What About the Teacher’s Safety?

Mary McLaughlin
Special Education Teacher

Back in the stone ages when I was in elementary school, we had no Special Needs students in our school, so I was completely unaware of the fact that kids were not all the same apart from skin color and/or national heritage.

Where were they?

The district in which I grew up and spent every school year between Kindergarten and twelfth grade was located in a western suburb of Detroit. Motown's experience of White Flight caused the suburbs to grow in the years following the Detroit Riots of 1967 which left 43 people dead, 342 injured, 1,400 buildings burned, and 7,000 National Guard and U.S. Army troops called into service to deal with the fray.

Parents in the predominantly white and more affluent suburbs didn't want anything less than the Ozzie and Harriet-style lifestyle where everything was, at the surface level, absolutely perfect.

…and so the kids with Special Needs were shipped to different buildings and most of us didn't even know they-the buildings or the kids-existed. When we arrived at our neighborhood high school to begin our grades 10-12 experience, the Special Needs students were in a building outside the doors of the main building, still on the campus, but not a part of the day-to-day life of high school and definitely NOT a part of the mainstream. Even then, I hardly knew that these students existed.

There were some kids in our 1970's and very early 1980's classrooms whose names were frequently repeated by the teachers because they were, well, annoying. They were naughty. They talked too much, they didn't follow directions; they basically opted out of listening and doing what they know to have been right but everyone knew that if those kids, more often than not boys, did anything even remotely resembling violent behavior or destructive actions, they would be promptly removed from our classroom, hauled to the principal's office, paddled, their mother would be called, and there would probably be consequences following when they arrived at home.

The rate of known incidents for violent or aggressive outbursts during my K-12 experience: zero.


A variety of reasons, to be certain but one thing can be said without argument: the level of respect shown to teachers pre-2000 is vastly different than today. From my own classroom experience, I can safely say that 2003 was a point of demarcation. It was at that point that parents switched their thought processes from the teacher being right to the teacher being suspect in their actions. I cannot speak to the why but have often wondered if the generational shift of parents had a role, if the significant fracture of the family, especially in the area where I was working at the time, played a role, or if we were just become more hostile as a society. In any case, teachers became the whipping posts and in many schools and districts across this country, remain as such.

Thankfully, Special Needs kids have become part of the school conversation when for so long, they weren't even a thought. Whether or not the discourse sees everyone in agreement about having Special Needs kids integrated into the general education setting, the good news in that is that THEY FINALLY ARE!

With the integration of a group of students with very diverse and unique needs comes an intangible and extreme need for compassionate understanding about the quirks and isms which come with kids chock full of quirks and isms. One day may find Lucy acting in a sweet, docile, compliant, and excited manner, ready to learn but the next day, she comes in agitated and discontent. Because she has expressive language issues, she cannot tell you what is wrong or what happened last night at home or why she feels the way she feels. But with the fleetness of quicksilver, you're going to know she's unhappy because something will trigger a rage-something which did not trigger it yesterday or maybe, in your experience, before. Chairs will fly, desks will turn, items will be thrown, kids will be hit, tables will be cleared, swear words will fly, and you-the teacher-you're going to get punched in the face because Lucy is 13 years old and can pack a wallop, and because you didn't think it would happen, you were not prepared to dodge, dip, duck, dive, and dodge. Your concern was getting the other kids out of the room and to the safety of another teacher's temporary care. This is Lucy's first rager. The stuff in your classroom and her actions were the replacement for the words which she could not retrieve from her brain to speak so that she could better communicate her feelings, and guess what? It's now a pattern of behavior for Lucy.

You feel like a punching bag. With every outward manifestation of Lucy's anger, you are getting hit.

Your administrator comes to your room; he or she doesn't offer to help clean up. Rather, they ask if you have written her up or ask you, "What are YOU going to do about it? She's Special Ed. She is yours to handle."

Um. Okay…

Meanwhile, you're wiping the blood off your face and grateful you shop at WalMart because your new Just My Size blouse, which cost $9.97 is washable and will probably release the blood stains…and your tooth is kind of wiggly, too, so you'll need to call the dentist after school because you probably don't have a prep time because, well, you know-you're Special Ed.

Insert eye roll here.

I get to talk about this stuff in a very real way. Why do I have such a high sense of entitlement about that fact? Well, for one, I'm older than you. Probably. Another? I've endured this. Still more? Districts won't hire appropriate personnel to best support these kids when it is abundantly clear that my classroom is NOT the Least Restrictive Environment-or safest setting-for the student. Wait, what's that? You're giving me crap about it? Oh. Okay. Well, here's another: the average Special Education Teacher ASKS for training and support to best help these kids but guess what? NO ONE WILL SEND US TO TRAINING TO HELP THE KIDS WHO NEED A VERY SPECIALIZED KIND OF SUPPORT!

