Teachers endure assaults in school for behaviorally disabled teens

Wednesday , November 08, 2017 - 1:01 PM

BENJAMIN ZACK/Standard-Examiner

Lori Rasmussen, the director of special education for Weber School District, discusses the work done at Canyon View. The small school in Ogden works with preschoolers, adult students and children with behavior and health issues.

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Teachers are shoved, grabbed, punched, scratched and bruised. They dodge thrown objects. Obscenity-saturated insults shower the educators, who are taught to deflect and de-escalate the aggressive behavior.

“It’s a tough environment and it’s not for everybody,” Lori Rasmussen says of Canyon View School, the Weber School District’s special education focus location.

The K-12 school on Orchard Avenue in Ogden is the last refuge for behaviorally challenged children who run into trouble at their neighborhood schools. About 300 students attend, with about 40 having significant behavioral disorders.

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“I do not feel safe working in the present conditions,” a teacher wrote in a February 2016 letter to district officials. “This year I have been physically assaulted twice, verbally assaulted daily and psychologically assaulted on an ongoing basis.”

A teenage girl hit her in the eye and assaulted two other teachers, she said. They pressed charges and the girl was referred to juvenile court.

The final straw for the teacher was when a male student grabbed and pushed her as she was blocking him from going through a door. That student and another then threw chairs at the doors and walls and shouted racial slurs at a Hispanic teacher.

RECORDS CHRONICLE ASSAULTS AND THREATS

Documents from the district obtained through public records requests corroborated the chair incident and detailed allegations by at least one teacher and a paraprofessional staff member that such incidents were escalating in early 2016.

“The kids were basically in control,” the paraprofessional who was there for the chair-throwing incident said in a phone interview.

“We called 911,” she said. “I am convinced they would have hurt us.”

Ogden Police Department records show patrol officers are frequent visitors at Canyon View.

According to incident logs, officers responded to 12 reports of assault, threatened violence or disorderly conduct in 2015. The volume jumped to 22 reports in 2016 and there have been 12 so far in 2017.

Police documents show at least nine reports of assaults against teachers and one threat to shoot a teacher.

Among the worst incidents: A student hurled a metal basket at a teacher’s head, requiring a trip to the doctor for an ear injury; another student threw a tray of food at two teachers, punched them, then punched one teacher on the head three times and once in the face.

Assaulted teachers pursued criminal charges in at least four cases, two of which resulted in referrals for prosecution in juvenile court.

Incident data compiled by the school shows 43 incidents in the 2015-16 school year (including two cases of physical aggression and one threat); 32 in 2016-17 (one physical aggression, two threats and one sexual harassment); and 10 to date this school year (two physical aggression, one threat).

“We have not had a significant, serious injury,” Canyon View Principal Jennifer Warren said in an interview, “Bumps and bruises, scratches, yeah.”

About 9 percent of U.S. teachers reported in 2014 that they had been threatened with injury by a student and 5 percent said they had been physically attacked, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More recent data is not available.

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The two employees who filed complaints about conditions said they were not being adequately supported by administrators.

The paraprofessional said she quit later in 2016. She stays home babysitting grandchildren.

A school district review resulted in a discussion of perhaps adding part-time police staffing at the school, and officials said training on safety and incident de-escalation techniques would be stressed even more.

Suspending a behaviorally disabled student is not often a good answer, said Rasmussen, the school district’s special education director.

“If this behavior is a result of their disability, the ‘stay-put’ rule goes into effect,” Rasmussen said. “It means the student has a right to stay put in the current setting. And with these kids, it is almost always going to be a manifestation of this disability, because that’s why they’re here.”

Ten days suspension per school year is the maximum allowed by state law before parents are required to work with the district to form an alternative education plan — charter or private school or some other arrangement. Most students who end up at Canyon View already burned up suspension days at their neighborhood schools, Warren said.

SPECIAL ED, SPECIAL DISCIPLINE APPROACHES

Special education doctrine strongly discourages suspensions and punishment-based reactions, Warren said.

