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Palm Springs, CA: Severe special needs students post safety risk for teachers

Jan 26, 2019, Palm Springs (CA) Desert Sun: Morongo school district needs to do more to ensure special-ed teacher safety, union says …The teacher who was involved in the incident told McCallum that a student had threatened her life with a metal object and then threw a trash can into the window. She also told McCallum that the student was taken into protective custody as a danger to himself and others. According to Heidi Burgett, director of special education at Morongo Unified School District, no one was injured in the incident. But McCallum, president of the Morongo Teachers Association, said this event was a new extreme for the district's PLUS Program, which launched in July 2018. While district administrators credit students and staff with making measurable successes in the PLUS Program's first six months, the teachers union is concerned that those positive results are coming at the expense of basic teacher safety. McCallum said there have been regular incidents in which the PLUS Program's two teachers have been injured or threatened by students. And, while there are 11 aides to provide assistance should a situation turn physical, only one of them is male. McCallum believes this has left employees vulnerable during physical episodes with students who are often larger than the staff. … According to Burgett and district records, the current PLUS Program serves 17 students and is staffed by two teachers, 11 aides, and one therapist. PLUS stands for Positive Learning Using Social-Skills. McCallum, himself a special education teacher, said the district has not adequately staffed the program. This, the teachers association contends, endangers the lives of teachers and threatens student safety. “To my understanding, these are students who cannot sit in a regular classroom because they have severe emotional problems," McCallum said. … Kojo McCallum the president of the Morongo Teachers Association at his home in Yucca Valley on Thursday, December 6, 2018.McCallum is concerned that the district's special needs children school is understaffed… McCallum believes the program lacks the resources and staffing necessary to serve these students whose disabilities range from severe autism to mental illness. … According to email records between Burgett and the California Teachers Association, the frequency of “crisis situations” like the one that ended with the trash can in a window has decreased since the PLUS Program launched. … Despite the decreasing frequency of serious incidents, the teachers union's concerns persist. “From (the Morongo Teachers Association’s) perspective, this is still an alarming number of crisis situations,” Wendy Lockhart, a local representative for the California Teachers Association, wrote to Burgett on Nov. 26. “We don’t feel the employees there have had proper training to deal with these types of situations.” … According to the district's2017-18 contract with Bright Futures, the company charged about $143 per day per student with emotional disturbances and $155 per day for a student with a "severe handicap," a category that includes autism. Enrollment at Bright Futures fluctuated between 20 and 29 studentsfrom 2013 to 2018. Burgett said running the PLUS Program directly is costing the district "much more" than it was spending under the contract with Bright Futures. According to the district's records, the PLUS Program's annual operating budget is more than $1 million, which equals about $58,000 worth of services for each of the 17 students. … Burgett said the long-term plan is to expand the PLUS Program beyond special education. She said the goal is for the program to help even general-education students and their parents address behavioral challenges as an alternative to suspensions, expulsions and other punitive forms of school discipline. In the meantime, she said, the district is looking to hire two more part-time aides and more campus supervisors. McCallum said that safety for teachers means safety for students.


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