Consider for a moment the following scenario which a pal of mine endured some time ago: a kiddo in her self-contained classroom had significant behavior issues which were well documented throughout her previous four years of schooling. Upon entry to my pal's classroom, the honeymoon ended around Day 2 of school when the child took a rather nice bite out of my pal's arm. Months into the school year, some might have wondered if my pal was a drug user given all the bite marks up and down her arms which could have been mistaken for tracks. I mean, COME ON. Short of wearing leather arm covers, the teacher had to work hard to figure out a way to avoid being bitten and to teach the child NOT to bite. My pal asked The Powers That Be for support and training resources. She asked her peers for strategies. She read. She cried. She Internetted. She did a Functional Behavior Analysis and put a BIP into place. She positively supported. She negatively consequence and positively consequence. She prayed. She cried. some more. She laughed. She did pretty much everything she could do on her own. What did she get? No true support. The child continued to feast on her like a turkey leg for the duration of the school year.

Consider this case: a student is a spitter. The FBA and BIP are in place. At one point, the student spits into the mouths of the unsuspecting adults who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reaction by the district's Special Education Director? The teachers will wear the surgical masks, not the student. The teachers are left to ask themselves if that is the most reasonable solution to the situation when others were also wondering whether or not Worker's Compensation would be paying for their blood tests and medical work ups after the factor if the teachers would have to pay for it themselves.

Consider still another: an experienced special education teacher with 15+ years in the classroom with students identified with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. This person has led in-services and is well respected in her district as being someone who is "excellent" at working with this student population. On one particular day in her classroom, one of her students has an episode where he is angered to the point that he picks up the middle school classroom's desk (the kind with the attached chair) and hurls it at the back of her head as she is turned to pick up her telephone to seek support from the school Resource Officer because the student outweighs her by about 50 pounds. She is knocked unconscious and is in the hospital for a couple of days with complications of a head injury. What did the district do with the student/for the teacher? The teacher was told that if she did not return to the classroom immediately after being released from medical care, she would lose her job and benefits forthwith. The student remained in class. Her classroom was the only E.B.D. classroom in the district for the age group. This teacher pursued things in a civil suit which is currently in court.

These are people I know-these are not cases in the newspaper. Every special education teacher has a catalogue of stories, sadly, like this, about themselves or other special education teacher they know. Yes, we choose the profession because we want to support kids and help them learn. No, we do not want to be battered, abused, and then ignored by the administrations with whom we work.

In a 2013 article in the Las Vegas Sun, writer Paul Takahashi presents the case of a student who is harassed and bullied so badly by a Special Needs student that the bullied child's parents file a restraining order against the 8-year old male harasser. Indicating their 7-year old daughter was threatened with scissors, punched in the stomach, and pushed, the writer indicates other students reported having been hit with lunchboxes and kicked. The article says that the parents attempted to work with the school but because of the Free Appropriate Education Act which guarantees students with special needs access to the general curriculum and provides an education tailored to meet their special needs through a document called an Individualized Education Plan. The district also indicated they could not disclose any information because of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). It is, if you will, the Education field's version of HIPAA. The conversation central to this issue, in my mind, is not about the rights of both children to attend the school; it is more about the rights to all children to feel safe in school. ALL children. ALL children AND ADULTS.

Without question, teachers want their children to feel safe and be safe and you know what?? We teachers want the same. I promise you, I'd take a bullet for ANY of the students in my care, but the day when one of my students went through my room in a hurricane of hostility and anger, knocking everything over, emptying cabinets and cupboards, destroying the work of other students, cursing and hurling insults, the best thing I could think to do was to have my paraprofessional exit the other students from my classroom, inform the office, and wait for the ONE person on staff who was trained and certified in appropriate holds to keep kids from harming themselves or others to be willing to intervene with this child. As I stood there watching him, making sure he wasn't going to cause things to fall on him or harm him, all I could think was, "What makes a child THIS angry?"

My head began to swirl. Was it only a neurological issue where things misfired and created a trigger which went off inside of his head and caused him to react like this? Was it environmental? Was it a combination? Was he off his medications? Were his medications too much? But then my next thought was, "What about my other kids who now feel less safe?" This child's behavior was nothing new to any of us, sadly. While the intervention strategies we had employed were showing signs of positively impacting him, there were still just GOING TO BE DAYS when things were…like this…and as all of these thoughts were running through my head, I was glad to have been paying attention because a chair soon came heading my way and he was setting about to knock over a bookcase which had been, fortunately, anchored to the wall. Enraged that he could not flip over that bookcase, I promise you, every single item on it came off. Eventually he wore himself out. Eventually my students returned to class. My parapro finished working with them while I went to support the child who by now had calmed down. We went back to the classroom and joined the class in getting things put back to where they belonged. As we worked side-by-side, he asked to apologize to his classmates. After we had spent an hour getting things put back into place, the kids sat in our Family Meeting circle. This is the safe space in which we sit and follow a specific formula: celebration, airing our dirty laundry, compliments, closure. As my mind wondered how the HECK I'd do this, I was grateful as things forged onward in a loving way that only children can foster. It went a little something like this-and I'm not making it up-"I'm glad that no one was hurt." "I'm glad that it ended quickly." "I'm glad it was shorter than last time." "I'm glad we all helped and got things back together." Then, stuff got real: "When a friend (we're not allowed to call people out by name. We can, however, praise by name when good things are done) throws things and swears in my classroom, it scars me." "When a friend cusses, I want to hide." "When a friend rips up my papers and cusses, it makes me think about my daddy. He's in jail. It's like when he lived with us." OUCHIE.

