which she said came from a paraeducator.
According to Moran and Bliss, the district’s policies require paraeducators — of which there are roughly 90 across the district earning an hourly wage of $11.14 to $17.82 an hour — to be trained in Crisis Prevention Intervention, a nationwide program that focuses on dealing with emotional or violent outbursts, while also teaching restraint methods to allow for the safety of both student and staff.
According to Bliss, when there is an incident, the student’s special education team will meet afterwards to debrief.
“We look at the antecedents,” Bliss said Tuesday. “We look at what led to the incident, look at responses by staff and look at what we can do in the future to achieve a different result,” Bliss said.
Bliss also noted the district’s safety team, composed of staff and administrators, which meets quarterly to address safety concerns.
Moran said support is available to staff who are victims of violence.
“Any time an employee asks for assistance, it is offered. If an employee needs counseling, we pay for it,” Moran said.
However, holding a protest to raise safety concerns was the wrong move, according to a memo issued by School Board Chairman Peter Mello to all Rutland City school employees the following day.
“Just as you all should expect honest answers and feedback from supervisors and administrators, we expect you to follow protocols and the chain of command in seeking rationale and resolution to those concerns,” Mello wrote. “We are committed to working on the aforementioned challenges with all parties involved and we urge you to share that same commitment. Merely raising issues falls far short of that commitment.”