Santa Clara County special educators file safety complaint
SEIU Local 521 special education workers protested at the Santa Clara County Office of Education in a rally on Oct. 5. Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 521.

    The union representing approximately 700 special education workers in Santa Clara County schools has filed a complaint accusing the county’s Office of Education of refusing to implement safety measures or address understaffing that has left the workers increasingly vulnerable to attacks from the students they serve.

    In a Nov. 7 complaint filed with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, SEIU Local 521 wrote that injuries to special education workers have included “broken bones,” “traumatic brain injuries” and “deep bites with chunks of skin missing.” The complaint cites injuries across more than 40 school sites in the county.

    Sarah Gianocaro, the union’s chapter president, stressed that special education workers are not blaming their students and that the county is at fault for not maintaining safe working environments.

    “We recognize that our students are not trying to hurt us intentionally… but most of the time that is their final level of communication to us if something is not working for them,” she told San José Spotlight.

    The workers represented by the union are non-teachers, also known as paraeducators, employed by the county education office to work with students with moderate to severe disabilities at districts across the county. They work in classroom settings, helping with academic work and meeting basic needs like helping students eat or get to the bathroom.

    The union wrote in its complaint that while it has worked with county education officials on safety measures to keep special education workers safe, the county education office “has not seriously enforced these policies, funded them, or made them priority.” It’s requesting federal authorities launch a workplace violence investigation that could result in citations or fines against the district.

    “We feel unsafe in the classroom,” Jenny Butterfield, a paraeducator, told San José Spotlight. “We feel like management isn’t doing anything about it, they’re not listening to us. We feel undervalued and basically unheard.”

    Office of Education spokesperson Kelly Wylie declined to comment about the complaint, citing ongoing labor negotiations with SEIU Local 521.

    The complaint filed last week was the opening salvo in the union’s effort to improve safety for its members. At 3:30 p.m. today, the workers will hold a protest outside Hester Elementary School, 1460 The Alameda in San Jose.

    Santa Clara County is among several high-priced Bay Area counties struggling to recruit and retain teachers while also confronting a shortage of available substitute teachers and support staff, amid an increase in student behavioral problems. The same issues are impacting the special education workers who endured layoffs during the pandemic when classes were held remotely.

    Unsafe conditions

    In its complaint, the union alleges that special education students in Santa Clara County are “being denied full Individualized Education Plan services” and that “class sizes relative to (the) number of special needs students are larger than safety allows.”

    The union contends that students with known violent histories are being placed in classrooms with other special education students, some who may be medically fragile, due to a staffing shortage. This results in a lack of oversight as special education workers move between several classrooms at the same site or are sent offsite to work with students they don’t know.

    Understaffing means veteran special education workers are stretched thin, Butterfield said. She worries about who will support her students when she has to stay home because her children are sick and there’s no substitute paraeducator available.

    Butterfield, who has worked as a paraeducator for the county since 2010, believes that physical attacks by students are under-reported because many of her colleagues see it as part of the job.

    “It’s not like I have the luxury of being six feet away from my students,” Butterfield told San José Spotlight. “I probably get kicked and bit every day.”

    Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

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