As the kids shared their hearts, it was easy for me to see their expressions and their words gave them away as they aired their grievances in a way which allowed everyone to maintain dignity but have their say-even the person who caused the fracas that day. You see, what we adults didn't see was that someone had said something to him that he perceived differently than intended. By saying, "When someone said X to me, it made me mad and so I threw things" it gave me the opportunity to launch into a moment about asking clarifying questions. Well, as best as second, third, and fourth graders can do it. After we were done with our session, the kids then ended it with our compliment/praise time. I started things off by offering praise for having a class that could work together to put things back together so quickly and well. My para offered praise for kids who were quick to forgive. Students then chimed in with other words of praise.

It was truly a feel-good time, but what did not feel good was my face. It had been grazed by a pencil pail as it went sailing by my head mid-tantrum.

What did my administrator do? Nothing. In this case, things settled. There are days in special education that are just this way and it is what it is. But for those teachers who've endured so much worse, their rights seem to be trampled over by the laws intended to protect the academic rights of kids and their special needs. Hey, no one is more about kids' educational rights than me. What I'm not about is a kid throwing a chair at an adult's head, knocking her out, sending her to the hospital for a few days, then NOTHING being done about it. No mention of school-based or private therapy. No suspension. No meetings with parents. Nothing. Only threats from the school district.

Teachers are already paid crap in the majority of districts, so obviously they are there because they love what they do and want to EDUCATE ALL CHILDREN. Yes, there are occupational hazards. I'm not, for one single minute, suggesting that those hazards are not a part of the job. What I AM suggesting is that teachers need to be considered, treated well in these situations, and given fair treatment and NOT be told they should not be one day longer than their doctor's release date.

There is a raging debate in some states over the use of restraints when students are punching the adults, banding their own heads, or inflicting harm on themselves or others in various ways. Personally, I have never thought of the use of restraints being a productive way to resolve a scenario which is so emotionally hot that adding the forced use of restraints would only intensify and already charged situation.

When a sixth grade student in a classroom of a building where I once worked was having a meltdown which caused him to pace like a caged animal, the calming words of our amazing special education teacher clearly were not enough. While we waited for mom to arrive and help us to deescalate the situation, without any warning at all, "Charlie" suddenly picked up a desk (with the chair attached) and hurled it at the 6 foot 4 inch tall former college linebacker teacher who was sitting quietly behind his desk, far away from Charlie's line of sight. With the reflexes of a cat, the teacher deflected the airborne desk but as it was flying mid-air, Charlie bolted over the rows of desks in the classroom, by-passed the teachers who were seated in the back of the room (these were teachers in whom he normally found solace and comfort when in crisis, so they were called upon to assist), and ran right out the school door. School policy stopped us from chasing him. Instead, we had to call the police. My heart sank thinking that if the wrong officer arrived-one who did not have a compassionate understanding of students with special needs-this child may have legal issues with which he must deal in addition to the things which occurred in the classroom. As a collective, our hearts sank. Fortunately, his mother saw him run out the door and was able to meet him on the street and later told us that Charlie intended to head for home-a place of safety. It took us months to learn what the trigger was: an anniversary of a negative event in his life. None of us knew of this event and mom apologized for not telling us about it but she had felt that not telling us would give him a fresh start as this was his first year with us.

Uhh. Well. I see both sides.

As the special education teacher, you are writing the IEP. We are cautious about everything, so why would we not take caution to create a solid emergency plan with the team?

Special education teachers are fleeing the profession in staggering numbers. Dage (2006) says the trend is that 75% of special education teachers leave the field within 10 years. I mean…DANG.

Here's my bottom line: kids with special needs are very unique individuals and while that is definitely cliché, it is what it is. It's a cliché for a very specific reason-because each child has a very distinct set of needs, some which can be seen and many which cannot be seen. Teachers, though, need to be physically safe and cared for by their districts. Safety plans MUST be created and enacted for kids who are in our special education classrooms and on our caseloads. MUST. This is not a facet we should be leaving out of our IEP's In my state, there is no page for a safety plan but I promise you, an addendum can always be added for this reason.

There is not an easy answer but we must all take care of one another in the way best for everyone.


Mary McLaughlin