By COLIN STAUB
For years, classroom aides have been sounding the alarm about the injuries they sustain from students with behavior problems. This year, classroom violence contributed to a major exodus of workers.
Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) represents about 23,000 workers in 140 of Oregon’s 190 school districts—classroom aides, custodians, school bus drivers and more. During the last school year, 24% of the school employees the union represents left their jobs—5,300 workers total. Union leaders say that’s a marked increase from previous years. In the 2018-2019, 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, annual turnover held constant at about 15%, with about 3,300 OSEA-represented workers departing each year.
“It’s not ‘back to school,’ it’s just a continual orientation.”
– Sarah Wofford, president, Oregon School Employees Association
The spike from 15% to 24% raised eyebrows. OSEA leaders say part of it is baby boomers retiring, and part of it may be related to the pandemic. But workplace conditions are a huge factor.
“It comes down to needing better training, more money and motivation to stay,” OSEA president Sarah Wofford told the Labor Press.
OSEA identifies student violence toward staff members—and the lack of effective action being taken to stop it—as a key factor in the turnover. Most OSEA-represented workers are classroom aides, meaning they support and assist teachers in the classroom. These workers frequently assist students who have behavioral health issues or are in special education programs. And while working with these students, they’re getting hurt. In classrooms with support workers, the teacher typically supervises the whole class, and one or two aides work one-on-one with students. That makes them vulnerable when students get violent.
“We’re talking about students who are grown, and a staff person being understaffed in a room of students with behavior problems,” Wofford said.
In one extreme case, a support worker was picked up by a student and thrown in the classroom.
“It goes from that, to biting and kicking,” Wofford said. “And it’s daily.”
They’re not isolated incidents. In a union survey this Spring that drew responses from 3,000 OSEA-represented school employees, 76% reported having been physically injured by a student. One in three workers said they were “currently afraid of a student they work with.” And 40% had been injured while helping a student with high needs (students with behavioral problems or in special education).
The survey, like the mass turnover, suggests student behavior is taking a personal toll on workers. In the survey, 20% of workers reported having extreme anxiety at least once a week. Half the respondents said trauma and mental stress caused by student behavior “gets in the way of doing their job.” And two-thirds said they might leave their jobs due to stress.
The survey was part of OSEA’s “Work Shouldn’t Hurt” campaign, which has been advocating for safety measures since 2015—with some success. In 2017, after hearing workers’ stories that were shared by the union, Oregon lawmakers passed OSEA-supported legislation. It directs districts to assess student behavior and develop a behavioral intervention plan (BIP) when special education students put themselves, other students or staff members at “imminent risk of serious bodily injury as a result of the student’s behavior.” The law also gives student support workers input into the BIP development.
OSEA also successfully advocated for a 2018 regulatory change adopted by Oregon Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). That change requires schools to maintain records of worker injuries, and report them to OSHA. (Schools were already supposed to maintain such records under OSEA-supported legislation passed in 2013, but there was no enforcement mechanism until the OSHA reporting requirement was added).
But the turnover is getting worse, and workers say the problems continue without meaningful change.
Unlike private employers, school districts don’t have the ability to increase wages at will in response to market demand. They have what they’re allocated through budgets. Wofford says legislative funding efforts have helped. The Student Success Act, passed in 2019, allocated over $1 billion per year of new funding for Oregon schools (although COVID-19 put a damper on early funding, which is collected through a corporate tax). This year, lawmakers also passed House Bill 4030, allocating $78 million to education worker recruitment and retention through application-based grants, with school support workers as one priority group.
According to workers in the OSEA survey, there are four top priorities that would improve retention: Higher pay and more training for staff working with challenging students, higher staffing ratios, and more substitutes, allowing support staff to take leave.
Wofford says it’s difficult to find a school that’s fully staffed with classified employees. And the constant turnover renders the concept of “back to school” season meaningless for these workers.
“It is monthly, if not bi-monthly, that we’re having new classified staff come in to fill these jobs,” she said. “It’s not ‘back to school,’ it is just a continual orientation. And that has to be burdening on districts as well as it is on our employees.”