Occupational Hazards

Teachers are often expected to sacrifice their time and their money for their students. Everyone knows they stay at work late and pay for classroom necessities out of their own pockets. However, there’s another group of teachers also expected to sacrifice their health: those who teach profoundly developmentally disabled children. Every day, these teachers endure a level of violence that should frighten us all.

Back injuries, broken fingers, shattered wrists, destroyed knees and stab wounds from pencils and scissors—these are all too common occurrences at our center schools as teachers struggle to protect themselves and other students from a handful of children for whom Duval County Public Schools seems to have no answer.

The district has four center schools that educate profoundly disabled students who, for the most part, wouldn’t be able to function in a comprehensive school setting. There’s Oak Hill Academy, which serves students with autism spectrum disorders. There’s Mount Herman Exceptional Student Center, which specializes in working with physically and developmentally disabled children. Alden Road and Palm Avenue Exceptional Student Centers primarily educate developmentally disabled children, though there is some overlap at all the schools. Palm Avenue, for example, has five classes who serve students with autism.

Another thing these schools have in common: classroom violence is on the rise.

Palm Avenue made headlines in September when a student attacked two paraprofessionals. One was stabbed in the head with a pen, and was taken to the hospital. What the news did not tell the public is that the student was back in school before the paraprofessionals were.

Violence at center schools had become so epidemic, the union organized a town hall on Oct. 7 between top district staff and the staff of three of the four center schools (excluding Oak Hill). At the town hall, staff members told story after story of the normalized violence against them, violence they’re supposed to endure.

Worst of all, many teachers reported workers’ comp insurance doesn’t cover the injuries, leaving the victims of violence scrambling, spending their own money or having to endure chronic pain. In some cases, insurance adjustors comb through the injured teacher’s medical history for a previous injury; if such a “pre-existing condition” existed, a re-injury would be ineligible for coverage. Any workers’ comp claim would be severely limited.

One former teacher confided that they were forced out of the classroom after an attack.

“The attack did result directly in both a torn knee and a torn hip,” the teacher said, “and I had surgeries for both. Now the pain and remaining instability are no longer covered. I was deemed to have ‘permanent restrictions’ by my doctor and am no longer able to teach.”

“The day of the attack,” the teacher continued, “I was told by an administrator that unfortunately these kinds of things sometimes ‘just happen.’ The implication is that it’s just part of the job to get hurt.”

One huge problem: The district doesn’t have a plan for students who are involuntarily committed under Florida’s Baker Act. And, lo!, the Baker Act seems to be the district’s preferred way of handling aggressive, even violent students—despite the fact that this is not how the 1971 legislation was intended.

When I taught middle school, just three years ago, my class included a student who was “Baker Acted” multiple times—and had been “Baker Acted” multiple times at a previous school. Not one time did the district reach out to me (or the student, for that matter) to offer any help.

And this was the better-behaved of two students put in my classroom at the end of the first semester. The other routinely assaulted others (including me) and attempted to run away, often causing damage to property. This student was never once “Baker Acted.” A district behaviorist finally did investigate, months later. I was told to ignore the violence if I could or clear the room and let the student’s tantrum run its course.

Another problem: Developmentally disabled students are kept in the school system, in the very same classrooms, until age 22. Several years ago, families and caregivers of students in the P.R.I.D.E. program—for students with nominally normal IQs but significant behavioral problems—demanded the district provide continuing education after graduation.

But Duval County Public Schools didn’t want to create a new program, so the P.R.I.D.E. graduates were funneled into Palm Avenue, where the students have significant cognitive disabilities and many cannot protect themselves. The older students were introduced without some of the safeguards that were built into the original P.R.I.D.E. program: onsite mental health therapy and trained intervention teams.

In early 2018, after years of putting staff and students in danger, the district ended this practice. The decision was the result of a serious incident. A teacher was brutally attacked and seriously beaten. As the police removed the offending student, they informed the victim that the same student had previously assaulted two other district employees. This information hadn’t been given to the staff at Palm Avenue.

All disabled students have I.E.P.s, or individualized education plans, and schools are required to have meetings with families to discuss their students’ progress and where they’re heading. The families can ask questions. Perhaps one of the questions they should ask is: “Who is sitting next to my son or daughter, and are they violent?” Unfortunately, not many families would like the answer.