I have a tough work situation and was wondering if you could give me advice. I work for a school district in southern Florida as special education teacher working with autistic/mentally handicapped students. I am a second year teacher with these kinds of students, and my first year was ok, albeit a few incidents where students assaulted me. This year alone, since August, however, I have had over 30 incidents where students have grabbed, hit, kicked, scratched, and spat on me. The area superintendent will not release me, as she says that I have to work for three years (due to the District and union contract agreement) at the same school, and there are no other ESE positions available there. I am being assaulted on a daily basis, and am a nervous wreck. I have contacted lawyers, and no one is willing to help me. I also have a note from my doctor saying that as a result of my work environment, I am suffering from anxiety and depression and need to go on medicine. Can you help me? I would really appreciate it.
Hit & Kicked
Dear Hit & Kicked:
Thank you for sharing your concerns with us. If you have contacted attorneys and they don’t see that there are legal or civil remedies, it may be that there are issues about this that aren’t apparent at first glance. It does sound like a very upsetting and difficult situation and one that presents no easy answers. I can certainly understand why you are upset and not even wanting to go to work! From the school’s perspective, it could be that your situation isn’t considered unusual enough to warrant major action at this time. Or they may view that they can’t change the mental capabilities of the students, so they must depend upon employees to work within the framework of those capabilities. The thing that concerns me is that, no matter what the situation, a result such as you have had would indicate that something different or better needs to be done with the students or how the students are allowed to act toward teachers. Feeling as you do, it would be difficult or impossible for you to interact as fully and comfortably as you would like to. So, it is not just in your best interest, but in the best interest of the students, for the school to play an active role in finding a resolution to this situation. Consider some of the following as you work through this: If you have, in fact, been assaulted, that is a criminal matter, according to the age and mental capabilities of the student. The fact that the students have mental disabilities does not make assault or violence appropriate. Your superintendent should be aware of the liability potential for ignoring such actions. That is why I wonder if perhaps your view of it is simply not shared by them. What are the ages of the students? If they are small children, that is likely why no police action is being taken. If they are teenagers, that is another matter entirely. Do you have documentation of injuries? That would be necessary for further action anyway, and would provide support for your claims. What about time off work due to injuries or emotional upset? Those would also give credence to your concerns. Have you talked to the HR section? They will often provide advice to management if they see liability concerns. If you are part of a union, have you talked to your union representative about helping you work out a solution to this? If you want to consider action about assaults, consult with the county or city attorney’s office. They could advise you if they would accept a charge against students in the school if an incident were to occur again. You could then pass this along to your superintendent, so that he or she was aware of the action that could be taken. Likely you would need that support, rather than calling on your own. If the violence was extreme, then you should call anyway. From another viewpoint–if you are the only one who is reacting as you are, could it be that there are skill areas that you still need to learn, in order to maintain better control of the students? You say you have two years of experience–that isn’t a great deal of time for such a challenging job. Are there other teachers who could provide input or might support you in some of the things you think you need to do to gain classroom control? Are others enduring the same thing? Perhaps there is an administrative view that is hampering all teachers in their efforts and they would like to join you in trying to bring about change. The problem is that it may be considered that if you can’t work where you are assigned, then you will not be wanted as an employee of the district at all. That is especially true if there is no other position available to you in the system. For example, it may be true that your doctor has said you are anxious and depressed because of work situations. But since you were hired specifically for the type of work that is causing your concerns, the district might take the position that it is not their responsibility to find you someplace less stressful–and that you simply can’t do the job for which you were hired, so you should be dismissed. That brings us to your ultimate option. Rather than having the school district make a job change that they apparently cannot or will not make, perhaps you should seek employment in a less physically violent school setting. There may be other school districts in your area that are in need of teachers. Or perhaps there is some other area of education within which you would like to work. If you want to stay in the district but change assignments, then you will need to present a very good case. Start by documenting what has occurred. Write down the incidents and your reactions. If you have options for what you could do and still maintain employment in the correct level, suggest it. Become an active participant in trying to find a better situation for yourself. Be able to explain how your suggestions would work best for the students, the school and you. Best wishes as you work through this very difficult situation.