“It’s not teaching them,” she said. “Our goal is to teach these students strategies and skills that, when you are frustrated, instead of saying things that are inappropriate, what could you do instead?”

Sexually degrading insults and racial slurs come when students are controlled by their disorders, Warren said. “‘I’m going to say things to get you to stay away from me and to hurt you so that you won’t try to help me,’” she said.

After the crisis, maybe even a day or two later, Warren said they try to revisit the meltdown and teach them to recognize when a problem is coming and how they can handle it appropriately. 

With the chair-throwing melee and other events at that time, Warren said “there was plenty of response and concern for what was going on. Never has it been like, ‘Oh, gee, we didn’t know,’” she said.

In their review notes, district officials said some actions by staff worsened students’ agitation. But Warren said one student at that time was “very difficult” and egged on others to misbehave and police were called at least twice.

PROSECUTION AND POLICE PRESENCE DEBATED

Whether to involve police with kids who have mental, physical and/or emotional disabilities are difficult waters to navigate. 

District spokesman Lane Findlay, a former Weber County Sheriff’s Office lieutenant, explained during an interview at Canyon View that police handle cases differently in regular schools and at Canyon View. 

“Some of the things that go on here are handled more in-house, because of what we’re dealing with,” he said. “Wersus turning it over to law enforcement and making it a criminal issue.”

After the events at Canyon View in early 2016, the district consulted Chris Zimmerman, director of the Weber School Foundation. Zimmerman is a former Roy City police chief who advises the district on school policing matters.

“You have a couple of people that simply want to stir up trouble, but you do have some concerns there,” Zimmerman said in an email to Marilyn Runolfson, Rasmussen’s predecessor.

And he told Warren in another email that police roles in schools “are beginning to change dramatically with case law and the current anti-police sentiment in our country. Officers are taking less and less of a role in non-criminal issues.”

The more police get involved in school disciplinary matters, the more they might expose themselves to liability to claims of unlawful arrest and detention suits, Zimmerman said.

“Even when a student with special needs becomes a threat to a teacher and safety is an issue, most of the time a crime has not occurred,” he wrote.

One teacher was incensed that a student who pushed her was not arrested when police arrived.

“The police officer actually came and met with the teacher and told her that she did not know the definition of assault,” Warren said.

And even if an assault occurs, police won’t do more than document the incident unless the victim wants to press charges. Plus, if an officer believes an arrest may be warranted, the county prosecutor might not file charges if the behaviorally disabled student does not have criminal culpability

“Leaving us with no solution,” Zimmerman said.

SUPPORT FROM TEACHERS’ GROUP AND PTA

Ogden-Weber UniServ represents teachers in dealings with the school district and works with educators and officials for training and best practices so students will be helped.

“The No. 1 thing is they have to be taught correct behavior,” said Cheryl Parkinson, a Roosevelt Elementary fifth-grade teacher, and UniServ vice president. “A different approach to discipline students is to teach the student correct ways of responding.

At Canyon View, students have an intensive structure with plenty of individual attention, she said.

Karen Conder, who focuses on special needs for the Utah PTA, said most parents appreciate intensive schools such as Canyon View.

“And parents of the children, for the most part, are trying to do their best to have their kids behave appropriately,” she said. “It is frustrating and exhausting for these parents. Sometimes a lot of judgment goes on, too — ‘Well, you must be a bad parent; your kid is misbehaving so much.’” 

At Canyon View, four teachers are certified trainers for the school district in Mandt, which is a system of crisis-level de-escalation techniques for behaviorally disabled students, Warren said.

When a student hits a boiling point, a Mandt team quickly gathers to help engineer calm. Teachers or aides are not forced to resolve situations by themselves, Warren said.

The principal said the school has little teacher turnover, some of the instructors have been there for decades.

“You have to have a deep understanding of the kids and believe that you’re here to help them and meet them where they are,” Rasmussen added. “You have to be able to not take it personally and understand that it’s their disability.”

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.