RUTLAND — The Rutland teachers union says school administrators retaliated against employees and discouraged union activity after failing to adequately address numerous incidents of “student-on-staff violence.”
A complaint filed Wednesday with the state’s Labor Relations Board alleges that Rutland City Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Robert Bliss blamed staff for workplace violence and did not take their concerns seriously.
Superintendent Mary Moran blasted the complaint.
“The district strongly disputes the allegations in both the complaint and the press release,” Moran said in a statement Thursday. “That staff are victims of violence and assault obscures the fact that the incidents which they are referring to are physical interactions by students with special needs. Such students do not have the intent to harm or injure. The (Rutland and state teachers unions’) use of the term ‘assault,’ a criminal act, is disparaging to our students.”
The Rutland Education Association argues that the administration’s response to reports of workplace violence, in a directive and memo to staff and faculty that included reference to proper footwear, was a form of retaliation. According to the complaint, “The closed toed shoe requirement was unrelated to the complaints filed by bargaining unit members, and such a policy was not intended to protect the staff, but rather to punish them for filing (Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration) complaints.”
The union’s complaint follows a series of investigations into workplace safety in Rutland schools beginning in 2013.
The Vermont Department of Labor found from March 2012 to April 2013 there were “numerous cases of employees being exposed to scratches, bites, contusions, concussions, and other problems” when dealing with aggressive students at Rutland Intermediate School, which covers grades three to six and has about 600 students.
A second complaint prompted an evaluation by the Labor Department of Northeast Primary School from August 2015 through January and documented 71 incidents of violence committed by “physically and emotionally challenged students.” The incidents included kicking, hitting or punching, biting and scratching. Northeast has about 200 students.
In one case a student hit a para-educator “in the forehead with a hard plastic object and slapped her in the face.” Another teacher reported being hit and kicked for at least 20 minutes.
According to Rutland Education Association President Ellen Green, some teachers were so badly injured that they had to be hospitalized.
“We’re talking really violent behaviors,” Green said.
Joanne Earle, a para-educator at Northeast who worked with an autistic child, said she was physically abused for a period of 75 days. “It wasn’t a pretty sight. It really wasn’t,” Earle said.
According to Earle, a para-educator for 10 years, the 5-year-old hit, kicked and bit her. The child would undress and throw dirty diapers and sometimes threw a chair or desk. Earle said she filled out 29 complaints documenting 60 attacks during that time and had post-injury interviews with the principal after every incident. But nothing changed, she said. Earle said the school did not have adequate staff support to address the needs of certain students.
Earle, who is now on leave after being diagnosed with cancer, said she has suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia — chronic muscle pain — as a result of the abuse.
“That school last year was just horrendous,” she said.
Three other para-eductors in the Rutland public school system declined to comment for this story, citing concerns over federal regulations that protect student privacy.
VOSHA, which is part of the Department of Labor, faulted the school earlier this year for not having a clear policy for dealing with violence in the workplace, for lack of support from top management, and for failing to provide medical and psychological counseling for workers who have experienced violent incidents. The Rutland district was fined $4,500 and reached a settlement with the state to pay about half that.
J. Stephen Monahan, director of workers compensation and safety for the Department of Labor, said he was not aware of workplace complaints of violence from any other school district in recent memory.
“Teachers and para-educators have been pleading for a real process and having the administration work with them to have a system of reporting incidents, how to de-escalate, all those sorts of things,” said Darren Allen, Vermont-NEA communications director. “And it just has never happened.”
Moran was especially critical of the union’s frequent use of the word “violence” to describe the conduct of schoolchildren, most of whom have emotional or psychological disabilities. In one case, the Labor Department referred to young students as “aggressive patients at your facility.” Monahan said the reference was probably taken from an investigation of a nursing home and accidentally left in.
The REA’s Green, who teaches Spanish in the high school, said that although the majority of cases involved students with special needs, they were not the only group implicated.
“We know that students engaged in behavior, in some cases intentional, that caused injury to teachers and staff,” said Monahan. “How you want to label that is up to you. But it’s behavior that shouldn’t be accepted. And staff have the right to perform their jobs without fear of injury.”
Moran also challenged the complaint’s characterization that the Rutland Public Schools system had seen a “spike” in violent incidents. Moran said that like most school districts in the state, Rutland has seen an increase in the number of students with special needs. She said the district has a day program for those students and has been working with the New England Center for Autism to train teachers in how to engage with children with emotional and behavioral difficulties.
The district has adopted standards developed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, conducts teacher and para-educator trainings, and has psychologists who work directly with special needs children.
Still, Moran acknowledged that teachers have been injured. “We attend to that,” she said. “We’re terribly disappointed if any member of faculty or staff is hurt in any way.”
Yet it was precisely the administration’s response that prompted the union to file its complaint. The assistant superintendent, Bliss, as directed by the Labor Department and in consultation with staff, issued an updated safety protocol for the school system, which covered the use of personal protective equipment and procedures for dealing with behavioral issues.
In the memo Bliss referred to “slips, trips and falls” as the No. 1 cause of injury in the workplace and mandated that all employees wear closed-toe shoes with a high-traction sole. The teachers union felt the inclusion of the ban on certain types of footwear was highly inappropriate in a document responding to the kinds of workplace issues raised by the Labor Department.
“To them it was essentially a slap in the face,” said Allen, “a sign that they were not taking this seriously enough.”
VOSHA seemed to agree. Program Manager Dan Whipple described the shoe requirement as “very odd” in the context of complaints about workplace violence.
Green, the union president, characterized it as deliberate. “The shoe thing is so far removed from anything we discussed it’s just to me very obvious retaliation for having gone to VOSHA,” said Green.
However, the matter had already been addressed in a grievance process adjudicated by the school board. In July, the school board denied the union’s complaint and said there was no evidence the directive was intended as retaliation. The board also noted that members of the teachers union were on the safety committee and could have addressed the issue during meetings in which the new workplace safety measures were discussed.
“Committee members had the opportunity to participate and submit input virtually,” the board wrote, “and that failure or unwillingness to do so rests solely with the individual and is not an indictment of the committee decision-making process or the outcome.”
Green said the decision to file a complaint was not voted on by the union — about 94 percent of teachers are part of the REA — but members had the opportunity to comment on the letter Bliss circulated after it was sent out. Green said she sent an internal letter seeking comments and questions. About 100 para-educators work in the Rutland school district, who are represented by a different union.
The complaint seeks acknowledgment from school administrators that they unlawfully intimidated and discriminated against faculty, an order that they cease and desist from retaliating against employees, and a requirement that they reimburse any employees who purchased closed-toe shoes after Bliss’ July memo.
But Green said the primary objective was to make the schools safer. “There is student-on-staff violence, and we need to deal with it constructively together. And that hasn’t happened.”